Advertising: Less is Much More

No matter what your budget, you can't afford to bore consumers. Here's how to communicate the message without getting mired in details

"The best way to be boring is to leave nothing out."-- VoltaireThis morning I heard a radio commercial from a national health insurance company. I tuned in long enough to catch an announcer drone on about features and benefits, co-payments and deductibles. Then I tuned out. I'm sure it was very interesting to the marketing people at the insurance company, just not to me -- or any of the thousands of other listeners the business was trying to reach.

I've heard advertisers justify cramming ads full of information by citing the high price of media and saying, "We need to get our money's worth." Yes, media costs a lot, and every advertiser needs its ads to work as hard as possible. But just as getting your money's worth at a buffet doesn't mean stuffing your face, reaping return on investment from advertising doesn't require inundating your audience with facts, claims, and comparisons. That approach will just give them a headache.


Don't confuse advertising with journalism. Journalism's mission is to inform the audience by presenting all the relevant facts about a given topic. It works because people seek out the news intentionally -- they want to read and hear and see what's going on.

But advertising is different. People tolerate it because they know it helps pay for media they enjoy, but they're also quite adept at tuning it out. For that reason, advertising needs to come across more like theater.

Over the years, an unspoken social contract has developed. Consumers effectively tell advertisers, "Entertain me, and I will give you my attention. Respect my intelligence, and I'll give you my interest. Do neither, and I'll give you neither." Those advertisers that respect the contract enjoy success. Those who don't end up complaining advertising doesn't work.


Consider a few real-world examples. Target (TGT) is one of the most beloved advertisers these days. Its spots are fun to watch, because they include product placements as part of the entertainment. Instead of trying to present a "unique selling proposition" or list every item in the store, Target has found a smart, relevant way to present the essence of its appeal.

And Target does so in such an entertaining fashion that people actually look forward to seeing the ads. The fact that the commercials are entertaining belies their strategic brilliance. Every businessperson I have ever asked can tell me, in so many words, what Target is trying to communicate through those commercials.

John Hancock Insurance is another example. Years ago, it introduced the "Real Life, Real Answers" campaign. The commercials seemed less like ads and more like mini-movies, dramatizing two brothers talking or a middle-aged man choking up as he reads his 50th-birthday card. The campaign didn't attempt to hammer home a heavy sales message and didn't even say anything concrete about John Hancock. It simply drew the viewers in and let them come to their own conclusions. Oh, and it generated a 17% sales increase.


The Apple (AAPL) "1984" commercial aired only twice -- and is widely credited with starting the Super Bowl advertising craze. (The second airing was on a local station in the middle of the night, just to qualify for 1983 advertising awards.) What most people don't remember is that the commercial featured no real dialogue other than a simple concluding statement: "On Jan. 24, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like 1984."

Apple set out to hold the interest of the audience through two minutes of the most expensive TV time available, using not facts, claims, or comparisons but a storyline. It didn't try to explain why 1984 would differ from "1984" but instead trusted the audience to complete the picture. The audience did, and the ad, like the product, went down in history.

Sure, "1984" required a big-budget production, but this kind of approach doesn't necessarily call for massive funding. Advertisers can achieve it via a simple image on a billboard or dialogue in a radio spot. What it does require is empathy for the audience and the knowledge that the key to success is drawing people in and letting them complete the picture for themselves. It requires a little restraint on behalf of the advertiser. That's when powerful impressions are made.


Most ads try to spoon-feed people. But nobody past the age of 6 months wants spoon-feeding. Take a different approach.

Draw people in. Tell a story. Encourage them to engage in it, and reward them when they do. If you do it right, they'll want to see your ads again and again. And then you'll really start getting your money's worth.

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