Wednesday, January 23

Improving Advertising: Nine Rules, Part 2

“Copy is a direct conversation with the consumer." — Shirley Polykoff

For all its benefits, social media communication sometimes misses. One of my favorite misses is the constant buzz of conversation and how it differs from traditional communication. It’s even one of the premises in Join The Conversation, recently reviewed by Valeria Maltoni.

Yet, despite never being engaged in social media, Shirley Polykoff felt the same way. She was a copywriter — the first woman copywriter for Foote Cone & Belding, and best known for her work on the Clairol account. Her work increased hair-coloring sales by 413 percent in six years and expanded the market from 7 percent to 50 percent of all women.

Most of Polykoff’s work was grounded in conversation, not all that dissimilar from the famous Volkswagen ad I reference last week after revisiting Fred Manley’s satirical “Nine Ways To Improve An Ad.” Once upon a time, almost all ad copy was a conversation or, at the very least, an invitation to have one.

Many advertising agencies have lost sight of this in the last decade, leaving some to become mired down in rules, committees, or exercises in attempting to “out clever” the other guy. Sure, that’s all fun and good, but communicators today might take more time to understand that social media, blog posts in particular, are sometimes similar to classic advertising, which was conversational.

If you don’t believe it, ask the man in the Hathaway shirt. Or consider the writer.

“If you're trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language, the language they use every day, and the language in which they think. We try to write in the vernacular." — David Ogilvy

Only a fraction of ads today seem to grasp what Polykoff, Ogilvy, and other greats really meant. So what happened? Well, I have some unsubstantiated theories, but those can wait for another day. Today, I’m sharing some real advertising rules, the companion piece to last week's post.

The Real Nine Rules Of Advertising

Rule 1: There are no rules. Most memorable ads in the last century broke some, if not all, conventional rules. Like Manley, Ed McCabe often said he had no use for them.

Rule 2: Most products are not unique. Finding the right value proposition or product/service contrast is more important than a clever ad touting the same selling point. Copying the other guy just doesn’t work.

Rule 3: Brands are important. Despite this new Advertising Age article, brands are important (image campaigns, maybe less so). Brands represent the relationship between the consumer and the product, person, or company.

Rule 4: Advertising messages are unimportant. Given that people are bombarded with thousands of messages every day, advertising tends to be unimportant, which is why every ad needs to be communicated effectively.

Rule 5: Clients are already convinced. Clients and their spouses almost always think they have a better product or service; whereas advertising is an exercise in convincing others. In other words, it’s not about you.

Rule 6: Many people lie. Sometimes they lie in surveys, polls, focus groups, and rating systems. There are many reasons, and sometimes, there is no reason. My favorites were early studies that suggested Perrier would never work. Pay more for water? Bah! See rule 7.

Rule 7: People are irrational. Sometimes we buy things for no reason at all. It is why checkout stands at the supermarket offer great product placement and probably why I’m convinced Comet is better than Ajax.

Rule 8: Clichés are boring. With very rare exceptions, people tend to tune out clichés. The only exception, and even then they might not work, is when drawing attention to the cliché or challenging it, without being “cute.”

Rule 9: There is always a better way. There are a few great ads, some good ads, and a boatload of bad ads being produced every day. But even the best ads can always be made better.

There are a few others, but these are nine favorites. Not one tells you what to put or not to put in a headline, despite how many people have told me to, um, never ask a question in a headline. Good thing they didn't tell Polykoff.



Valeria Maltoni on 1/23/08, 1:14 PM said...

Thank you for this, Rich. I forwarded it to my team. I have this book at home called "Twenty Ads that Changed the World" in addition to the little white book "On Advertising". They are both timeless as they record the thoughts and work of remarkable communicators -- ad copywriters.

terocious on 1/23/08, 1:18 PM said...

I have an artist friend who went into advertising. He told me he believed that many of today's great artist had chosen the field. When I really looked around after this I began to see that he was right. Now nothing stops me from truly enjoying an ad. It is liberating to discover that business can give something back in this way.

Rich on 1/23/08, 7:12 PM said...

@Valeria, Some of the thanks remains with you. I really enjoyed our discussion on your blog this morning. Very interesting and excellent ideas you brought up. Much to think about.

@Barry. Oh, and here I was going to say that Photoshop is partly responsible for the downfall of advertising. j/k. Er, half j/k.

You're right. There are many talented commercial artists out there. Check out Communication Arts sometime, esp. the photography and illustration issues. When the art is removed from the ads, it becomes even more apparent.

Of course, Andy Warhol was a commercial artist as well. Not everyone like him because of it, but I do. I tend to look at art less from what so-called art experts say it is and more along the lines of what the artist was trying to accomplish and if they did, indeed, do that.

Commercial art takes even greater discipline, much like the writing side. You have to write/paint/etc. with the same passion as a novelist/artist/etc. with client strategies and mandatories in mind. That's the very reason I open it up here, now and again, despite mixed reactions every once and awhile.

I have a vintage train graphic for you btw. I'll give it to Jane this weekend and perhaps she can get to you.


Kim on 1/25/08, 7:49 AM said...

Maybe another rule for copywriters: If the client says "I'm a writer too, you know" or worse, "My wife likes to write," it is a harbinger of doom.

Expect the copy to be messed with to the point of being completely useless, then it's back to square one.

Rich on 1/25/08, 10:37 PM said...

For those who might not know, my partner is also my wife. Um, she likes to write.


Anonymous said...

Another thought provoking post Rich.

David Olgilvy would be proud of you for mentioning the Hathaway shirt man too.

Olgilvy does gives some rules in his book "Olgilvy on Advertising."

I really enjoyed it re-read it several times and produced a series of posts on it - including a check on the predictions the great man made on the future of advertising.

Some happened, some didn't. Who'd have guessed!

Rich on 1/29/08, 9:18 AM said...

Thanks Jim,

I really appreciate that.

Yes, indeed he does. Some of those I mentioned come from Olgilvy thinking, but not necessarily his book. I also had the distinct pleasure of having Bourne Morris as an instructor years ago. On occasion, we connect by e-mail.

Bourne Morris was president of Ogilvy & Mather, Los Angeles (1977-1981), after working her way up as senior vice president, copywriter, creative supervisor. She also worked at Interpublic and BBDO. Originally, she was a poet turned copywriter.

She has many memorable campaigns under her belt; one that stands out in my memory was scratching the word "dry" on a hand for Oil of Olay. Smart. Simple. Clearly communicated. :)


Laurie on 6/8/11, 9:26 PM said...

I found this is an informative and interesting post so i think it is very useful and knowledgeable

hcg on 11/11/11, 6:44 AM said...

I really like your writing. Thanks so much, finally a decent website with good information in it.


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