From the June 2003 issue of Entrepreneur

Few readers can pass by an image of a person, cartoon character or animal with a word balloon or caption above its head and not pause to read it. No matter the format, be it an ad or an article, we're very likely going to stop-if only for a second-to see what the figures are saying. The reason? It takes us back to our early exposure to comic-book images, in which the frozen characters on the page "talk" this way. It was a fun, easy and simple form of visual speech that brought inanimate characters to life and enabled us to connect with them.

Now that we're all grown-up, the device still has that same appeal, and, as a hook, it can beat the heck out of a disembodied headline as a way to rope in the reader. That's certainly the case in the ad shown here. Produced by Purina for its Tidy Cats cat-box litter, it depicts a family of felines chatting about bathroom issues. The ad gets an A+ on formatting, because one can't help but read the captions above the cats' heads for all the reasons mentioned. But I'll be a little critical here and say the company missed an opportunity by having the cats make only cute small talk. ("Have you been using the litter box or the plant? . . . and DON'T lie to me . . . ")

From a marketing perspective, it would make more sense for the cats themselves to introduce the critical message about this particular litter-that it's formulated for households with more than one cat, as the ad states at the bottom. Indeed, having captured the reader's attention with the captions, their conversation should at least make a key sales point. (Maybe: "Hop in, girls, Tidy Cats absorbs enough for all of us!")

The use of word balloons, captions and even "thought bubbles" (in which you can see what the character is thinking) has many possible applications as a headline alternative. Since it's a very difficult task to attract attention to advertising, this device gives you an interruptive option that can pull in browsing readers. Remember, prospects don't give a hoot about reading your ad when they pick up a publication or click on a Web site. If your sales message, which you paid good money to promote, stands any chance of competing with the editorial matter, the hook had better be good. A word balloon might just do it.


Jerry Fisher is a freelance advertising copywriter and the author of Creating Successful Small Business Advertising.