by Luke Sullivan, published 1998, 2012 (4ed)
Not just a thoughtful introduction to the basics of creating advertisement and marketing campaigns, Luke Sullivan’s “Hey Whipple!” is also an argument for aesthetic sense in advertising– in essence, you can sell a lot of things a lot of ways, but not all those ways are artful. Using the eponymous “Mr. Whipple” campaign for Charmin toilet paper in the 1970s as his example, Sullivan laments:
In 1975, a survey listed Whipple’s as the second-most-recognized face in America, right behind Richard Nixon… To those who defend the campaign based on sales, I ask, would you also spit on the table to get my attention? It would work, but would you?
His point is arbitrary, it is an opinion on the state of advertising, but it’s worth considering. If you could get sales by getting on people’s nerves, or by pleasing them, wouldn’t you have to be a lazy or annoying person to do it the first way instead of the second? If you’re passionate about life in all its forms, why not fill the world with advertising art?
Evolution in advertising
The era of modern advertising began in the 1950s, when a person could go on a major television variety show and count on everyone who was watching the show (which was nearly everyone in the country) seeing your product message. Soon, with multiple brands available for each product type, advertising men had to come up with a reason to convince people their product was the best in category.
This gave rise to the unique selling proposition: “Buy this product, and you will get this specific benefit.” This was quickly followed by the Creative Revolution, whose motto was, “It’s not just what you say that stirs people. It’s the way you say it.”
Then came the idea of product positioning: the notion that the consumers head had finite space for categorizing products; you must deposition a competitor for another product to take its place.
Learning the art of advertising
The author himself went on a journey as he learned the ins and outs of advertising. He read the One Show and Communication Arts award annuals as a “graduate education in advertising.” He also quickly learned that there were no points for originality, at least not until you knew how to properly execute on the basics. Essentially, “Until you’ve got a better answer, you copy.” Then, once you learn all the rules, you break them.
Developing good copy in an ad requires mindfulness about the value of brands:
- brand equity: all the baggage, good and bad, that is associated with and comes with the brand
- a brand is the sum total of all emotions, thoughts, images, history, possibilities and gossip that exist in the marketplace about a certain company
- in categories where products are essentially all-alike (commodities), the best brand wins; example, most light beers are essentially identical, so people are drinking the advertising, the advertising is the brand
- “if you systematically dismantled the entire operation of the Coca-Cola Company and left them with only their brand name, management could rebuild the company within five years. Remove the brand name and the company would die within five years”; some companies, like $KO, are nothing but a brand
Next, comes the creative process, which has an element of Underpants Gnomery to it:
- Gather info about the brand, company, campaign
- Do something else
- Generate an idea
The point is that you can’t force creativity, and often distracting yourself with unrelated activities during the process can allow the subconscious time to integrate various thoughts and ideas into a usable idea. In fact, sometimes a process can be deleterious to creativity, “If you want to be ordinary then, yes, use a process.”
Getting the reader’s attention is all about dramatization, finding a way to capture the value of your product in a unique, provocative, compelling and memorable way. More importantly, it must be clear to the reader what they get out of the deal:
How to write an interesting ad? Try this: “Hello. I want to tell you something important or interesting or useful or funny. It’s about you. I won’t take very long and there’s a prize if you stay till the very end.”
Find a “thing” that will keep the reader pondering long after they finish the ad. That thing usually comes from the problem (that the product solves) itself, out of the product or the realities of the buying situation.
Consider brands as verbs or adjectives:
- Sony dreams
- Nike exhorts
- IBM solves
- Coca-Cola refreshes; refresh
- Gatorade quenches; quench
Keep in mind the theory of positioning; you’re not just competing with brands in your industry or category, you’re competing with the entire universe of brands for real estate in people’s minds. And it’s a cluttered, confusing world. So wouldn’t it make sense that the solution is– simplicity? Look at $AAPL’s ad campaign; they’ve built an entire brand around simplicity.
Never settle for second best; instead, try the polar opposite. Keep searching, the right adjective tends to come out of the product or your customers. Once you find an adjective, stick to it (continually changing means giving up the brand equity you build each time):
A brand is the most valuable piece of real estate in the world: a corner of someone’s mind
Guard it well. And before you begin your campaign, consider the current positioning of your product. It will inform your strategy and create a context for what’s appropriate as you go forward.
Then, try to get inside the target customer’s head.
How does it feel to be this person? Find the emotion
Know your audience. And know the history of your brand; what has been tried, what has worked, what has not. Eavesdrop on your customers. Learning what customers think can give you huge insight into your brand.
Study the award books. See what is already working. Examine the cliches that are already being used by others and avoid them. Even more importantly, perhaps, pay attention to what is not working and what not to do if you seek to be original.
Ultimately, good copywriting comes down to strategy (what your selling point is) and execution (the creativity you employ in communicating the point).
You’re looking for the central human truth of your product:
write down the truest thing you can say about the brand or the product
When you understand this, you can identify and leverage the central conflicts within your company or product category. You should always be looking for polarities. Additionally,
Underpromising and overdelivering is perhaps another way to disarm distrust. Even self-depreciation can help establish authenticity
You also want to examine the central truths of your competitor’s products. In the vein of Charlie Munger’s “invert, always invert”,
Find a weakness in the leader’s strength and attack at that point
Try to get behind the problem. Ask yourself, “What would make me want to buy this product?” Use sales techniques, “the benefit of the benefit”. Keep in mind that “People don’t buy quarter-inch drill bits. They buy quarter-inch holes.” Focus your efforts on speaking to basic needs that are part of human nature and are unchanging.
Remember that advertising is an argument on behalf of a brand so you want to bring an argument that’s good enough to end any further argument.
If you can think of a comeback [that would shut up the annoying guy in the bar], you should consider a campaign based on this argument.
If you’re stumped, try just writing out what you want to say in plain language, first. You can make it memorable, different or new later. Start with, “This is an ad about…” Ultimately, as you add creative elements, the interesting part of an ad should be the sales message itself, not a device pointing to the sales message. In advertising, form often rules over substance (how you say, not what you say).
emotion usually trumps rational thought when it comes to buying something
So, pick an emotion to characterize your campaign. What do you want your customers to feel when they come across your ad? It might help if you got yourself into the right emotional frame of mind.
Another technique to utilize is to create a list of categorical words related to your product. Try picking two at random and combining them to see what kind of images or ideas they cook up.
Don’t try to come up with a perfect idea right away. It’s okay to write down terrible ideas– you can always discard them or revise them later. Just try to get big ideas down, then go back later to work out the details. And when you’re on a roll, stay on it. Don’t take a break or allow yourself to be interrupted so long as you’re in that creative zone. Ask yourself, “What is good about this idea?” and keep coaxing it along and encouraging it.
It’s okay to be provocative, just be sure it stems from your product.
If you’re about to spend advertising dollars on a campaign and you can’t imagine that anybody is going to write about it or talk about it, you might want to rethink it. It means you probably missed injecting a truth or social tension into it.
Find creative ways to integrate the medium into the message. Also, avoid being an ad as much as possible.
Visuals work fast.
If you can reduce your idea to one simple thing that gets customers to lean in, your ad is a resounding success.
Learn what kind of visual cliches are common in your category and avoid them.
Show, don’t tell. Give your audience some credit, give them an opportunity to figure out how witty you are without you spelling it out for them. “It is far more impressive when others discover your good qualities without your help.”
Try on other people’s shoes, think about how different people will interpret or appreciate your ad.
Use metaphors– they’re conceptually efficient.
Focus your efforts by employing simplicity. Reduce to the essential. Simple is easier to remember.
Every item you subtract raises the visibility and importance of what’s left
Questions to ask to judge the “size of your idea”:
- What is the press release of my idea?
- Is my idea cool enough that people would seek it out and watch it on demand?
Creating an ad
Start by breaking down the product elements into idea categories and work them one at a time. Don’t be frustrated by dead-ends and don’t think you can get a winning idea after a few tries:
We cannot seriously believe we’ll have crafted a ticket-selling, brand-building, One Show-winning ad after 22 stinking tries… the wastepaper basket is the writer’s best friend
To create an authentic ad experience,
Avoid fake people. Avoid fake names.
Similarly, don’t treat the ad target like an idiot by being too obvious.
Never show what you’re saying and never say what you’re showing
Write like you talk.
And keep an actual individual in mind as you write ad copy… think about the qualities of the kind of person whose attention you’re trying to get.
Put your most interesting, surprising or persuasive point in the first line if you can.
When you’ve done it well, you shouldn’t be able to take out any sentence without disrupting the flow and structure of the entire piece. Test your piece for congruency by reading it aloud.
An ad needs a boss. There needs to be an overall visual hierarchy.
Own something visual.
Social media advertising
Keep the following guidelines in mind:
- Inspire; give them something beautiful or emotive
- Provoke; give them something that makes them think
- Entertain; give them something that’s fun to do
- Status; give them something that confers kudos among their community
- Utility; give them something that makes their life easier
- Access; give them something they couldn’t otherwise get
The human brain is wired to hunger for story. Discover the stories behind a brand and tell them in a way that will get people’s attention.
Social should run through all other formats and efforts like a thread.
“What does this brand stand for? What can we do for these people?”
Five types of social media users:
Design content that’s appropriate for the type of people following you
The objective with your social media efforts is to create an “all-volunteer marketing department” that work for your brand without being paid. Brand ambassadors. However, these users must feel rewarded for participating in your community.
“Is it useful, beautiful, entertaining, incredible, participatory and interactive?”
- listening tool
- research platform
- service center
- lead generator
- promotion device
- community builder
- use hastags to make tweets searchable and for making groups
- frequent $100 prizes beat one big $500 prize
- keep messages 20 chars short of 140 limit to allow for retweeting
Mobile is where everything is headed, so develop a mobile-ready ad and social media presence.
Useful phone apps: schedule a test drive, service appointment, meet w/ salesman
Putting it all together
Adjust advertising efforts to customer habits– how does a typical customer spend their day?
Don’t buy media without researching customer habits and don’t use the same media buy plan for every audience; you risk diluting efficacy, increasing media competition.
Think through how a customer decides to buy your product, visualize what happens as they move toward actually buying your product, think about “contact points” along the way.
Generate ideas worth advertising.
How would you tell your brand’s story around the campfire?
What works in outdoor may suck in print.
Pull stunts to multiply ad effectiveness and get news coverage which is free publicity.
“Create one world and then look at it through the eyes of another.”
Viral is a result, not a strategy.
Telling stories visually
“Don’t talk at customers. Tell them a story with pictures. Start with images. Stay with images.”
“The eye will remember what the ear forgets.”
Don’t worry too much about production values, worry about the idea.
The most important part of any television advertisement is its conclusion, the last five seconds.
Radio is “theater of the mind.”
Radio lets you do impossible things– things way too expensive to make into TV commercials.
Radio ad thought process:
- Figure out what you want your listeners to feel
- What do you want them to do?
- Base it partly on your product, partly on what the competition is doing and partly on what you know about the customer
You want your listener to immediately get what’s going on, within the first 5 seconds.
Overwriting is the most common mistake people make in radio. Be a genius. Underwrite.
Write exactly as people speak.
Let a straight voice-over do the heavy lifting.
Make sure it sounds like everyday speech. Read it aloud.
Avoid the formula of “schtick–serious sales part–schtick reprise.”
Avoid jingles as you would a poisonous toad.
Minute subtleties are going to be lost.
Cut into a scene as late as you possibly can, in media res, “in the middle of things.”
Let the sound effects tell your story for you.
Keep cacophony out.
A flat read is almost always best.
“You cannot logic your way to an audience’s heart.”