Art Of Comparison

Using the before-and-after approach to grab readers' attention.
Magazine Contributor
6 min read

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

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.

Compare and Contrast

Obviously, the point I'm making is that the before-and-after comparison approach has a built-in appeal that will work for virtually any kind of business. That's my message to Diane Serbin of South Bend, Indiana, who wrote recently. Diane and her two sisters, Joanne and Carol Ann, publish a quarterly 12-page newsletter called Happy Landings, a publication that helps people overcome their fear of flying. (See "Travel Smarts," February 1997, for more on this newsletter.) The newsletter has received encouragement from a number of airlines, and Diane has provided viewer tips on CNN's airport network. Now the Serbin sisters are anxious to build on the newletter's small but growing circulation. They've taken a first stab at an ad, and they're ready to take the next step. My suggestion is to employ the before-and-after concept.

The Serbins have a great product for comparison advertising. My idea for the execution was inspired by the ad for the classical radio station mentioned earlier. The headline would read: "The Cure for White-Knuckle Fliers." The visual element would be a cartoon showing a comparison of a person before subscribing to the newsletter and after, with appropriate captions. Then I would offer a few details about the publication. Since this is the only such publication for people with this phobia, the ad doesn't need to be jammed with copy. The Serbins should offer a money-back guarantee. And although they haven't solicited testimonials from "cured" subscribers, those would be great in future ads.

E-mail Feedback

Readers react to the issue of "spamming."

Speaking of comparisions, I have received quite a bit of feedback on my examination of bulk e-mail advertising--or "spam," as it's often referred to. (See "Advertising Workshop," May and June.) Bulk e-mail is a method of sending out hundreds, thousands or even millions of marketing letters to online addresses with the use of software that extracts the addresses from America Online (AOL), CompuServe, Prodigy and other online services.

Most people who contacted me were against it, as exemplified by the following exerpts: ". . . the overwhelming tide of opinion is vastly negative. It's an intrusive and obnoxious form of advertising. There are places which I simply will not ever patronize due to their use of UCE [unsolicited commercial e-mail], and I'm not the only person who feels that way."

From another: "Do you realize what these spams do to system resources? Imagine, if you will, a 1-inch pipe. Now imagine trying to funnel all the water behind the Hoover Dam down that pipe. That's precisely what happens when you spam all of AOL."

A purveyor of bulk-mail services wrote, "We believe there is a place on the Internet for `responsible' commercial e-mail. As with every industry, there are bad apples. Unfortunately, with e-mail advertising, nine out of every 10 people sending it out are not doing it responsibly."

Wrote another "spammer": "I offer a cost-efficient method of advertising that produces results. Until a uniform system for such open commerce is developed, those who wish to segregate themselves can do so with the click of a button called `delete.' "

I've learned there is now federal legislation coming down the pike that will address concerns about spamming. One leading proposal would require that all UCE be labeled "advertisement" in the subject area of each mailing and that Internet service providers offer a filtering feature that, when activated, keeps any mailing with that label from reaching your online mailbox.

The bottom line: If you want to experiment with spamming, you may get some positive feedback--or you might just get flamed.

Contact Sources

Happy Landings, 205 Bell Ringer Ct., Newark, DE 19702.

Jerry Fisher is an advertising copywriter, consultant and author of Creating Successful Small Business Advertising ($39.95), available by calling (800) 247-6553. If you'd like Jerry to consider your materials for a makeover in this column, send them to "Advertising Workshop," Entrepreneur, 2392 Morse Ave., Irvine, CA 92614, or contact Jerry via America Online at


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