Picture Perfect

An unusual illustration or photograph stops scanning readers in their tracks.
Magazine Contributor
6 min read

This story appears in the January 1997 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

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.

Déjà Vu

As I started writing this column, I remembered that nearly five years ago in this space, I wrote not only about this same subject--advertising visuals--but I also used nearly the same kind of business example, a service by nurses that helps new parents with baby questions. Looking back at that makeover, I decided it had a lot to teach the Kidcare ad visually. So I dusted off the illustration of that previous ad and slotted it into the new one.

As you can see, it gives the ad an arresting new dimension. The new visual communicates a child in distress just about as quickly as the ubiquitous red strike-through symbol conveys "no." That's why I think it obviates the need for the original headline, "Mommy, I Don't Feel Good," which, although unexpected and strong, doesn't leap out visually in a small space ad.

Instead, I suggest using a headline that gets right to the point: "Pediatric 24-Hour Advice Line." This set of words communicates immediately to parents. The word "pediatric" conveys that a children's medical specialist is available. The phrase "24-Hour" says available any time, especially in the middle of the night when kids are always complaining "Mommy, I don't feel good." The word "advice" conjures up personal guidance and recommendations, not just generic information.

A few more suggestions: Somewhere the ad should say "Under the direction of physicians specializing in Pediatric Emergency Medicine." This establishes the credibility and legitimacy of the service. Also, I suggest changing the border of the original ad from a solid black line to the dashed lines of a coupon, along with including the copy "Please clip and place near your phone." Getting parents to take such action makes them far more likely to use the service. Otherwise, unless they have an immediate need upon seeing the ad (highly unlikely), they could easily forget the number, if not the service, in a matter of hours.

Finally, the value and credibility of Kidcare would also be greatly enhanced by some BODYimonials from parents and endorsements from professionals. These might be hard to splice into a small, already-crammed ad, but a slightly larger ad could be worth the cost if the plaudits are impressive.

Lembersky also mentioned he's launching a mini-public relations campaign to try to get publicity in parenting magazines. Good move. Such free advertising can be powerful and far-reaching. Also, attaching the label "As seen in Parents magazine" or another such publication to the ad can burnish Kidcare's image and reputation.

The only question I have about this service is its viability for the future. More and more managed care organizations already offer their members such over-the-phone help, both recorded and live, 24 hours a day. My wife and I regularly phoned an "advice nurse" at our HMO during our child's infant years, and it was nice to hear the calm voice of assurance and assistance on the other end of the line. And, of course, there was no extra charge for the service, while the average cost of a Kidcare call, according to the advertising, is $10.

On the other hand, there are many thousands of uninsured families out there, and for them, this service could be a pretty inexpensive form of immediate medical advice. Also, perhaps Lembersky could solicit HMOs or hospitals that don't already have such a service in place to offer Kidcare as a membership benefit.

Contact Sources

Kidcare Inc., 4437 Kingston Pike, #2204-153, Knoxville, TN 37919-5226, (900) 622-2273.

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