I recently came across this post on Joss Whedon’s 10 Tips for Writers and thought that the tips applied equally well to advertisers and ad writers.
If you’re asking yourself “Joss who?” — you’re missing out! Joss Whedon is the script doctor that worked his magic on Toy Story when the whole movie was in jeapardy of failing. He’s also the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and Serenity. But if none of that really strikes a bell, then you probably will recognize him as the director of the blockbuster Avengers movie.
At any rate, I found his writing tips to be thoughtfully on-target, so here’s my advertising-centric translation of Whedon’s 10 Tips:
1. FINISH IT
In business/entrepreneurship this means “Ship,” as Seth Godin would say. But to stretch it past that a bit and into the realm of advertising, I’d paraphrase David Ogilvy and say, Don’t buy a ticket half-way to Europe — finish the journey.
From a branding perspective that means don’t mess around with 12 different platforms, campaigns, and media; commit to one campaign, one primary media and buy enough repetition for a long enough time to finish the job you started.
From a direct mail perspective, actually mail out the letter — finish that job, for sure — but also commit to a series of mailings, or a mailing followed up by a sales call, rather than a one-off postcard.
To quote from Joss Whedon’s original advice: “Structure means knowing where you’re going; making sure you don’t meander about.” In small business that means having a grip on your business model and your goals and not falling prey to bright shiny object syndrome.
From an advertising perspective it means work in campaigns. Don’t move and meander from one unrelated ad to another unrelated ad; have a campaign and an over-arching messaging and brand position that you stick with. Know where you’re going and have the discipline to get there. Note that advertising one sale after another automatically condemns you to meandering without structure.
3. HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY
Again, to quote from Joss Whedon “This really should be number one.” If you’re paying to be on the air with radio or TV, or you’re paying to mail a message to someone, you really need to have something substantive to say. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a Unique Selling Proposition (USP), but you should have:
- an offer to make,
- a value that you stand for (or something you stand against),
- and an advocated position around your business/industry that you’ll stand behind.
And, really, just like in writing, having something to say IS the #1 thing about advertising.
4. EVERYBODY HAS A REASON TO LIVE [And It’s Not About You!]
I don’t care if you’re the branding equivalent of Apple, Harley Davidson, and Jack Daniels all rolled into one: your role in the lives of your customers is at the far periphery. Your relevance and interest is extremely limited. Keep that in mind and figure out those contexts in which you are relevant to customers. Tie your product or service back to the things that really do exist at the center of customer’s lives. Don’t let your advertising presume that your business is important to people outside of those narrow contexts in which you can help them with an immediate problem or concern.
As a corollary to this, realize that for most products and services, advertising through mass media means that 98% of the people seeing (or hearing) your ad are NOT currently in the market for what you sell.
Some people see this as a bad thing, but the truth is that speaking to people who aren’t (yet) in the market for what you sell is really one of the best things about broadcast media.
Because the best time to convince people of how wonderful you are is BEFORE they need you. The idea is to have these people enter into the market — to start their use-case scenario — already biased in your favor. You don’t want them typing your business category into Google and making a decision based on search results. You want them typing your business NAME into Google, having already (largely) made their buying decision.
But if you take this approach, you must realize that you’re talking to people who aren’t inherently interested in your product precisely because they are not yet in the market for it. That means you must give these listeners a reason to pay attention anyway.
In other words, you have to seduce and entertain people into paying attention. Make your ads more interesting and entertaining than the thoughts currently running through the minds’ of your audience. And do it in a way that strengthens rather than obscures your sales message.
Being both entertaining and on-brand and persuasive is tough, but it’s what separates the pros from the amateurs in the advertising game.
5. CUT WHAT YOU LOVE
Clients will often be so enamored with things they love and that they feel the prospective customer should care about, that they’ll insist that you put it into the ad. Sometimes the customer does (or can be made to) care about it too. Then you’re in luck.
Unfotunately, it’s more likely that the customer will remain totally apathetic about your client’s pet obsession no matter how much he “ought to” care about it. And that’s when the business owner (aka your advertising client) has to follow the advice to “cut what you love” and focus on what’ll actually move the needle.
And of course, as a copywriter, you often have to “kill your darlings” (aka cut some of your best lines) in order to strengthen the overall ad copy — especially when you’re running short on time for that 30 or 60 second script!
If the idea is to talk to the dog, in the language of the dog, about what’s in the heart of the dog, then that means you’ve got to:
- Understand what’s in the heart of the dog — what the prospective customer really cares about, and
- Have a sense of the language of the dog — what kind of words, attitudes, phrases, etc. your customers really use when talking about their desires and frustrations and needs.
You can’t know or do any of that without listening to the customer. And these days, a lot of listening is done through your eyes by searching through reviews, forums, and social media comments. Listen to how people talk and what they talk about so that you can talk to them in your ads about the same things they care about, using the same language they use.
7. TRACK THE AUDIENCE MOOD
This one goes along with “Listen.” You’re goal is to emotionally connect with your audience. You want your ads to cause them to think of you first and feel the best about you when they DO finally need what you sell. That way they come to you as a preferred provider and recognized expert — someone worthy of premium pricing. In order to do that you have to separate out the effect you intended your ads to have from the effect they actually have.
Sometimes the feature or benefit or the line of copy or brandable chunk that you think will really connect with people doesn’t, while some seemingly “throw-away” phrase or line resonates in a way you never anticipated. If you’re tracking the audience mood, you’ll be able to do more of what resonates and less of what falls flat.
8. WRITE LIKE A MOVIE
This means write cinematically and visually. This is easy to understand for TV, but it applies equally well to radio. It always amazes me the amount of people in radio who talk about “Theatre of the mind” but don’t really understand what the phrase means or never write ads that create that kind of cinematic response in listeners’ imaginations.
So regardless of whether you are creating TV Ads or Radio Ads, write your ads like a movie rather than an ad. Don’t just talk about your product or services benefits, dramatize them. Sear the mental image of that benefit onto the imaginations of your audience.
9. DON’T LISTEN
Yes, I know: this contradicts Tip #6. Stick with me a moment and it’ll all make sense.
When your ad has impact and can’t be ignored, and especially when such an ad is aired with the proper frequency to make a difference, you’ll get complaints. An ad’s ability to attract is inextricably linked to it’s ability to repel; if nobody hates it, nobody will love it either.
So when you’ve got an emotionally powerful, un-ignorable ad on your hands, prepare yourself (and/or your client) to get complaints. Expect the complaints to come, and then don’t listen to them. Apple’s “I’m a Mac” campaign got a TON of complaints, from all kinds of people who thought the campaign was mean spirited or smug or whatever. Good thing Apple decided not to listen, huh?
10. DON’T SELL OUT
The reality of the customer experience has to match the promises made in the ad. This has ramifications for both ad writers and small businesses. For ad writers, it means don’t sell out by taking on clients who run bad businesses and who can’t deliver on what your ads promise.
For businesses, it means to guard against letting the customer experience slip as you grow. Instead do the opposite: reinvest in making the customer experience better and more closely aligned with the brand.
This also means occasionally allowing yourself to get “called out” on your brand promises, often in unreasonable ways. If you’ve got the guts to plant a flag and make a stand, someone will test you on it sooner or later. And you can bet that that “someone” will more than likely be unreasonable about it.
For example, someone will likley abuse your lifetime guarantee, or your “no surprises” guarantee. Then you can be like LL Bean and write off the abuse as a cost of keeping your guarantee, or you can refuse the unreasonable request, quibble over your guarantee, and add fine print to your promises. If you quibble, you sell out. And then word will get out. If you stand and deliver (even in spite of the knucklehead’s unreasonableness), word will get out on that, too. And the reward for that will exceed the cost by a factor of 10X, at least.
And there you have it. Ain’t Joss Whedon great?
Creativity in ads is great — and usually incredibly necessary as well.
But there’s a distinct difference between creativity that helps to emotionally communicate the advertising message and creativity for the sake of creativity. And the difference isn’t always so black and white. Take, for example, these two ads:
The ads DO make a point and they ARE creative. But to what extent is the creativity helping to sharpen the point of the message, and to what degree is the creativity getting in the way?
First, I’ll say that the CLR ad is the best use of potty-mouth in an ad that I’ve seen in a long time. Much better than K-mart’s “Ship Your Pants” or “Big Gas Savings.”
Because CLR used the swearing to communicate the authenticity of customer’s surprise at just how well CLR cleans — a strategy based in some sound neuroscience. The Kmart ads, on the other hand, just used the potty mouth gag as, well, just that: a gag that was totally gratuitous and unconnected with the messaging itself.
So the swearing was relevant to the messaging, and the messaging was based on a true reality about the product itself. Nice.
But while watching that CLR ad, I couldn’t help think that a little OxyClean and Billy Mays-style demo would have dramatically boosted the credibility and effectiveness of the ad. Would Billy Mays have pitched you the cleaning powers of OxyClean without SHOWING you just how amazing it was? Heck, no! He insisted on demonstrability for his products and actual demonstrations in his ads.
And contrary to popular belief, the two approaches of clever creative and straight-up demo can easily co-exist. It wouldn’t have taken more than 3 or 4 seconds at the end of the CLR ad to SHOW the product in action, instantly removing lime/soap scum, stainless steel stove stains, etc.
All of which brings us to the second ad for the Samsung vacuum cleaner, because the problem with that ad, as I see it, boils down to not enough demo. Yes the baby chase concept was cute and creative, but how much time did it waste in NOT showing the unique feature of the product that the ad was presumably showcasing?
If that ad had cut about 50% of the cute-baby-imitating-cop crap and substituted in more demonstration of product it would have ended up a much stronger ad.
As the saying goes: “if you’ve got it, flaunt it.” If your product can be demonstrated to amazing effect, why in the world wouldn’t you want to demo it in your ads? Case in point, this ad for the Dyson ball:
Or take a gander at this very creative but almost purely demo spot for Samsonite’s Spinner luggage:
As I said, creative is great — and necessary, as an ad absolutely needs to capture and hold people’s attention. But, really, there is just as much advertising craft and creativity in the last two demo-heavy spots as there is in the CLR and Samsung spots, and the demo-heavy spots managed to get the sales message across far more clearly.
Bottom Line: If you can make a TV ad into a demo, you probably ought to give serious thought into doing so, regardless of whether or not it “feels” creative.
In other words, if truth alone isn’t enough to convince people — and it demonstrably is not — then the question becomes: what can legitimately be added to the truth to make it convincing? And my answer is vérité.
So what IS vérité?
Let me give you a few examples:
I have a partner who tells me that you have to evaluate testimonials the same way you evaluate copy, which is to say that words which wouldn’t make convincing copy don’t suddenly become convincing simply because they leave the mouth of a customer. Either they’re convincing or not, and the fact that they’re the “testimony” of another has little to no impact.
I disagree. At least in terms of radio and TV testimonials, where I think vérité enters into it. Case in point, this video produced by legendary ad man, Tony Schwartz:
Frankly, the bare words this lady says would make for rather dismal ad copy, and yet, she’s powerfully persuasive on film. So what accounts for her persuasive power? I think it has a lot to do with vérité. Her unique “voice” creates credibility in and of itself.
This recent Microsoft Ad does largely the same thing, leveraging the “voice” of Siri to create added credibility and emotional reality for the bare facts that are presented:
The use of Siri’s voice really drives home the comparison in a way that the comparison alone couldn’t have achieved, right?
When nurses are given their patient comments for review, in terms of measuring patient satisfaction through a survey tool like Press Ganey, it turns out that they are much more likely to “accept” the validity of the comments and to take action on them if they are given not only the typed out and redacted comments, but actual, scanned copies of the hand written comments themselves.
For some reason, seeing the actual scrawled-out handwriting of the patients made the comments real to the nurses in a way that the sterilized and redacted comments couldn’t. In other words, that added bit of vérité made all the difference.
Cialdini (of Influence fame) reports on a persuasion test around re-using hotel towels. Merely telling hotel guests that the reuse of their towels will save water and resources (i.e., the truth) isn’t enough. But telling them that most other hotel guests WAS enough to convince most hotel guests to follow suit. But what really got the best results wasn’t just that most hotel guests saw the light, but that most hotel guests that stayed in that exact room had elected to re-use their towels.
In my mind, mentioning the fact that the previous guests (who had opted to reuse their towels) had stayed in the exact same room as the test subjects provided a level of reality hook or vérité to make the social proof just that much more persuasive.
I owe this example to Kathleen Jaimeson, of the University of Texas, who pointed out the following element of vérité in Tony Schwartz’s legendary “Daisy” ad. When Daisy counts up to ten, she doesn’t do so perfectly, instead, she stumbles over the number 6 only to then go back from seven to count six twice — in exactly the way that little kids often do. This little-kid mess-up gave the ad just enough vérité to drive home the nuclear threat. You can watch the entire ad for yourself here:
I wish I had a grand conclusion for you, but… the only thing I can say is this: if you’re not searching for elements of vérité for your ads, you’re sort of missing out on a grand opportunity. And since vérité can come in many forms — that of a telling detail, a reality hook, or a tone of voice — it’s well worth hunting down and using whatever elements of vérité you can get your hands on.
Because vérité is just as important as veritas. And advertisers forget that at their peril.
Action Comics #1 starts with a baby superman-to-be sent forth from the doomed planet Kryptonite. Sent forth with his father’s desire that he become a force for good on Earth. The Amazing Spider-Man #1 tells how Peter Parker gained super-powers after he was bitten by the radio-active spider and how he became Spider-man in reaction to his uncle Ben’s murder.
In the same way, if you take any superhero movie that’s the first in its franchise, you’ll find a genesis story of that superhero — a tale that tells the audience:
- How the hero came to posses his powers,
- Who the hero is as a person, and
- What his mission is and Why he’s dedicated to it
If you don’t do that, you’re hero won’t be believable. Nor will he be sympathetic. You’ll end up with a character whose super powers will seem too fantastic and “made up,” and who will fail to inspire anyone to care about or root for him.
It’s that simple: no genesis story, no superhero.
Superheros and Advertising
Interestingly, the three tasks of a Genesis story overlay perfectly with Aristotle’s three elements of Ethos — the three things you must establish in order to persuade through an appeal to character. Here’s how they match-up, using Jay Henrich’s modern updates for the Ethos elements of phronesis, eunoia, and arete:
- Craft = Phronesis / Practical Wisdom = Powers
- Caring = Eunoia / Goodwill = Who the hero is as a person
- Cause = Areté / Virtue = Mission
Want to present a business owner as someone prospective customers should like and trust?
Then you need to cover these character elements. You have to convince the audience that the owner is great at what he does, that he cares about his customers, and that, at the end of the day, he’s on a bigger mission than just making money.
And once you understand the superhero angle, it becomes pretty obvious that the most powerful way to communicate these elements is through a Genesis story.
Put more directly, if you’re presenting the business owner as someone with superpowers — whether that’s the power to heroically save the customer from a tough situation, or simply the power to do X better than any other business on the planet — than you’re presenting them as a de facto superhero, and you need to tell the darn genesis story to make that message at all believable.
A Jewelry Superhero Genesis Story
Want an example of an Advertising Genesis story?
Here’s one from my business partner, Roy Williams [paragraphing mine]:
“When I was seven years old, I held my father’s head in my hands as he took his last breath and died. A thing like that stays with you. It helps you understand that relationships – people – are what life’s all about.You gotta tell’em you love’em.
This is J.R. Dunn. So now you know why I became a jeweler. Fine jewelry is one of the ways we tell people we love ’em. When I got older and fell head-over-heals for Ann Marie, the love of my life, I didn’t have enough money to buy her an engagement ring. She married me anyway. Go figure.
But I can promise you this: If you’re thinking of getting engaged to the love of your life, come to J.R. Dunn Jewelers in Lighthouse Point. No one in Florida, no one in America, is going to give you a better engagement ring for your money than me. One of the great joys of my life is to make it possible for guys to give the woman they love the diamond she deserves.
There was nobody there for me when I needed an engagement ring. But I promise I’ll be there for you.”
After hearing this ad, you now know, with absolute clarity:
- What kind of person J.R. Dunn is
- How he got his superpowers (along with how those superpowers can help you)
- What mission he’s on and why he’s dedicated to it
Better yet, you not only know these things about him, but you believe them. You believe these things about J.R. Dunn because he told you his genesis story. See how that works?
So what’s YOUR genesis story, and are you bothering to tell it the way it ought to be told?
What tells you it’s time to stop digging?
- realize you’re in a hole, and
- stop digging,
- become open to solutions (aka, a way out)
Until you do these three things, you won’t have much hope of getting out of that hole. Obviously, the sooner you recognize the hole, the easier the process is. Just as obviously, this applies to businesses as well as individuals.
In fact, a lot of hole-digging in business involves maximizing short term profit at the expense of long-term reputation, customer satisfaction, product improvement, etc. Mostly because profitability is fervently measured while the long term things often don’t even have indicators, let alone measurements. This means many companies don’t realize they’ve dug themselves into a hole until a crisis hits.
So what are your early indicators for these “soft” or long-term factors? Have you bothered to set any up, or are crises going to be the only indicator that the hole you’ve dug yourself into is deeper than you can climb out of?
Are you demanding a state of grace, or are you willing to take people as they are?
One of the few things I don’t like about Getting Things Done is the “state of grace” factor. Meaning you have to start your system from a point at which everything is accounted for on a slip of paper in your in-box, which means you have to take 1–2 days out of your life to get yourself to the starting point.
I think that’s one reason there are far more variants of GTD and people using modified GTD systems than there are actual GTD practitioners. People like the system, but most can’t start from that all-too-hard-to-achieve state of grace.
Similarly, businesses that are willing to take people as they are generally do a whole lot better than businesses that force customers to have gotten their ducks in a row beforehand.
People want solutions, not an “I told you so.”
Think of the difference between a normal university and most online universities. They’ll always be a Harvard, but I think a lot of 3rd Tier Colleges and Universities are about to get crunched as more and more people opt for educational alternatives that will take them where they are — literally and figuratively.
What about your business? Are you willing to meet people where they are - to save them from their past stupidity if needed — or are you demanding customers enter your doors in a state of grace?
The object of giving something up is to gain something else
Christians fast and make sacrifices during Lent – i.e., they give up temporal, worldly pleasures and activities — so as to better concentrate their minds on the eternal and the spiritual. It’s not just about giving something up, it’s about eliminating some things to focus more on others.
This is a recognition that you can’t just add and add and add without having things get crowded out of the picture — usually the wrong things, the most important things.
While we all tend to endlessly add To-Dos to our list, there’s only so much time in the day. How many of us actively focus on a Stop Doing list? The idea is to replace less effective and efficient strategies and practices with more effective ones. So shouldn’t we have as many “Stop Doing” items as “Start Doings”?
What’s on your “Stop Doing” list?
Back in 1973, Master Lock ran one of the most effective Super Bowl ads of all time. If you haven’t seen it before, here it is:
Now, I’m not sure how many criminals would shoot a lock — seems to me they’d be more likely to just use a pair of bolt cutters — but that doesn’t matter, because watching a lock literally take a bullet and still continue to do its job impresses us at a fundamental, symbolic, and subconscious level.
And it’s this subconscious, largely symbolic level where real buying decisions are made, which is one reason why Master Lock, bolstered by the success of this ad, went on to dominate the industry in 70s and continues to be dominant today.
In fact, people still talk about this “tough under fire” demonstration to this day. Heck it featured in an episode of MythBusters.
Of course, the difference between today and the 70’s is that now customers expect to be able to find more information on the internet. So if Master Lock were to run an ad like that today, we’d expect to go to the website, see the ad, and then get more information, presumably including an added demonstration of how the haft of the lock is hardened against regular bolt cutters and such.
In other words, the Web is where we expect businesses to add more info, close more loopholes, and really convince us — all after they’ve impressed us with their mass media ads.
And that brings me to the ad Master Lock really should have aired last Sunday. Because you don’t know it, but the front door lock on your house is ridiculously, stupidly easy to overcome. It doesn’t even require regular lock-picking skills or really anything close to what one might call special tools or skills.
Nope. Picking the lock on your house simply requires a bumpkey and a few minute demo on how to use it. See for yourself within the first 90 seconds of this news special:
Think you could make a pretty dramatic ad out of that bit of info?
Yeah. Me too.
Now, here’s the thing — Master Lock has come up with a lock cylinder that’s pretty much bump-proof. Unfortunately their promotional video for the technology is slow, boring, and long. It is, however, convincing:
So why not have a super dramatic, riveting Super Bowl ad that demonstrates lock bumping and how exposed 99% of all homes are to the technique, then showcasing how bump-proof Master Lock’s new lock cylinders are?
If you really want to get serious, throw out a challenge:
- Viewers pick out a replacement Master Lock for their door and order it along with home installation to be done by a a local Master Lock dealer,
- All of which is FREE if the installation crew can’t bump lock the front door lock they’ll be replacing on your home.
- “If we can’t open your door lock as easy as this [image of bump lock opening] your new Master Lock is on us!
- See complete details at masterlock.com
What do you want to bet that that ad would sell a boat load of new door locks?
And that’s the ad we should have seen this Super Bowl.