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Picture Perfect

An unusual illustration or photograph stops scanning readers in their tracks.

As a copywriter who has always chauvinistically maintained that words are the most important part of advertising, I nevertheless have to concede the following: Before there was the written word, there were pictures for communication (as in drawings on cave walls). Pictures are a faster "read" than words have ever been. And finally, as the oft quoted saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words.

So, while I usually harp on the kind of verbiage advertising should have, this month I want to give the visual element its due.

It's no great revelation that an unusual illustration or photo has the power to draw scanning prospects to an ad. But it may come as a surprise that a "nice" or "pretty" visual doesn't qualify.

Ads must truly interrupt the passerby, not be a mild diversion. A unique visual, combined with a strong headline, will be the speed bump that grabs a reader's attention and causes him or her to do the unorthodox--read the text.

Since reading an ad is hardly an obligation, people can be pretty indifferent about it. One study a few years ago glumly reported that the average person reads the text of only about four ads in any periodical. Some read more, others none. And even if that statistic is a bit off, think of the challenge that sets up in creating a compelling ad.

Of course, some special-interest publications may get more actual ad readership because subscribers tend to shop the ads. In these instances, copy is still king. But in most publications, visuals must be part of the hook. Without them, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who'd pay any attention at all to ads, especially for those promoting commodities such as toothpaste, coffee, gasoline, cars or detergent. And even then, most ads with visuals contain little more than mundane "beauty shots" of the product, making the ads almost invisible to us as we flip through a magazine or newspaper.

In the last few years, however, the manufacturer of at least one commodity has overachieved in the picture department to get you to pay attention to its advertising. I'm speaking of the highly visible "milk moustache" ads created for the National Fluid Milk Processor Promotion Board. Who among us hasn't stopped to look at one or more of those ads featuring well-known celebrities with their carefully applied leche lips? I have doubts about just how much such a campaign actually influences greater consumption of the product (the copy-is-king part of me thinks a word-heavy ad titled "How Milk Contributes to Your Longevity" would have more clout), but I surely can't question the impact of the visual.

And that's the point I'm trying to make. Come up with a high-impact picture, combined with a solid headline, and you'll get your copy read--and, hopefully, responded to.

That's my message to Robert Lembersky, M.D., a Knoxville, Tennessee, physician specializing in pediatric emergency medicine, who wrote recently. Lembersky and a nurse partner have started a venture called Kidcare Inc., a 900-number hotline that parents can call 24 hours a day to get recorded medical advice on common children's ailments like fevers, coughs or sore throats as well as injuries. But as Lembersky says in his letter, "I [have] ventured into a world physicians notoriously know nothing about, the world of business."

The doctor may be a neophyte as an entrepreneur, but he certainly seems to know a marketable idea when he sees one. His first attempt at a small ad has promise, including a good headline, but it needs a little outpatient treatment to give it more visual appeal and impact to attract readers.

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This article was originally published in the January 1997 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Picture Perfect.

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