44. SHORT, SWEET AND EASY TO SWALLOW: THE ART OF ADVERTISING
In 1969, blues sensation Howlin' Wolf was pressured by Chess Records into creating a psychedelic album that they believed would capitalise on a new wave of far-out bands inspired by his music. Howlin' Wolf himself poetically deemed the results "dog shit", leading to the bold advertising strategy of publishing his opinion while (to the Wolf's further chagrin) lying about his relationship with his first electric guitar. The album's commercial failure has made it a case study in what not to do in advertising copywriting, but it turns out there's a lot more to getting it right than simply not slandering your product.
_________ For Everyone
Nobody likes to feel as though they are easy to manipulate, which is perhaps why it's not uncommon to hear people declare that they are immune to advertising. But of course, companies don't spend billions on it worldwide without the expectation of something in return. The belief that one can completely avoid this might stem from a misunderstanding that advertisements try to make the viewer do something immediately. Instead, they plant a seed and let you do the rest.
At CPLS, we've recently been thinking specifically about short, snappy phrases due to being asked to generate section titles for future editions of a magazine about electronics research and development. The results? Several positively received suggestions, many more left on the cutting room floor and a newfound sense of respect for advertising specialists. Coming up with the perfect phrase generally means juggling the demands of being creative yet straightforward and memorable without being pushy. Whether it's a headline or a slogan, there's a lot to get wrong: Pepsi's "Something For Everyone" has been successful enough to last 15 years, whereas Smirnoff's "Exclusively For Everyone" was roundly mocked.
The winning recipe
The problem for advertisers - and, by extension, any copywriter looking to pique a potential reader's interest - is that although humans are unimmune to advertising, they're very sensitive to direct persuasion. According to research published in Frontiers in Psychology, most people simply don't like to feel influenced by external sources and reject persuasion attempts that appear to them to be poorly designed or executed. This is where Chess Records went wrong and might also be where Smirnoff tripped up, as their slogan was too obviously trying to undo the elitist image created by previous campaigns. Pepsi's slogan makes just as little sense if you think about it for more than a few seconds - if you don't like fizzy drinks, Pepsi certainly doesn't have something for you - but its straightforwardness makes it easy to accept uncritically.
Short, sweet and easy to swallow seems to be the winning recipe then, but even better are the phrases that let the reader fill in some details themselves. Coca-Cola's "Taste the Feeling" can be any feeling you want it to be. Nike's "Just Do It" regularly tops the lists of best ever advertising slogans and is certainly among the most famous, not only for its memorability but because the 'it' in question is likely something the reader already wanted to do and needed external validation for. Would it resonate differently for most people if they knew the phrase was inspired by the last words of executed murderer Gary Gilmore? Somehow, I don't think it would.
Evolving and engaging
Of course, none of these examples exist in a vacuum. Logos, films and jingles all add extra dimensions to advertisements. Even something as uncommercially oriented as an R&D magazine needs a strong combination of headlines, layout and graphics to make most of their audience keep on reading. And, in another twist in the tale, slogans are actually on the decline: research by consulting company Kantar found that 74% of advertisements used a slogan in 2014 versus just 52% in 2022. In the fight to preserve characters, more and more companies are turning to - you guessed it - hashtags that evolve to encourage engagement on social media.
Even so, a hashtag follows the same basic rules as the forms of advertising that preceded it, and as technology-focused copywriters there's a surprising amount we can learn from the likes of Pepsi and Coca-Cola. In both a traditional advertisement and a magazine headline, the best results come from phrases that are easy to understand yet leave the reader with a little bit of information to fill in for themselves - perhaps to elicit a feeling that only they know or perhaps to strike curiosity that they need to sate. And above all, no attempts at manipulation, which in our field would be articles that fail to deliver the goods promised in the title. We can thank Howlin' Wolf for taking the bullet on that one so that we don't have to.