"I know half the money I spend on advertising is wasted, but I can never find out which half." (Lord Leverhulme of Unilever)
The trouble with advertising, we're told over and over, is tedium—not too much tedium, but too little. Ads are dazzling, hypnotic, irresistible. We find our free will nullified, our choices determined by greedy ad writers. We are at the mercy of the pitchmen.
Television sponsors used to think so, too. Advertisers used to boast about making commercials loud and annoying so they could not be ignored. That was the price viewers paid for the program. Then came the dreaded zapper—the remote control. Viewers will choose for themselves, thank you, whether or not they wish to watch commercials. Under one twitching finger is the power to turn any message down, or off. Now advertisers are saying that they must hook viewers within three seconds. They talk about making commercials zap-proof.
Does that sound familiar? It is Wotan's Dilemma.
Imagine an ad man pitching his commercial. "Within three seconds, the TV viewer will find that he cannot turn the channel—by which I mean that he will choose not to. I guarantee that his finger will remain paralyzed, unable to push that remote control button—by which I mean that he will be so riveted that he will not want to push the button. Once he sees this ad, the viewer will be unable to do anything but buy this product—by his own free will choice, of course."
In order to sell his commercial to a sponsor, the ad man claims that it bypasses free will; but to keep some connection to reality, he brings in choice. He tries to have it both ways: "You'll buy it whether you want to or not—but you'll want to—but it will be automatic—but you'll want it—but—"
Here's a headline from the London Economist (4/1/95,p.52):
"It's official: some ads work"
The story refers to a Syracuse University study of advertising campaigns. One conclusion: "Only 46% of campaigns appeared to result in a long-term sales boost."
So after the client has seen the results of testing on "focus groups," has had the scientific basis for each facet of a campaign pointed out, has noted the subtle appeals to prejudice and emotion, has added a touch here and there, and provided money lavishly—then there is a fifty-fifty chance that the ads might work. To look for a way to increase the odds, let's ask what advertising actually is.
Traditionally, advertising has been regarded as showmanship—getting noticed—demanding attention. Selling was done separately by salesmen. The salesman did not expect breathless ad claims to close sales; he did that himself. He often thought of free will as an obstacle, but he expected to confront it. Then the modern control-freaks were duped into thinking that science could bypass free will—that a mind could be awake to influence, while asleep to choice. This amounted to saying that humans are simultaneously conscious and unconscious, but it was accepted anyway. Now the ad man is a nervous Wotan, claiming magic power and making agreements not to abuse the magic. Advertising is supposed to influence, and therefore is called persuasion. But it is not persuasion, it is advertising.
In April, 1995, Radio Doctor Dean Edell broadcast his commentary on a "fungus tea" that was being touted as a cure for various ailments. The Doctor used it as an example of quack medicine, of wishful thinking, of unproven claims, of dangerous self-medication. He warned his listeners against the tea in strong terms. The next day, he reported that his staff had been "flooded" with calls from people urgently asking where they could get some of that tea.
What tried to be persuasion turned out to be advertising—bringing a product to wider attention. That's what the word means: getting attention. Favorable attention is nice, but, as the fungus tea example shows, not essential. Bad publicity is still publicity. There is no reason to assume that advertisements against drug use turn more people off the idea than on. Government hacks pretend that when they tell folks something, it will be believed and be influential. They generally get all the credence they deserve.
Since advertising waves for attention, it is logical to have a pretty model do the waving. Or why not have the model be a celebrity, and use the product? The racing driver loves your car; the mechanic admires it; the Beauty Queen caresses it. The star uses your toothpaste; the doctor recommends it; the lab finds it awesome. Thus advertising uses the influence of example. Sometimes it extends this influence into arguments in favor or against something. It displays the reasoning of the advertiser, and calls that persuasion. But it is example; persuasion would use the reasoning of the viewer. A polemical ad harangues, or lectures, or nags, or—
Is there a way for advertising to use persuasion—influence by means of the viewer's reason? To answer that, bring in the cynic.
A cynic, hearing reference to the viewer's reason, would ask, "What reason?" Advertisers say that too. Among themselves, they refer to viewers as eight-year-olds, or twelve-year-olds, or brain-dead and stupid. They used to call TV viewers passive, but that became inoperative when zappers arrived.
Even the cynic cannot help but notice that the same people who call viewers mentally inert, also recommend packing ads full of subtle influences, which are supposed to secretly affect those inert minds. The contradiction can be resolved only if they mean that viewers are attentive, but not very skillful in analyzing an appeal.
If you assume that readers of ad copy lack skill in choosing between competing products, then, if you are sufficiently desperate, you put as much tricky stuff in there as you think you can get away with. You use big headlines to make claims, and lines of small print to take them back. You threaten readers with suffering children and ruined lives. You suggest the lies you dare not include. And you keep the aspirin handy.
Or, you can discover that the issue of mental skill presents a golden opportunity for persuasion. Instead of maligning your audience, you can help them. If they lack a mental skill, teach it to them. If they have trouble deciding, show them how.
Look through the ads in, say, a computer magazine, and you will see The Table. At the top of a number of columns are names of computers. Down the left side is a list of desirable features. Check marks indicate which of the computers have these features. By a startling coincidence, the computer with the most check marks is the one that paid for the ad. In other magazines, it's the TV with the most check marks, or the vacuum cleaner with the most check marks.
That is the winner—or is it the sucker? A manufacturer of one product paid for the ad, providing hefty sums of money for the privilege of displaying, in color on glossy paper, the names of the competition. If advertising is getting attention for one product, that is not advertising. It is thought to be, instead, persuasion. It is supposed to assist the reason of the viewer, who is presumed to lack skill in making a decision.
Close, but no cigar. The Table is just another transparent trick. "Here!" it says, "I'll show you how to make a choice!" Then it proceeds to make the choice. Everybody knows that trick. To be persuasion, The Table would have to be blank, so that the reader could fill in a personal selection of features and brand names. Those names are, after all, emphatically displayed in the surrounding pages.
Pity the computer maker. His ad campaign started out with a fifty-fifty chance of success. Then he saddled it with the names of his competitors. Then he limited it to a few features, with the implication that those are the important ones. Each reader will think of at least one feature important to him, but not included. That expensive ad has given up the advertising function to take on the sales function, which it must bungle because it cannot know the individual prospect.
Because of their obsession with mind control, modern advertisers have forgotten that the sales function and the advertising function are different, and often antithetical. Advertising seeks the attention of everyone, hoping that some are prospects for a sale. Selling then tries to influence individual decisions of individual prospects. Purchases are made by individual purchasers. Mass advertising can get their attention, but cannot make choices for individuals. If it could, its chances would be better than fifty-fifty.
Persuasion does not try to control choice, but to assist choice, so it is perfectly consistent with mass advertising, and useful to it. The problem for mass advertising is getting prospects to identify themselves. The advertiser may want people to call a toll free number. Those that call usually find themselves talking not to a salesman but to an order taker. The advertiser thinks the selling job has already been done. If so, it was by word of mouth, not advertising.
The problem for the audience of mass advertising is to feel confident in a method of choosing. Comparing features seems right, but you can't ignore price. Trusting a famous name seems safe, unless it's an old dog with bad tricks. If, after getting my attention, an ad offers not to make my choice, but to help me make it, I will gladly show myself as a prospect. Here's an example:
In the Land of Choice, computers differ. To choose one, try starting with a task in mind. Call our toll-free number and name the task. We'll match your job with one of our computers. Then we'll throw in software for the job, and see what you think.
That ad copy does not try to close the sale. It avoids the implication of most magazine ads, that calling the toll-free number is a scary commitment. It has given up on the fantasy of mind control, and settled for salesmanship instead.
That's the lesson of persuasion for advertising: give up on mind control. Use free will as an ally instead of an enemy. Tell people how to get what they want, instead of what you want. Forget sale-closing phrases like "Call now!" or "Do it today!" Ads are for finding prospects, not closing sales. Issuing orders sets an example that causes resistance, not compliance. Showing who's boss is not persuasion, and not advertising—just bullying. Instead of orders, give methods.
While advertising may work only 46% of the time, persuasion takes place between consenting adults, so it works all of the time.
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