Which Bell Are You Ringing?

Some ads are like church bells: Warm and reassuring. Others explode in your face like a fire alarm. Which would you rather hear?

The other day as I was leaving work, I noticed the sound of bells coming from the church school down the road. I paused for a moment and took in the chimes as they marked the top of the hour. The familiar music made me smile, and somehow put the cares of the day in perspective.

Unfortunately, the bells I hear most often are annoying, rather than pleasant. I live in a neighborhood filled with house alarm systems. Most local homeowners set their alarms each night and forget all about them when they get up for a midnight snack or a trip to the bathroom. It seems as if at least once a week the neighborhood is jolted awake by an alarm going off in the middle of the night. The seconds turn into minutes (which seem like hours) as the offending homeowner stumbles through the dark to find his keypad and disarm the system. And heaven forbid he's out of town.

In both of these instances—whether from the church or from the alarm—bells are going off. Yet my reaction to each is very different. It's a good metaphor for advertising.


Consider tone. Church bells are meant to be musical. They're designed to please the ear as they herald weddings, holidays, or simply the time of day. Their role is to bring pleasure and harmony to a community. Hallmark has mastered the church-bell approach to advertising, creating ads that are mini-movies, complete with plot, climax, and resolution. Hallmark ads aren't interruptive, they're inviting.

By contrast, alarm bells are meant to steal attention; to command interest, assert an urgent need, and force someone to do something. Anyone have a casino that advertises in their town? They're a good example.

Advertisers who believe in the alarm-bell approach want their advertising to be intrusive and attention-getting, so they do everything they can to get the audience's notice. They believe that if they can make the offer good enough, the pitch loud enough, the case compelling enough, people will be bound to do business with them. But none of us likes to be told what to do, especially if in the telling the advertiser passes the red line on our annoyance meter.


Now consider the source. Church bells come from a place of tradition, history, and community. They represent service and humility. They're like the old AT&T, encouraging us to "reach out and touch someone." But alarm bells come from a machine—an electronic box, an impersonal mishmash of wires and transistors with no knowledge of, or concern for, those who may be annoyed by them. This is more like today's telecommunications advertising, offering the deal of the month on mobile minutes and text messaging.

If you think of advertising as purely mechanistic, don't expect to create a lot of goodwill. If "sales" is all it's about, then sales are all you'll get. You might think that's fine until you get locked into a death spiral of competition where the prize goes to the lowest bidder. Think GM (GM), Chrysler (DCX), or Ford (F) with their special financing or model-year closeouts. Demonstrate respect, intelligence, or thoughtfulness however, and you'll build equity that can be counted on.

What about the message? If there ever was a real emergency in my neighborhood I think most people would ignore it, presuming it was just another false alarm. That's the problem with alarm-bell advertising. We've simply seen (or heard) too much of it. Like the boy who cried wolf, the advertiser who cries "Sale!" has disappointed us many too many times.


That simply reinforces the wisdom of the church-bell approach: People are so conditioned to dismiss self-serving advertising that they're likely to be pleasantly surprised by—and pay attention to—advertising that respects their emotions and intelligence. That's how a campaign such as Mastercard's (MA) "priceless" can last for nearly a decade. It now airs in 45 languages in 90 countries.

Finally, there's timing. Both church bells and alarm bells offer valuable information. But alarm bells, by their very nature, tend to go off when you least want to hear them. No one ever wants to be exposed to alarm-bell advertising. It may capture people's attention, but it will never gain their affection. When was the last time you heard an alarm go off anywhere and it spurred you to think happy thoughts?


Church bells are different. When church bells ring something good has happened. School is out. Someone just got married. The war has ended. Church bells bring good news at a good time. Church bell advertising is something people welcome. Church bells attract. Alarm bells repel.

Do you want your advertising to make people pause, smile, and think good thoughts? Or would you prefer it to jolt them out of bed and into action? Both approaches can gain attention, but only one leaves people feeling better. If you want to build long-term equity among your customers and prospects, take a church-bell approach.

Think about the effect your advertising has on the culture at large and how you can make it a reward for people who pay attention. It may not be as loud as ringing the alarm, but it will grow in value over time.

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