When Creativity Can Kill
Over lunch the other day, a friend of mine told me a true story that I want to share with you.
A copywriter at a well-known advertising agency recently wrote a 30-second TV commercial and showed it to his boss. The Associate Creative Director read it over and said "It's a great spot, but isn't something missing?" "What's that?" asked the copywriter. "The product," replied his boss. "You forgot to mention the client's product!"
That's right. The copywriter was so wrapped up in creating an entertaining commercial that he neglected to mention what the client was selling!
The writer's teeny-weeny oversight, I believe, needs to be understood in context. You see, packaged goods advertising is undergoing an enormous change. Today, it is becoming less a medium of information/persuasion than just another form of entertainment.
Of course, it's O.K. to be outrageous and "creative" when you're selling beer, burgers or jeans on the tube. And it's fine to have fun when you're building a hip brand like Apple, and supporting it with huge media buys. But be careful!
Self-indulgent creativity for creativity's sake can hurt you in your advertising, direct mail, e-mail and on your website. Let me give you an example-an old Novell ad that ran some years ago in Fortune magazine.
Novell obviously spent big bucks to run a two-page, four-color ad in Fortune. They could have used a graphic and headline that was relevant, motivating and persuasive. Instead, they used a photo of a pensive man walking around Stonehenge. The headline asks the cryptic question:
Under the photo, they ran a subhead that said:
"We're willing to bet you don't think of yourself that way."
This ad is as big a mystery as Stonehenge itself.
Very often, when I see an ad that uses an arcane, teaser headline like Novell's, I search the body copy for the content that should have been bumped up to headline status. Sure enough, Novell's ad finally starts saying something in the third sentence of the body copy:
" . . . With NDS software, everyone on your network has a unique profile. They can access the network online to get all the necessary business tools even when they're away from the office. With one password, the network identifies which files and applications they may use while restricting access to secure or sensitive documents."
I would argue that even a headline lifted straight from the body copy would work better than "Node?" For example, if you wanted to settle for a no-brainer, you could show photos of employees doing different jobs and simply plug in the headline:
"Now, give everyone the business tools they need-even when they're away from the office."
In my opinion, even this rather flat-footed line, lifted (nearly) directly from the body copy, would serve Novell's interests better than asking "Node?" but it's differences of opinion that make horse races.
In the very same issue of Fortune, BUY.COM ran a full page ad that makes the simple claim "Lowest prices on earth." They backed up the claim by comparing the price you'd pay at Amazon.com and BUYBOOKS.COM for the same best-seller.
BUY.COM doesn't play games, they don't get cute, they just prove to you, with an old-fashioned "side-by- side" comparison, that you can save twelve bucks on a book by shopping at their website.
If YOU are tempted to use a teaser headline and play it cute in an ad, in direct mail or on the web, I urge you to think again. As John Caples, the father of direct marketing advertising advised years ago:
"Avoid the ‘hard-to-grasp' headline-the headline that requires thought and is not clear at first glance. Remember that the reader's attention is yours for only a single involuntary instant. People will not use up their valuable time trying to figure out what you mean. They will simply turn the page."
Ivan Levison is a freelance direct response copywriter who works for companies like Bank of America, Fireman's Fund, Intel and Microsoft. Levison writes direct mail, emails, and Web copy. For a free subscription to his monthly email newsletter for marketers, and a free copy of his report, "101 Ways to Double Your Response Rates!", visit www.levison.com.