9 secrets Mark Twain taught me about advertising

ìMany a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising.î

Advertising is life made to look larger than life, through images and words that promise a wish fulfilled, a dream come true, a problem solved. Even Viagra follows Mark Twainís keen observation about advertising. The worst kind of advertising exaggerates to get your attention, the best, gets your attention without exaggeration. It simply states a fact or reveals an emotional need, then lets you make the leap from ìsmall to large.î Examples of the worst: before-and-after photos for weight loss products and cosmetic surgeryóboth descend to almost comic disbelief. The best: Appleís “silhouette” campaign for iPod and the breakthrough ads featuring Eminemóboth catapult iPod to ìinstant coolî status.

ìWhen in doubt, tell the truth.î

Todayís advertising is full of gimmicks. They relentlessly hang on to a product like a ball and chain, keeping it from moving swiftly ahead of the competition, preventing any real communication of benefits or impetus to buy. The thinking is, if the gimmick is outrageous or silly enough, itís got to at least get their attention. Local car dealer ads are probably the worst offenders–using zoo animals, sledgehammers, clowns, bikini-clad models, anything unrelated to the productís real benefit. If the people who thought up these outrageous gimmicks spent half their energy just sticking to the productís real benefits and buying motivators, theyíd have a great ad. What they donít realize is, they already have a lot to work with without resorting to gimmicks. Thereís the product with all its benefits, the brand, which undoubtedly theyíve spent money to promote, the competition and its weaknesses, and two powerful buying motivatorsófear of loss and promise of gain. In other words, all you really have to do is tell the truth about your product and be honest about your customersí wants and needs. Of course, sometimes thatís not so easy. You have to do some digging to find out what you customers really want, what your competition has to offer them, and why your product is better.

ìFacts are stubborn things, but statistics are more pliable.î

In advertising, you have to be very careful how you use facts. As any politician will tell you, facts are scary things. They have no stretch, no pliability, no room for misinterpretation. Theyíre indisputable. And used correctly, very powerful. But statistics, now thereís something advertisers and politicians love. ìNine out of ten doctors recommend Preparation J.î Who can dispute that? Or ìFive out of six dentists recommend Sunshine Gum.î Makes me want to run out and buy a pack of Sunshine right now. Hold it. Rewind.

ìWhenever you find youíre on the side of the majority, it is time to reform.î

Letís take a look at how these statsóthis apparent majorityómight have come to be. First off, how many doctors did they ask before they found nine out of ten to agree that Preparation J did the job? 1,000? 10,000? And how many dentists hated the idea of their patients chewing gum but relented, saying, ìMost chewing gum has sugar and other ingredients, that rot out your teeth, but if the guyís gotta chew the darn stuff, it may as well be Sunshine, which has less sugar in it.î The point is, stats can be manipulated to say almost anything. And yes, the devilís in the details. The fact is, thereís usually a 5% chance you can get any kind of result simply by accident. And because many statistical studies are biased and not ìdouble blindî (both subject and doctor donít know who was given the test product and who got the placebo). Worst of all, statistics usually need the endless buttressing of legal disclaimers. If you donít believe me, try to read the full-page of legally mandated warnings for that weight- loss pill youíve been taking. Bottom line: stick to facts. Then back them up with sound selling arguments that address the needs of your customer.

ìThe difference between the right word and almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.î

To write really effective ad copy means choosing exactly the right word at the right time. You want to lead your customer to every benefit your product has to offer, and you want to shed the best light on every benefit. It also means you donít want to give them any reason or opportunity to wander away from your argument. If they wander, youíre history. Theyíre off to the next page, another TV channel or a new website. So make every word say exactly what you mean it to say, no more, no less. Example: if a product is new, donít be afraid to say ìnewî (a product is only new once in its life, so exploit the fact).

ìGreat people make us feel we can become great.î

And so do great ads. While they canít convince us weíll become millionaires, be as famous as Madonna, or as likeable as Tom Cruise, they make us feel we might be as attractive, famous, wealthy, or admired as weíd like to think we can be. Because thereís a ìLittle Engine That Couldî in all of us that says, under the right conditions, we could beat the odds and catch the brass ring, win the lottery, or sell that book weíve been working on. Great advertising taps into that belief without going overboard. An effective ad promoting the lottery once used pictures of people sitting on an exotic beach with little beach umbrellas in their cocktails (a perfectly realistic image for the average person) with the line: Somebodyís has to win, may as well be you.î

ìThe universal brotherhood of man is our most precious possession.î

Weíre all part of the same family of creatures called homo sapiens. We each want to be admired, respected and loved. We want to feel secure in our lives and our jobs. So create ads that touch the soul. Use an emotional appeal in your visual, headline and copy. Even humor, used correctly, can be a powerful tool that connects you to your potential customer. It doesnít matter if youíre selling shoes or software, people will always respond to what you have to sell them on an emotional level. Once theyíve made the decision to buy, the justification process kicks in to confirm the decision. To put it another way, once theyíre convinced youíre a mensche with real feelings for their hopes and wants as well as their problems, theyíll go from prospect to customer.

ìA human being has a natural desire to have more of a good thing than he needs.î

Ainít it the truth. More money, more clothes, fancier car, bigger house. Itís what advertising feeds on. ìYou need this. And you need more of it every day.î Itís the universal mantra that drives consumption to the limits of our charge cards. So, how to tap into this insatiable appetite for more stuff? Convince buyers that more is better. Colgate offers 20% more toothpaste in the giant economy size. You get 60 more sheets with the big Charmin roll of toilet paper. GE light bulbs are 15% brighter. Raisin Brain now has 25% more raisins. When Detroit found it couldnít sell more cars per household to an already saturated U.S. market, they started selling more car per caróSUVs and trucks got bigger and more powerful. Theyíre still selling giant 3-ton SUVs that get 15 miles per gallon.

ìClothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.î

Who gets the girl? Who attracts the sharpest guy? Who lands the big promotion? Neiman Marcus knows. So does Abercrombie & Fitch. And Saks Fifth Avenue. Why else would you fork over $900 for a power suit? Or $600 for a pair of shoes? Observers from Aristotle to the twentieth century have consistently maintained that character is immanent in appearance, asserting that clothes reveal a rich palette of interior qualities as well as a brand mark of social identity. Hereís where the right advertising pays for itself big time. Where you must have the perfect model (not necessarily the most attractive) and really creative photographers and directors who know how to tell a story, create a mood, convince you that youíre not buying the ìemperorís clothes.î Example of good fashion advertising: the Levis black-and-white spot featuring a teenager driving through the side streets and alleys of the Czech Republic. Stopping to pick up friends, he gets out of the car wearing just a shirt as the voiceover cheekily exclaims, “Reason 007: In Prague, you can trade them for a car.”

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