Fair Warning: this post explores some not-so-noble aspects of human nature and how you could (maybe even should) get them to work for you when planning your advertising strategy.
If you’re not comfortable with that, skip this post, OK?
So let’s start with two “givens” most of you already know:
- All real persuasion is actually self-persuasion, and hinges on Identity & Self Image
- Decisions are made emotionally, not logically
Now connect the dots:
The only emotions that reliably inspire action are those that affect self-image.
Joy is a wonderful emotion, but since it doesn’t touch on self-image, it won’t reliably inspire action. Happy, satisfied people don’t buy much.
So what actions do touch on self image? According to Aristotle, they are:
- Anger & Fear
Fear comes from the threat of loss or damage, and Anger is basically a defense against ego threats. If you threaten a person’s identity, you’ll get fear and anger — emotions which can be channeled towards action aimed at defending against that threat. When one “adds insult to injury,” it’s the insult which provides the greater ego threat, and therefore provokes the retaliation.
Patriotism (AKA, Tribalism) acts on identity through group membership. People routinely buy things to proclaim their membership in this or that tribe. Or sacrifice to protect their family, tribe, country, etc.
Emulation (AKA, Aspiration) touches on what we wish we were and hope to become. One buys Air Jordan’s because one wants to “be like Mike.” Similarly, we use the products our gurus use in order to become more like them.
Obviously, tribalism and emulation can overlap quite a bit. One can certainly buy an Apple laptop as much to emulate the creative crowd that tends to prefer them, as to signal one’s own membership within the Apple tribe.
The Karmic Counter-Balanced for Honest Business People
But how do you use this for small business advertising?
First, I think these things work best when used for premium (and premium priced) products and services.
Heck, I’d even venture to say that they’re a sort of a karmic counterbalance to the uphill battle most honest-goods, premium-priced business people face when it comes to human nature.
Trying to convince people to pay more now because it’ll pay off in the future is a hard sell.
That desire for immediate gratification is human nature too, and it works against the honest business man. The same thing can be said of our desire to compare things based on easily compared and quantifiable numbers (like price) rather than a nuanced appreciation for overall quality.
So let’s say you are the high quality and premium priced option in your market. How do you counter-balance those biases of human-nature that push prospects toward low priced options?
Is it enough simply to talk about your own high quality standards and product (or service) advantages?
Well, if you’re a fan of Ogilvy’s “Positively Good” theory of advertising, you might think so. And perhaps that option would be partially effective.
But taking that approach falls short if your ads aren’t fully engaging prospects’ self-image and evoking action-oriented emotions.
A straight claim of features and benefits frames the buying decision in terms of cost vs benefit instead of identity.
Leveraging the Power of Us vs. Them
If you’re going to make a play for identity then you have to show that those product advantages are there because you, the owner, INSIST on them. And you insist on them because of the values you hold and the kind of person you are.
The other companies’ owners don’t insist on them because of the values they don’t hold and the kind of people they aren’t.
So while I understand that it’s not nice to urge business owners to take shots at the competition, the reality is that if you want to create limbic-level contrast between you and the low-priced competitors, this is the strategy to use.
Those competitors already have human nature working for them in the form of instant gratification and decision-making bias.
And they’re already busy claiming to be “just as good, but cheaper” (or 90% as good for half the price).
So either you’re going to let them successfully make that claim, or you’re going to counter their attempt to leverage human nature against you by tapping into the greater power of identity-based emotion.
Meaning that your best defense is to brand those competitors as morally tainted. “Those people don’t share our tribe’s values, and their product suffers for it.”
If moving from “they don’t make the same decisions I make, therefore they have a lesser character” seems like a bit of a stretch, don’t worry, humans are hardwired to think that way. Social scientists even have a name for it: the fundamental attribution error.
And when you do it right, not only will that cognitive bias allow you to play on identity, it will evoke the necessary emotions of tribalism/patriotism — are you like me, or are you like those other guys?
Simply divide the world into people like you, who identify with your values, and those who aren’t and don’t; Us vs. Them.
Increasing the Limbic Contrast
Now here’s how to put this strategy on steroids (while also getting a bit closer to “the dark side of the force” that I warned you about): bring in Anger.
See, it’s not enough to simply point out that the competition uses lower quality materials, cheaper manufacturing methods, and shoddy shortcuts. Hey, what’s wrong with having a lower priced option on the market, right?
You have to give motivation to those acts — motivation that would threaten the ego and identity of the customer.
In other words, you have to provide the insult to the potential injury that your competition would inflict on the unsuspecting buyer. That is, you have to provoke anger.
Those competitors aren’t doing those things to lower costs. They’re doing them to screw you, the customer, over. And they’re laughing about it all the way to the bank.
They know that their product or service is less likely to give you, the customer, the end benefit you want — the benefit you are rightfully paying for. They know that their product or service might fail you in the worst possible way. And they don’t care. Because if you’re stupid enough to be fooled by them, then (as they see it) you’re their rightful prey.
So do you want to take a chance with those assholes who are laughing at you behind your back? Or do you want to invest in the sure thing, provided by people who believe what you believe, and who genuinely care about doing right by you?
See how that works?
A Word About Ethics
Obviously you ought not to demonize an honest business who is simply aiming to sell at a lower price point than you.
Not only is that wrong, it’s bound to backfire in relatively short order.
But if your competition really is selling an inferior product, cutting corners, and engaging in false advertising — and relying on some of the downsides of human nature to get away with it — then this is the best way to:
- Level the playing field,
- Call them out on their shenanigans, and
- Stomp their low-priced butts into the ground.
Just remember: with great power comes great responsibility.
And harnessing peoples’ anger, tribalism, and emulation — their emotions of Us vs. Them — provides a great deal of persuasive power.
Because it’s your business, it’s natural to see the drama surrounding what you do from your perspective — as if your business is the star of the show.
It’s natural, but it’s also a huge mistake.
You are NOT Cinderella. You’re the fairy godmother.
You’re not even in the picture for most of the film, except when your customer desperately needs you. Then you swoop in, save the day, and exit stage left.
That means your business will never be so loved as in that one magic moment, immediately after you’ve saved the day.
That’s the Bippity-Boppity-Boo moment.
And unfortunately, you’re probably letting that moment slip by unrecorded, un-leveraged, wasted.
Here’s what you should be doing instead:
- Recording a testimonial (along with permission to use it)
- Getting a picture of the happy client with the finished product or service
- Getting before and after photos
- Posting the testimonial and/or photos to Social Media, with the client tagged in them.
And that last item is especially important for what I typically call “unsexy” businesses attempting to use Social Media.
Sexy businesses are the kind that touch on customers’ passions and addictions: fashion, food, drink, sports, hobbies, etc.
People want to talk about wine and chocolate and skiing and gourmet cooking even when they’re not in urgent need of them.
Unsexy businesses are typically about lights and pipes and maintenance and cleaning.
The Social Media mistake for unsexy businesses is to try to “engage” people in the fascinating world of transmission repair, plumbing, HVAC, roofing, etc. They want to pull people into their social media circle and then tell them stories where the business is the star attraction.
It almost never works because your business isn’t Cinderella and unsexy businesses have no star attraction (aka, sex appeal).
Remember, the customer is the star; you’re the fairy godmother. So co-opt your customers’ social circles by making the story about the customer during the business’s Bippity-Boppity-Boo moment.
People don’t care to read or hear about unsexy businesses, but they DO care about their friends.
When you make their friends the star, that creates interest, lets you showcase your fairy godmother powers, and harnesses the power of social proof at the same time.
If your customer’s Social Media friends are exposed to enough of this, they’ll come to think of you first and feel the best about you when they need those same services.
When you hog the spotlight, you lose. When you make the customer the star, and own your roll as the fairy godmother, everyone wins.
You have at least one late night host that you probably feel as if you “know,” even if you’ve never met them.
The time you spend listening to that person’s voice as they interview others, tell jokes, and discuss their thoughts makes them feel as familiar and comfortable to you as a friend.
And it’s not just you; it’s all of us — we all have this one-sided relationship with at least some celebrities.
Psychologists even have a term for it: Parasocial Interaction. And if you really want to understand it, and how it’s important to business, watch this video:
For the record, no, I’m not recommending you adopt a Kardashion-esque strategy for influencing your customers.
I am suggesting that being your company’s spokesperson in your ads, and having people hear your voice on the radio or tv, multiple times per week, week after week, and year after year, will develop an effective amount of parasocial influence.
People will come to feel as if they know you, and have a good sense of what it would be like to buy from you.
That means they’ll be more comfortable doing business with you than anybody else.
And over time, that can add up to a lot of money.
But only if you’re on the air doing something other than incessantly pitching the customer, or (even worse) screaming “sale, sale, sale!”
If you do that, they might still feel as if they know you — they’ll just want to avoid you.
Most style guides are useless.
And, no, I’m not talking about visual style guides that specify fonts and logos and CMYK codes for brand colors.
I’m talking about style guides focused on Brand Voice — Copy Bibles, if you will. I’ve seen a few scores of them over the years, and 95% have been utterly worthless.
Because they mainly consist of Brand Voice descriptions along the lines of:
- “Widget Incorporated’s Brand Voice is mainly professional with a hint of humor.” Or
- “Our voice is human and quirky.” Or
- “ACME Corp is always respectful and honest in their communications.”
In other words, these documents are often nothing but an adjective word cloud put into guideline format.
There are no hard and fast rules (or even rules of thumb) in these so-called guidelines. Nor are there any practical directions around how the brand’s “humanity” (or whatever) will be communicated in a commercial, e-mail, or Web page.
And, no, grammar guidelines don’t count. Cutting and pasting various bromides from The Elements of Style into a Copy Bible won’t auto-magically produce a recognizable voice.
None of this stuff will let a professional copywriter (let alone your average employee) create copy that sounds “professional but quirky.” Or that has any kind of distinctive personality whatsoever.
The Road Runner’s Style Guide
Want to see a style guide done right? Here’s Chuck Jone’s style guide for The Road Runner Cartoons:
What’s great about this style guide?
- Notice that these aren’t guidelines; they’re freaking rules. Rules with words like “Never” and “Always” and “All” and “No.”
- Notice also that these rules are all astoundingly specfic.
- Finally, and perhaps most importantly, these rules are aimed at establishing the internal logic of the Road Runner’s world.
Internal Logic, baby!
Because world building is what real writers worry about. And world building is all about establishing the internal logic, the limitations, and yes, the rules of a given world.
THIS is the stuff that creates a distinct voice and personality. This is the stuff that separates Star Trek from Star Wars from Dune. Different worlds, different internal logic, different ideas about what the characters can and can not do.
It’s why J.K. Rowling spent 5 years establishing the rules for Harry Potter before ever publishing the first book:
“The five years I spent on HP and the Philosopher’s Stone were spent constructing The Rules. I had to lay down all my parameters. The most important thing to decide when you’re creating a fantasy world is what the characters CAN’T do. . .you can tell with The Simpsons. It’s a work of genius. You can tell that they’ve structured it in such a way that they’re never at a loss for what their characters can and can’t do. That’s why they’re so believable – even though they’re little yellow people.”
If your Brand Voice guide or Style Guide doesn’t fit this profile — if it doesn’t build a world with internal logic and hard and fast rules — then you probably need to get yourself a new style guide, if not a new ad consultant altogether.
P.S. Hat tip to Suzanne Pope’s Ad Teachings blog for the image of Chuck Jones’ Road Runner rules.
P.P.S. After a bit more research, I found out that there were two more rules for The Road Runner:
- Rule 10. The audience’s sympathy must remain with the Coyote.
- Rule 11. The Coyote is not allowed to catch or eat the Road Runner.
Ira’s third video on storytelling is by far the most popular.
So much so that it has been featured on numerous blogs and even been turned into an Kinetic Typography video. Take a look:
Basically, Ira Glass is describing the positive side of the Dunning-Krueger effect.
The Dunning-Krueger effect basically says that the perceptive abilities, sensitivity, and awareness necessary to know that you suck at something, are the same perceptive abilities, sensitivity and awareness necessary to (eventually) become skilled at that very thing.
So if you have good taste — the aforementioned perception, sensitivity and awareness — then you have the potential to become good, or even great, but you’re stuck making stuff that you know kind of sucks until your craft skills catch up with your taste and ambition.
Believe it or not, that’s the positive side of the Dunning-Krueger effect. The negative side is that the totally incompetent lack the ability to sense their own incompetence. They suck like a hoover, but think they’re great.
But the positive side is only positive if:
- You retain your ambition to be great and don’t settle for becoming a hack, and
- You work through that awful feeling of knowing you are consistently creating stuff that’s “not that great,” as Ira puts it.
And while this might have very self-evident relevance for creatives and craftspeople of all kinds, including copywriters and advertising professionals, this video’s relevance to advertisers and business owners might not be so evident.
So I’m going to give you my spin on it…
From an advertisers perspective, I think this video speaks to:
- Linear, no-threshold thinking,
- Minimum Effective Dose, and
- Cumulative Effect
Linear, No-Threshold Thinking
Linear, no-threshold thinking assumes that a function is predictably scalable. That if you do twice as much, or half as much, you’ll get double or half of the result.
But more often than not, there are thresholds and inflection points, and diminishing returns which make linear, no-threshold thinking dangerously misguided. If you buy a ticket halfway to Europe, you don’t end up with a half a European vacation; you just end up stranded at sea. 80% of the parts of an engine don’t get you 80% of the horsepower.
And to borrow an example from my partner, Roy H. Williams, if…
“Reliable data tells us exactly how many motorcycle riders have died trying to navigate an S-curve at 100 miles per hour. The straightforward logic of traditional accounting, with its linear, no-threshold thinking, predicts one-tenth as many deaths at 10 miles per hour.
But we know this is ridiculous. The number of riders that die at 10 or 20 miles per hour is likely to be zero. There is a threshold speed at which the curve becomes dangerous. Any extrapolation that crosses that threshold is certain to be inaccurate.”
These kinds of thresholds are inevitable when dealing with human response. Especially when it comes to advertising. There is a threshold of interest, relevance, and impact for ads: the threshold which moves an ad from background noise into conscious awareness. If any ad fails to reach that threshold, it becomes essentially invisible, and would require nigh-unto-infinite repetition to get results.
And assuming that you have given your ad writer something worth saying, then the factors which determine whether your ad crosses that threshold are what Ira Glass might call the taste, ambition, and honesty of your ad writer.
If your ad writer is a hack — if he accepts adspeak, hype, and advertising cliches, or tries to bluff with fluff on the production side — then your ads are never likely to cross the threshold of impact. And no matter how much frequency you load into your ad schedule, your ads won’t move the needle on sales.
If your ad writer aspires to be great and has a modicum of talent and craft skills, then your ads will likely cross the impact threshold. As Leo Burnett said, “When you reach for the stars you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either.”
And of course, it’s not only a matter of impactful vs. not impactful. It’s also a matter of how impactful. The more impact your ad carries, the less repetition is required. LBJ’s “Daisy” ad is a classic example of an ad so powerful, it only required one airing to make an impact (pun intended):
And, this is where talent and craft really take over from taste and ambition. The more skilled and talented your ad writer, the more impact he (or she) can bake into your ads.
Minimum Effective Dose
What do you think will happen to your headeache if you take 20 mg of Ibuprofin?
Nothing, right? Because while Ibuprofin can be a godsend for getting rid of headaches, the minimum effective dose is 200mg, with most adults taking 400mg or more.
If you take significantly less than 200mg, you’ll recieve no benefit.
Simlarly, If you go the gym for a day or even a week and complain that it didn’t work, you simply didn’t meet the requirements of the minimum effective dose. You’ll see some benefits at the end of a month, but plan on 90 days for real changes that others will comment on.
And it’s no coincidence that Stephen King compares writing to weightlifting. Want to be a professional writer? Better be prepared to put the time in every day becoming a “stronger” writer. Just like Ira Glass says about doing great creative work.
The same thing applies to Advertising.
Most mass-media branding campaigns require enough frequency and duration—enough of a minimum effective dose—to really work their magic. You might get lucky and see some results in 90 or 180 days, but plan on a full year or longer at a high enough frequency of ads to get a minimum effective dose.
And just like with working out (or, in Ira’s case, with doing great creative), there’s a certain level of frustration and chickening out you just have to work through. Be prepared for this chickening out period, and take Ira’s advice: fight your way through it.
Cumulative Effect is the other side of the coin from Minimum Effective Dose. Assuming your ad passes the threshold for relevance and impact, and that you’ve scheduled enough frequency to give the audience a minimum effective dose, the persuasive power of your ad will build over time.
You might just be starting to see results at the end of a year, but those results will accumulate and build. You’re not starting over each year, you’re standing on the persuasive results you gained from the year before.
For Ira Glass, the cumulative effect of doing a lot of ambitious work and working through your frustration period is to breakthrough into the ability to speak in your real, authentic voice, and to do interesting and special creative work that matters.
For advertisers, the cumulative effect of your advertising is certainly about increasing your market share and moving the needle on sales. But it’s also about finding your advertising voice and hitting peak stride in your ads and campaigns.
Most TV shows, and especially most comedies, get better after a season or two. The Simpsons first season wasn’t as good as what was to come. It took a season or two to really hit its stride. Same thing with Seinfeild. And most advertising campaigns are like that. The results build with time, but so does the authenticity of the voice and the impact of individual ads.
And that folks, is what I took away from Ira’s third video on storytelling. If you saw something else in the video, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Those 4 words are the most opened e-mail subject line most people have ever tested: “You are not alone.”
And while that’s a nice Cliff Claven-esque CRO tip to throw out, it’s asking WHY that’s such a powerful subject line that’ll get you somewhere.
Or if that’s not quite explicit enough, perhaps this will be:
- What is your advertising doing to make the audience feel as if you get “the way it is” and “how they feel”?
- What are your ads doing to show how your company can sweep in and save the situation?
- How are your ads making a promise of future happiness?
Because if your ads aren’t doing any of those things, they’re probably not doing much of anything else, either.