The “other” – and really important – part of your ads

Advertising creative has a lot of moving parts.  There’s the brand’s voice and its implicit promise.  There’s the creative idea that’s holding the ad together.  There are the visuals.  The copy.  In many cases, the VO and the supers and the animation and the call to action.  And the magic pixie dust that we’re all after to sprinkle it with some kind of lasting power and persuasiveness.

But there’s this “other” part that no one really talks about.  The critical part (or parts) that the consumer BRINGS to every ad.  I realized recently that not many of us are including this in our craft.  And it’s time to change that.

Even though advertising seems like a one-way conversation (the brand just shouting out “look at me!” or “sale ends tomorrow!” or in some cases whispering “get over here, sexy,”) it’s not.  The consumer brings a lot of stuff into the mix, and in that magic moment when she reviews your work, it’s deeply influencing how she perceives the brand you’re working for.  I see advertising much more as a careful dance between brand and consumer, and there are a lot of attitudes, feelings and suspicions providing the background music.

There are probably a million little attitudinal elements that consumers bring to ads, but I’ve narrowed it down to what I think are the six most important:

We all know the pure fact that none of us would have a job if consumers didn’t have wants and needs that they’re trying to fulfill every day.  And in the modern American experience, brands are fulfilling all kinds of desires for consumers every day.  It’s important to distinguish needs and wants here…It may be very true that consumer X needs motorized transportation to take him to and from work.  But he WANTS a BMW, based on the experiences he’s had, and likely, the advertising he’s seen.

You can do a whole semester just on consumer desire, but understand this:  we’re all clawing and scratching for the same things deep down.  We want people to like and affirm us.  And (some might see it as sadly,) we strive for that by what we do, what we wear, where we eat and the labels on everything we consume.
The consumer brings desire to every ad.  Fulfill it.

Consumers are smart, and getting smarter about the things they want and the products they buy.  But they’re also smart about advertising.  They know (mostly) that they’re being retargeted in digital.  They know why they’re receiving certain offers in their inbox.  And they know that slick copywriters are weilding language in a way that shrouds the selling messages.  So they’re looking through that.  And by the way, they’ll know when you’re wrong.  Here’s an example:


Cute ad, right?  Makes the point about the convenience of the Citi Mobile App, and ties it right into the language of the subway commuter.  (As you can see, this ad appeared on a subway station in Manhattan.)

One small problem:  THE B TRAIN DOES NOT STOP AT 14th STREET.  And since the target consumer also brings knowledge of the NYC Subway System to the reading of this ad, the wheels kind of fall off abruptly.  The consumer starts reading and says, “wait…the B doesn’t stop at 14th street…it goes express to West 4th.”  The imaginary part of the conversation might then continue, “well, if Citi doesn’t even know the basics of the subway system like I do, how can I trust them to know more than me about mobile banking?”  See?  It’s some dangerous shit.
The consumer brings knowledge to every ad.  So get your facts straight.

One of the cornerstones of marketing [and why advertising exists] is the premise that consumers are trying to solve problems in their daily lives.  They ask internal (and sometimes out loud, if you ride the subway long enough,) questions like “how can I lower my blood pressure?” or “how do I get my ass to look good in these jeans?” and “what steps should I take to prepare for retirement?”  And similar to the desire stuff we discussed above, in many cases, they look to brands to help them solve those problems.  Not every ad can do that.  But in the ones that are explanatory, and for products that might aid consumers, give ’em a little help, eh?
The consumer brings problems to every ad.  Help him solve at least one of them.

Consumers are inherently curious.  Heck, you might say we’ve trained them to be.  Every day, new products come out, new services, new concepts to help them solve problems.  And they don’t just want to know what you’ve got, they want to know what’s behind the curtain, too.  You don’t have to give away the farm, but you can certainly meet this need with a few well-placed words, images and ideas.
The consumer brings curiosity to every ad.  So satisfy it.

As nice as consumers are, they can be pretty picky, too.  Or grumpy.  Let’s face it, they’ve seen like 5,000 ads already today, so the last thing they’re interested in is your opinionated, slanted, over-promising, under-delivering puffery.  No, you have to understand that the person you’re talking to is smart, experienced and has opinions of her own.  So tread carefully, make your case convincingly and you just might change a mind or two along the way.


Here’s another ad I saw while riding the subway this morning.  Attention-getting?  You betcha.  But when you think of the bias the consumer brings to the reading of this ad, it’s either an immediate “yes” or a decisive “no.”  I don’t love those odds, and would rather have a “definite maybe” from every eyeball.
The consumer brings bias to every ad.  So overcome it.

If you’re involved in either the strategy or the craft of advertising, make this the last item on your review of the work:  what’s the consumer bringing to the reading of this ad, and are we addressing that intelligently and in alignment with the brand who has entrusted us?  It’s quite a dance when you get a hang of the steps.

WTF, Financial Advertising? [What’s the Focus?]

I’ve been watching a lot of financial advertising lately, and I can’t help but wonder where all the typical metaphors have gone. If you’ve ever seen a commercial about a middle-aged man getting ready for his daughter’s wedding, (cue the flashback vignette of her birth, first tooth, college graduation, etc.,) well, you’ve seen them all.

But much of that seems to be changing.  In fact, financial advertising is undergoing an interesting transformation in that the commercials today are, as a group, much less about the money/ security/ wealth promise and more about the technology with which you can access it. Financial advertising has shifted the vector. And in a sense, it’s emblematic of our cultural catch-up with technology – new devices, broadband, more access – and how we choose to interact with our institutions.

John Hancock insurance is running a campaign now where a single person is seen sitting in a relatively quiet environment (on a train, at a diner, in an office) sending a text message to someone (likely a spouse) talking about retirement and/or some other financial benchmark.  “Remember we used to say ‘when’ we retire” the off-screen counterpart texts, and the exchange ensues.  It’s pithy, to be sure.  But it’s wildly interesting in that the technology part of the engagement takes center stage in the advertising.  The texting IS the creative.

Similarly, Bank of America is running a campaign to promote its app for smartphones.  A few friendly talking heads extol the virtues of checking balances, transferring funds, finding ATMs “all right from my phone.”  Here, the technology is the hero and it easily outshines the services it enables. And of course, how can Citi resist the urge to bring a Facebook reference to their ads with a spot where a guy buys a laptop for his mom with a Citi card and she turns into a social networking monster: “then one day…she friend-ed me.”

And recently, there have been several new commercials that have foregone actors altogether (for Northwestern Mutual, JP Morgan Chase) and instead feature tech-inspired motion graphics to communicate brand points like trying to “recapture that feeling of financial invincibility” (Northwestern) and “being a leader means moving fast,” (JP Morgan Chase.)  All tech, no touch.

While there’s nothing wrong with this collective approach – advertising has always borrowed pop culturally relevant isms – it just seems off the mark.  Combined, these companies are paying hundreds of millions of dollars to air these commercials and they seem to want to focus on the pathways rather than the destinations.  It’s like developing advertising for a new shopping mall and creating spots touting how shiny and new the highways are that lead to it.

Advertising should be singular.  But the single focus you choose should be the highest benefit you can claim for your product or service.  In best-case scenarios, it should be the benefit that no one else can claim, or claim nearly as well.  I’m just not sure that “we offer technology” offers enough juice to convince an already fragmented, already distracted, already engaged audience to bank/invest/insure here.