"WHAT AM I SAYING?"
No, not me, your faithful rantmeister.
You. As the advertiser.
What are YOU saying?
And TO WHOM are you saying it?
Does your message make a point?
Does it evoke an emotional response?
Or does it just lie there, like a dead fish, lacking any purpose in the world?
HMM. SOUNDS LIKE ADVERTISING EXISTENTIALISM.
"Oh, man. Existentialism? There he is, going all long-haired and philosophical on us. What a waste of time!"
Because this is ultimately about not flushing advertising money down the commode.
But maybe we need to ask, what IS existentialism, anyway?
Besides a fulltime pursuit for intolerable bores and miserable people (as one philosophy major I know once described existentialists), existentialism is fundamentally about one thing: meaning.
For a little backstory, let's visit Demark in the 1800s , and a young gentleman who is a philosopher, theologian, poet and social critic with a fondness for irony, parables and metaphor.
His name is Søren Kierkegaard. (Yes, I know a smattering of Danish. I sound like one of those newscasters of Hispanic heritage who speaks perfect, unaccented American English until they say their own name.)
KIERKEGAARD IS CONSIDERED THE FIRST EXISTENTIALIST PHILOSOPHER
And he proposed that each of us--you, me, Mom, the milkman, their child--each of us is personally responsible for giving authentic and passionate meaning to life.
To dumb this down for the overtaxed mind of us 21st century marketing folks, let's turn to Existentialism For Dummies.
Yes, I have a copy in front of me. It's easier than hiring a philosophy professor. And it was written by two philosophy professors.
The first paragraph of the first chapter of the book is exactly eight words long.
"Existentialism is the philosophy that makes life possible."
HOW'S THAT FOR SIMPLE?
The philosophy that makes life possible.
So, by that measure, what is advertising existentialism?
Advertising existentialism is the philosophy that makes sales possible.
I just wrote that.
So, now what?
What does that mean?
Well, advertising is a sales message.
A philosophy is an idea, an attitude, a viewpoint, a way of thinking, even a way of life.
So, advertising existentialism is a way of thinking about sales messages that go out into the world
To make that sales message worthwhile, it must have purpose and meaning.
AN ADVERTISING MESSAGE HAS TO MEAN SOMETHING
Unfortunately, most advertising messages are an exercise in meaninglessness.
This not a swipe at small-business advertising.
It is not a swipe at big-agency advertising.
It is a swipe at meaningless advertising.
Look around you.
There are messages without meaning coming at you every minute of every hour of every day unless you live like Ted Kaczynski, in a remote wilderness shack without electricity or indoor plumbing.
And the height of his anti-social behavior is a whole other brand of existentialism we will not visit here, other than to say his message was clear. Kaboom.
MEANINGLESSNESS DOES NOT ENGENDER A SENSE OF WORTH OR VALUE
And ultimately, advertising has to convey some sense of worth or value.
It can be as simple as guaranteeing the lowest price of any national chain motel while making you feel special.
Or it can be as lofty as being entrusted with delivering excellence and value in the form of a $350,000 car that belies a vision of changing the world.
Motel 6, meet Rolls Royce.
That's quite a range of worth and value. Many, many others fall in between on that vast spectrum. Your business is probably one of them.
So, here now, an example of a common kind of co-op advertisement.
A PHOTOGRAPH OF A PRODUCT
The product might be a refrigerator. Hard to be certain.
Above the photograph is the local advertiser's name, which you may not know.
Beneath the photograph is the manufacturer's name, which you also may not know.
And that's all.
If the need for worth and value are a given, does this advertisement measure up?
What is it saying?
Who is it saying it to?
Does it make a point?
Does it evoke an emotional response?
IT'S EXPENSIVE AND IT'S UNCLEAR
Some manufacturer probably paid a lot of co-op money.
And the local advertiser probably paid more money.
And the only message is a Post-It Note that says, "If you know who we are, and what this is, we sell it."
As a bonus, this ad is on a billboard.
So the person reading it has very little time to process it.
And there's almost nothing to process.
Especially in the context of 70-mile-an-hour traffic, if you don't give the reader some reason to pay attention, the advertising has no reason for being.
SO HOW ABOUT THIS...
Instead of the advertiser's name at the top of the ad, how about a headline?
"This Swiss refrigerator is cooler than your German car."
And then, at the bottom, the brand name and the advertiser's name.
What is it saying? What point is it making to whom?
It's saying, "You are a certain kind of person with a certain kind of taste. Even if you've never heard of it, this product is for you. We have it here."
And does it evoke an emotional response? Of course it does. Suddenly, for the person who likes precision cars and enjoys a luxury lifestyle, it evokes intrigue, curiosity, amusement, interest, maybe even desire.
SUDDENLY, THE MESSAGE CONVEYS A SENSE OF WORTH AND VALUE
And all it took was took nine words.
I wrote in less time than it took me to explain it.
Of course, I'm conditioned. I am immersed in a mindset of advertising existentialism. I see or hear a meaningless ad and I want to apply meaning.
I also write these kinds of things daily.
But I wasn't born this way.
I've learned to think this way.
And the extent of my training and my learning by doing might make me faster at it.
But it doesn't make me special.
And anyone who creates advertising or buys advertising or sells advertising is able to ask the question...
DOES THIS MATTER?
Does this message tell the reader anything?
What is the message?
What does the reader take away?
What are we doing this for?
Having seen the message, how should the reader feel now?
And what should they do next?
One of the problems with really good advertising is that it seems effortless.
And when something seems effortless, people often don't think very hard about doing it.
YOU HAVE TO THINK HARD ABOUT DOING IT
Because if you don't, the advertising is good money spent badly.
Talking about a billboard (which, in this case, could've just as easily been a print ad) is pretty simple to do.
Talking about this in the context of radio or TV advertising is a bigger challenge because of all the moving parts.
People think websites are immune to this problem. Website frequently exhibit this problem, possibly more so than any other medium.
Pay-per-click advertising. When was the last time you saw a pay-per-click ad that made you care? Most of the time, you just gloss right over them.
For everything, it’s still the same, fundamental problem.
Radio especially is crawling with immature writers who don't understand how to craft a relevant message.
But you find those people everywhere, even in ad agencies. As an advertising copywriter, the Fabulous Honey Parker was once teamed with an ad agency art director whose only goal was not to create advertising that sells, but create advertising that wins an award.
THAT IS NOT THE MISSION
The mission of any advertising professional is to craft a message that resonates with the prospect in a way that turns him into a buyer.
The advertising professional is presumably trained in this.
To have any other goal is corrupt.
To not know that's your goal is negligent.
To be a small-business owner who isn't trained this way is a fact of life.
Learning to think this way is actually pretty easy. It's harder to find someone who will tell you as much.
So here it is: a guy telling you as much.
Be an advertising existentialist.
Ask what and why.
Your advertising will thank you by sending you more customers.
Your Lean, Mean Creative Director in
SO THERE IT IS, COMING AT ME OUT OF THE RADIO
The famous local radio host (who is obviously pretending to be live, since he's not on the air for another three hours) says something like this:
"You hear a lot of mortgage advertising here on [the name of this radio station], but one I've recommended for years is National Loans. [Not their real name.] They get you the lowest interest rates available. And the best loan for your situation. They have all kinds of loans. Right now, they have 3.875 percent on a 30-year fixed. And if you want to pull out some cash out for home improvements, they can do that, too."
Blah blah blah blah.
I don't even remember if there was a tagline.
There sure wasn't any effort at focus.
Low rates. All loans. Cash out re-fi.
It's an exercise in throwing a handful of stuff at the listener and hoping some of it sticks.
But it won't. Because nothing is sticky. It's calculated to make the listener glaze over and start thinking, "Do I need to cut my toenails?"
THERE MAY BE NO OTHER CATEGORY THAT BETTER DEMONSTRATES HOW NOT TO ADVERTISE
The word "Mortgage" is French for "death note." And that is a really apt metaphorfor much of the category's advertising.
It's so bad, I once wrote a book about it.
This was back in 2004.
It set a first-day sales record for Wizard Academy Press.
The book explained how bad the advertising is, and how to make it better.
Routinely, I'd get emails from advertisers who'd read the book. They'd say, "I loved your book! Here's my new commercial!"
And I'd listen to it or read the script, and I'd think, "OK, seems the only part you read was how not to do it."
Why don't these guys pay attention? It's not complicated.
The book was called Million-Dollar Mortgage Radio.
YES, IT SOUNDS REALLY BORING
It's also mercifully short.
And as one reviewer said, "If I only owned one book on Radio it would be this one. I'm a little bummed the title says Mortgage Radio since truly this is a radio copywriter's secret weapon...no matter what the product."
But if what we do here in the screed is learn from other people's mistakes, the mortgage category is a brilliant learning tool.
Let's take the message mentioned at the beginning of the screed. Let's forget the category for a second.
What advertiser on a radio station wants to hear himself lumped in with all the other advertisers in the category that aren't endorsed by this host?
"THANKS GIVING US YOUR MONEY, BUT YOU'RE NOT AS GOOD AS THIS GUY!"
There's a way to win friends and influence people.
Now, the jab at the other advertisers aside, here's the problem with advertising, "Low rates!"
It's the price of entry.
Nobody wants to pay high rates.
What customer wants to pay more? None.
You also can't throw a series of bullet points at a customer and expect it to mean anything.
You. Need. Focus.
You need to pick one thing to talk about.
You need to make it matter to one person.
DO THAT, AND ONE PERSON WILL CARE
And then, that one person will call.
Along with a whole bunch of other individuals just like him or her.
This works. That simple.
But, I was thinking, Am I being too hard on the category? Should I cut them some slack?
So I started by looking at that advertiser's website.
No, I'm not being too hard.
"Welcome to National Loans, one of the leading mortgage companies in the city."
How's that for a meaningful introduction?
"IT'S ALL ABOUT US AND NOT ABOUT YOU!"
The site's copy was blossoming with words and phrases listed in the Little Boy's Big Book Of Hackneyed Copywriting.
"Lowest rates ."
"Level of service."
"In business for XX years."
"Better Business Bureau A+ rating."
"The best loan program for every individual situation."
"You won't find better rates or lower costs anywhere else."
"Trained and experienced."
AND JUST FOR FUN?
The copy shifts the narrative voice.
It starts by talking about "You," as a customer, then suddenly starts talking about customers as "Them."
And here's the kicker.
Buried way deep in the copy that doesn't demand to read, there's a feature that actually makes sense.
It could have been used to inform a brand direction.
It could have made the prospect feel good about the purchase.
It could have made this company matter.
And it was hidden down in the depths of banal words and lazy phrasing.
BUT STILL: AM I BEING TOO HARD ON THE CATEGORY?
So I continued searching the category.
National Loans (not their real name), meet State Loans (also not their real name).
But the names might as well be real. They're both close enough.
"Begin Your Dream of Home Ownership."
"Trust. Experience. Knowledge. Commitment."
"All loan programs available."
My favorite: "Do you qualify? Find out now in 60 seconds."
Is that now?
Or in a minute from now?
"Buying a home?"
"WE DO EVERYTHING AND WE STAND FOR NOTHING! WELCOME!"
I kept digging.
There is a bevy of brand names so generic, they could be interchangeable and they make the prospect feel nothing useful.
There's endless banal phrasing.
"Setting a higher standard."
"Putting customers first."
"Get started on your journey to home ownership."
"Becoming a Homeowner In This State Has Never Been Easier."
"One of the state's premier mortgage lenders." With the name of the state spelled wrong. Nice.
Here's my favorite, which does actually take a stab at differentiation and giving the prospect a reason to care--but in doing so, shoots itself in the foot: "We are a 100% referral-based business. 100% of our business comes from folks like you."
THEN WHY ARE YOU ADVERTISING?
The copy goes on to proclaim they don't need any of the elements of good branding. They actually profess to be immune to things that help the prospect recall them and feel good about the business.
I dug through pages of Google search results and plowed through paragraphs of trite and trivial copywriting hoping to find something that matters.
And I did.
It wasn't brilliant.
BUT IT WAS AN HONEST AND THOUGHTFUL EFFORT TO MATTER
Many of these websites have generic videos offering words, and the company names are tacked on.
But this guy (whose company name was not grand and stately, but small and folksy) brands himself as "A better way to mortgage."
And down the page is a video, not fancy, not slick, just very real and honest, in which the guy explains "Four simple steps to your best loan."
And the website reinforces that simplicity.
Yeah, it has some typical mortgage website stuff. Loan calculator. Rates.
But ultimately, it's very simple, very clear, and wants you to have "A better way to mortgage" through four simple steps.
IT'S JUST NOT THAT HARD
Stand for something.
Matter to your customer.
Make it simple.
Don't tell me you're honest and you put the customer first. Show me. Demonstrate your worth.
Define your core customer, and deliver one coherent message that makes the customer feel one right thing about your business.
We can all do this. The size of the business doesn't matter.
Yes, mortgage advertising has rules and regs that most of the rest of us don't.
They also have a much higher-value customer than most of us do. They can afford to hire advertising people who Get It.
If you can't or won't do it yourself, hire a real pro. Not the guy with the lowest fees. Someone with obvious proficiency.
A real pro understands how to tap into the advertiser's psyche, the customer's psyche, and bring them together in a place where magic happens and the phone rings.
That's today's soapbox. And please, do not go buy Million-Dollar Mortgage Radio.Check it out on Amazon, and if you really think you want it, I will send you a hard copy for free. Just send an email to submissions at slow burn marketing dot com. This offer is good until May 15, 2017. Which you can remember because it's also everyone's favorite holiday, Relive Your Past By Listening To The First Music You Ever bought No Matter What It Was No Excuses Day. Really.
Your Lean, Mean Creative Director in
Blaine Parker helps people sell their stuff. An advertising Creative Director and Copywriter at Slow Burn Marketing, he specializes in big-brand thinking for small-business marketing. He has the voice of a much taller man.