Ads That Push the Envelope

To get noticed, create a controversial ad campaign--complaints and all.
6 min read
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Ads that have impact are like nitroglycerine. Handle them properly and they can move mountains for you; get careless with them and you'll blow yourself up.

The worst thing you can do when you've written a powerful ad is to show it to your friends and ask their opinion. Put an ad on trial and every juror will judge two things: Could this ad offend anyone? Was it entertaining?

Consequently, most ads aren't written to persuade; they're written not to offend. But the kinds of ads that produce results make us answer yes to these three questions: Did it get my attention? Was it relevant? Did I believe it?

Ads that twist our attention away from what we'd been doing are always a bit annoying. This is why ads that get results also get complaints. Learn to ignore complaints from controlling people, or your ads will forever be emasculated.

Were you slightly offended by that last statement? That's exactly the kind of statement that'll get complaints. But it'll also get results.

I once wrote a radio ad that included the line, "That just ain't gonna happen." My client, a diamond jeweler, received two letters and four phone calls from irate listeners who claimed he was contributing to the erosion of the English language. One of the letters concluded, "How can our children hope to learn proper grammar when the leading advertisers of our city speak incorrectly? I must insist that you withdraw this ad from the airwaves immediately, or my friends and I will have no recourse other than to discontinue shopping in your establishment."

By the time my client had received the fifth complaint, it felt to him like the sky was falling. But then I reminded him that one of our goals was to be perceived as less formal and less intimidating than other diamond jewelry sellers. I told him, "These few complaints are simply part of the price we must pay to win the heart of the common man. And the common man believes all jewelers are snobs."

I won the argument. My client continued the ad. Traffic and sales went up by 28 percent.

Later that year, I wrote the same client an ad that said, "Buy her the diamond she's been dreaming of since she was a little girl." Men responded exactly as we'd predicted, but we also got two letters from women who felt somewhat belittled. They said they were doing very well, thank you, and didn't need any man to buy them diamonds.

I immediately sent the following ad script to my client: "This is Richard Kessler of Kesslers Diamond Center. I suggested in a recent radio ad that every man should buy the woman he loves 'the diamond she's been dreaming of since she was a little girl.' [pause] What was I thinking? This nation is full of women who can and do buy diamonds for themselves, and we want to be their store, too. Gosh, I feel like a knucklehead."

That apology went a long way toward winning the hearts of independent women throughout the city. We soon began to see an increase in traffic from women purchasing diamonds for themselves.

Why did I respond to the two complaints from women after ignoring the six complaints from the defenders of English grammar? Although only two women took the time to complain, it seemed likely thousands of other women felt the same way when they heard the ad. The defenders of English grammar, on the other hand, probably represented only themselves and a dozen other people. Also, an apology to the women was consistent with our goal of being perceived as less formal and intimidating than other jewelers. Transparency and honesty in admitting your mistakes is very reassuring to potential customers.

You can, however, go too far when advertising. When handling the nitroglycerine of a statement with impact, always avoid: racial stereotyping, obvious sexual innuendo and matters of religion or faith.

If you avoid these three categories of insult, you're not likely to do your company damage. But if you've committed a genuine blunder, follow these guidelines:

  1. Apologize for it openly, sincerely and transparently in the same medium in which the offence was made.
  2. Send a handwritten apology and thank you to the person or persons who brought the faux pas to your attention.
  3. Don't make excuses.

My jeweler client, a genuinely nice guy, had a fabulous year. During the week after Christmas, he aired the following ad. See if it fits the image of the rest of his campaign.

The hardest thing about being a jeweler is that you never know how big a store you should build or how many people you should hire to work in it. No matter how small you build it, there will be plenty of times when it's empty and you've got no customers at all. And no matter how big you build it or how many people you hire to work there, there will be times when you've got more customers than you can serve. And that's even worse.

This is Richard Kessler of Kesslers Diamond Center. If you came to Kesslers during the holidays and found way too many people ahead of you, I hope you'll accept my apology. We work hard to ensure that every person who walks through our door has a magical experience, but sometimes we fall short of the mark. This year, my New Year's resolution is to find new and better ways to make sure that you have a relaxed and pleasant experience at Kesslers Diamond Center, no matter when you come to see us. I'm Richard Kessler, and I really dowant to be your jeweler.

We didn't include a street address or phone number because that would have commercialized the ad and made it seem insincere. Do you have the courage to run two or three ads like these a year? If so, go write some ads that get attention, drive traffic and generate complaints.

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