To reach consumers: Be clear not clever

Brenda Do

Brenda Do

“The consumer is not a moron, she is your wife.”

That’s a quote from one of the most brilliant ad men of the 20th century, David Ogilvy. His ads generated a crazy waterfall of cash for his clients. The man knew how to sell because he understood people.

Ogilvy started off as a door-to-door salesman, made his name as a copywriter, then created one of the most successful ad agencies worldwide, Ogilvy & Mather. And he saw — which we’re still guilty of doing today — how companies keep losing sales because our ads and other marketing material treat our customers like morons.

But most of us aren’t doing it on purpose, we’re just following bad advice.

Let’s see how you rank against the three most common ways our marketing treats customers like morons.

•Mistake #1: Because I said so!

Let’s say you’re single and sitting at a bar when someone walks up to you saying, “Hey, I’m the best thing that ever happened to you. Marry me.”

Would you do it?

This seems like an exaggerated example, but many websites, emails, and ads are written in a way that does just that. Look at emails, mailers, and ads that cross your desk daily. You’ll basically see these messages:

I’m wonderful. Buy me.

I need your vote. Support me.

I’m a great deal. Get me.

In other words, I’m the best thing that ever happened to you. Marry me.

Much like looking for a spouse, your consumers want to know you’re the right fit. They want proof you’ll answer their deepest needs. They want assurance they won’t regret their decision. So how do you do that? Show them, don’t tell them. Here are a few examples:

Telling: We offer the best customer service.

Showing: 24/7 support. Lifetime guarantee on all parts.

Telling: We focus on quality.

Showing: All seams are triple stitched and reinforced with steel rivets at common stress points to prevent sagging or ripping. Even after years of use.

Show how you’re wonderful. Don’t just tell them you are. Your customers aren’t sitting around waiting to be told what to think. And remember to focus on them. The WIFFM (what’s in it for me). How are you going to make their life better? Why should they care?

OK, let’s move on…

•Mistake #2: Babies, boobs and beagles

Some marketers think some products are so boring or common, they need to jazz it up to sell it. So they slap on a picture of a baby, a sexy woman, or a dog for attention. While babies, boobs and beagles can make us look (hey, we’re human), they don’t necessarily increase sales. For instance, if you’re a new parent looking for a bigger car, would you choose a car based on the cute puppy in the ad? Or on the car’s safety features? You make a sale when you address what your customers want to hear. Don’t take shortcuts by relying on cheap tricks.

For fun, flip through magazine ads for products that could interest you. See how many big agency ads you gloss over because they don’t answer your needs. They spent a lot of money missing the mark. But you don’t have to make that same mistake.

•Mistake #3: Entertain versus educate

No one wants to read boring copy. On websites, brochures or mailers your customers don’t have time to search for the point. But many marketers focus so much on capturing the customer’s attention, they forget the copy’s purpose: to make a sale or conversion. Do you remember the Taco Bell Chihuahua from the late 1990s ads? The dog was extremely popular, Taco Bell sold lots of Chihuahua bobble heads, T-shirts and other licensed goods. But funny thing: That dog didn’t sell any tacos.

Why not? Because when you think about your lunch, do you want to eat what your dog eats? Do you ask Fido for mealtime recommendations? The ads were so focused on entertaining, they forgot the ad’s purpose was to increase food sales. Making it worse, when they dropped the Chihuahua campaign, rumors spread. People gossiped the dog died. Some claimed it was being served in the tacos.

All this negative press allegedly caused a 6 percent drop in sales. One fact for sure: Taco Bell’s president lost his job.

When you’re tempted to be clever or entertaining, remember what you’re selling and who you’re selling it to. If you’re too close to the copy, try replacing your company or product name with your competitor’s. Then read it again to see if you’d buy it. Even better, give your copy to a prospect to read. Someone who doesn’t know you from a can of paint. Were you convincing?

To avoid treating your consumers like morons, be clear, not clever. Give them what they need to make confident decisions. But don’t get me wrong, you can still be funny. For an example showing copy can be very entertaining and also sell like crazy, check out: These guys nailed it.

Brenda Do is a direct-response copywriter. Contact her at:


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