Heads Up!

Grab readers with a headline that's out of the ordinary . . . but not too far out.

One of the most heinous crimes you can commit against your small business--even worse than answering the phone with a chirpy, "You're number one at Murray's Mattress MegaMart, home of the SlumberKing. How may I direct your call?"--is to create boring, routine, pedestrian advertising. This is true whether you're a retailer, a wholesaler, a consultant or a columnist.

"Pedestrian," of course, has another meaning besides "easy target in a crosswalk." And I probably don't need to tell you you'll find just such advertising every single day in newspapers and magazines, on the radio and television. I'm talking about the narcolepsy-inducing, cookie-cutter ads that big companies spend millions to produce, but that barely get noticed or, worse, annoy the hell out of you. I don't know if it's a result of naivet,, conservativeness, incompetence, tunnel vision or burnout, but it's amazing how much advertising created today is instantly forgettable.

However, deep-pocketed corporations with fat marketing budgets can spend $40,000 on a full-page ad in a national magazine without batting an eye or breaking a sweat . . . especially if it's a so-called "image" ad whose impact on sales can't be directly measured. Small-business owners, on the other hand, take a deep breath and look heavenward when they write a check for a precious $1,200 for a onetime insertion that has to pull in orders for cash flow.

This doesn't mean you should resort to the kind of advertising famous ad-man David Ogilvy described as "irrelevant brilliance." That is to say, don't feel compelled to create ads that offer up a headline or a visual so funny, punny or surprising that the prospect remembers the gimmick but can't recall the product or service it promoted.

Recently, I saw a well-intentioned, well-produced TV commercial showing a man sitting on the floor in a business suit while performing such bodily contortions as wrapping his legs behind his head and assuming other pretzel shapes. The accompanying announcer's voice-over was talking about the various flexible uses of some business product, but the contortionist's maneuvers were so riveting I didn't pay attention to a single word of the sales message and certainly can't remember the name of the product.

This is the advertising equivalent of asking viewers to pat their heads and rub their bellies at the same time. This commercial was a total waste of the thousands it took to produce and run it. And many full-page print ads have the very same effect.

That said, there is definitely a middle ground. You can create an unexpected headline or visual that has impact but that also has a clear, memorable and relevant payoff for your prospect. That's my message to Roberta Carson of Newton, Massachusetts, who wrote recently.

Carson is a Certified Professional Ergonomist (CPE), someone skilled in the science of equipment and job design to reduce cumulative stress injuries (such as tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome) brought on by highly repetitive motions and bad posture. Carson sent me the current ad she is running for her firm, ErgoFit Inc., in an employee health and safety newspaper. She asked if I had any suggestions on how to improve on its poor response. The answer is yes.

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This article was originally published in the October 1996 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Heads Up!.

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