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Art Of Comparison

Using the before-and-after approach to grab readers' attention.

Eight years ago, I wrote to Entrepreneur's editor in chief, Rieva Lesonsky, proposing to write a "before and after" column on advertising. I told her I envisioned readers submitting materials they were using to promote their businesses (the "before" version) and that I would do a makeover version in the column to suggest ways to improve on it. Rieva liked the idea, and "Advertising Workshop" was born.

The before-and-after concept, also known as compare/contrast, may be unique for a column on advertising, but it has a long and successful history within the field of advertising itself. Diet programs have used it most effectively in showing the contrast between the way a person looks before and after they've been on the program. Cosmetic surgeons do the same with photos of their patients. Mutual funds show charts comparing their results against the various indices, such as the Standard & Poor's 500.

About 10 years ago, there was a wonderfully creative use of this technique by a radio station in Los Angeles that was promoting its classical music format. The station ran a magazine ad showing a "before" photo of what one might call a culturally challenged individual, disheveled, with a large beer gut hanging over his belt, and next to it an "after" photo of a sophisticated, slim, seemingly culturally elevated listener. I don't remember the exact wording of the tongue-in-cheek headline, but the gist of it was "Look what can happen after listening to WXYZ for just one week." The ad was hilarious and really put the radio station on the map.

There are examples outside advertising as well. Before boxers do battle, newspapers typically run a "tale of the tape" comparison of the gladiators' measurements--biceps, chest, thighs, etc. I find myself riveted to those statistics. Even though it's not advertising, it's yet another lesson that this sort of dynamic is a powerful way to engage the reader. After all, unless you can get readers to hone in on your ad, it's merely part of the passing adscape they barely notice as they flip through a newspaper or magazine. Whether you're comparing what you offer against what your competition offers or you're showing the before-and-after results of your handiwork, this technique almost never fails to grab attention.

Do you run a hair salon? You could show not just a well-coiffed model but also a "before" ad of the same model without the hairdo. It guarantees you'll get more attention. Do you operate a graphic design studio? Show a client's old logo next to the great new one you created. Nothing can better express, in an eye blink, why you should be the choice for a reader's new corporate identity program. Do you perform any kind of repair work that has a cosmetic element? Show how the item looked before--and how it looked after.

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This article was originally published in the October 1997 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Art Of Comparison.

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