The Monday Morning Memo: Why Most Ads Put Us to Sleep

Monday-Morning-Memo-Logo1By Roy H. Williams

How often are you conscious of the fact that Earth, only Earth, is buried beneath an ocean of air?

SleepingWe, the fleas that dance on the skin of Mother Earth, live in this dry ocean. We use it to hold our airplanes off the ground. We blow out candles with it. We suck it in and out of our lungs like a fish pulls water through its gills.

And we almost never think about it.

Akintunde, my friend from botanical green Nigeria, tells me his first impression of America was that everything here smelled burnt. He spent his first few days turning this way and that, ever looking for the fire. Finally he realized it was only the hydrocarbons of a hundred million cars.

Things don't smell burnt to Akintunde any more. He's become acclimated.

Things familiar often grow invisible. And that's bad news for business owners.

There are identifiable elements in successful ads. Don't let these elements become invisible:

1. SALIENCE. To persuade, we must speak to the customer about something the customer cares about. Our message must have relevance. Cognitive neuroscientists call this salience. Most ads have too little salience to be remembered just 5 minutes later. How many of the ads from this morning's paper do you recall? Name the ads that appeared in the last TV show you watched. The last radio station you heard? What were the last 3 banner ads that appeared on your computer monitor?

a. Targeting: One way of increasing salience is to find people who are already interested, people who are currently, consciously in the market for what you're trying to sell: BOOM. Yellow pages. Search Engine optimization. Direct mail. Reaching people who are currently, consciously in the market is the fundamental idea behind Targeting. But it's dangerous to wait until your customer is known to be in the market. You'll likely be just another face in an anxious crowd. One among many. Good luck.

b. Copy: Focused copy is the best way to increase salience. Long copy is better only when it has to be that long because you have so many good things to say. Abundant words wrapped around a small idea won't work. A thick layer of words obscures the salience of a message. The cognoscenti call these Black Words.

2. REPETITION is the only cure for insufficient salience. How much repetition will be required to drive your message into memory is determined primarily by the salience of the message.

a. Sleep is the enemy of advertising. It erases the noise of yesterday, especially the sights and sounds of selling. Therefore, when you desire a person to take quick action, the challenge is to reach them with maximum repetition, allowing minimal sleep between hits. This calls for vertical, rather than horizontal, ad scheduling.

b. Branding is essentially involuntary, automatic recall, a product of salience x repetition. A shortage on one side of the "x" can be supplemented by a surplus on the other side. Low salience requires high repetition. High salience requires low repetition. When using mass media, an opportunity exists to implant your brand as an associative memory in the minds of persons not currently in the market, so that your name becomes the first remembered - and the one the customer feels best about - when they finally need what you sell. Will your message have sufficient salience and repetition? Branding requires horizontal scheduling, repetition over time.

Salience is determined by the Central Executive of Working Memory, located in the dorsolateral prefrontal association area of the brain. Working Memory is conscious awareness, imagination, the attention of your customer, and all Creation is shouting for it. Your competition isn't limited to your business category. Every stimulus under the sun is demanding your customer's attention. Every sight, sound, smell, taste and memory are screaming for the spotlight. Your prospect will pay attention to your message only as long as it's the most interesting thing happening in their world. Attention will switch the moment something more interesting peeks over the horizon. The spotlight will then move off you. Whether or not you'll be remembered in the future is determined by salience x repetition.

But salience and repetition assume your message has successfully entered Working Memory. Most messages never get there. They fail because they were predictable. Want to lose a person's attention in a hurry? Just say and do what they expect you to say and do.

Predictability is the silent assassin of advertising, the quiet cancer that pulls you under.

"We often imagine our memories faithfully storing everything we do. But there is no mechanism in our heads that stores sensory perceptions as a permanent, unchangeable form. Instead, our minds use a complex system to convert a small percentage of what we experience into nothing more than a pattern of connections between nerve cells. Human memory is not at all like videotape." - Matt Crenson, science writer for The Associated Press, Dec. 10, 2000

Surprise carries its own salience and is the foundation of delight.

Most ads never arrive at the Emerald City of Working Memory because they were dragged under by the poppy field of Broca's Area. Remember that field of poppies in The Wizard of Oz? After a long journey, Dorothy and her friends finally catch a glimpse of their destination. The Emerald City is in view. They need only to cross a field of flowers and then they'll enter the city and meet the mighty Wizard. But the poppies cause them to fall asleep halfway across the field.

The Emerald City is Working Memory, conscious awareness. If we do not reach it, we cannot speak to the wizard.

The Wizard is the prefrontal cortex of your customer's brain, that center of decision-making, planning and judgment.

Dorothy and her entourage are your message.

The Poppy Field is Broca's Area of the brain, ignoring - subduing - erasing every sensory stimuli that was predictable.

The Snow that re-invigorates your message is any element of the elegant unexpected... the chilling delight of surprise... particle conflict. elemental dissonance... incongruence. It's the last thing Broca would ever suspect...

And the last thing most advertisers would ever consider.

Are you beginning to understand why effective advertising is so rare?

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