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9 secrets Mark Twain taught me about advertising

“Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising.” Advertising is life made to look larger than life, through images and words that promise a wish fulfilled, a dream come true, a problem solved. Even Viagra follows Mark Twain’s keen observation about advertising. The worst kind of advertising exaggerates to get your attention, the best, gets your attention without exaggeration. It simply states a fact or reveals an emotional need, then lets you make the leap from “small to large.” Examples of the worst: before-and-after photos for weight loss products and cosmetic surgery—both descend to almost comic disbelief.

The best: Apple’s "silhouette" campaign for iPod and the breakthrough ads featuring Eminem—both catapult iPod to “instant cool” status. “When in doubt, tell the truth.” Today’s advertising is full of gimmicks. They relentlessly hang on to a product like a ball and chain, keeping it from moving swiftly ahead of the competition, preventing any real communication of benefits or impetus to buy. The thinking is, if the gimmick is outrageous or silly enough, it’s got to at least get their attention.

Local car dealer ads are probably the worst offenders--using zoo animals, sledgehammers, clowns, bikini-clad models, anything unrelated to the product’s real benefit. If the people who thought up these outrageous gimmicks spent half their energy just sticking to the product’s real benefits and buying motivators, they’d have a great ad. What they don’t realize is, they already have a lot to work with without resorting to gimmicks. There’s the product with all its benefits, the brand, which undoubtedly they’ve spent money to promote, the competition and its weaknesses, and two powerful buying motivators—fear of loss and promise of gain. In other words, all you really have to do is tell the truth about your product and be honest about your customers’ wants and needs. Of course, sometimes that’s not so easy. You have to do some digging to find out what you customers really want, what your competition has to offer them, and why your product is better. “Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are more pliable.” In advertising, you have to be very careful how you use facts. As any politician will tell you, facts are scary things.

They have no stretch, no pliability, no room for misinterpretation. They’re indisputable. And used correctly, very powerful. But statistics, now there’s something advertisers and politicians love. “Nine out of ten doctors recommend Preparation J.” Who can dispute that? Or “Five out of six dentists recommend Sunshine Gum.” Makes me want to run out and buy a pack of Sunshine right now. Hold it. Rewind. “Whenever you find you’re on the side of the majority, it is time to reform.

” Let’s take a look at how these stats—this apparent majority—might have come to be. First off, how many doctors did they ask before they found nine out of ten to agree that Preparation J did the job? 1,000? 10,000? And how many dentists hated the idea of their patients chewing gum but relented, saying, “Most chewing gum has sugar and other ingredients, that rot out your teeth, but if the guy’s gotta chew the darn stuff, it may as well be Sunshine, which has less sugar in it.” The point is, stats can be manipulated to say almost anything. And yes, the devil’s in the details. The fact is, there’s usually a 5% chance you can get any kind of result simply by accident. And because many statistical studies are biased and not “double blind” (both subject and doctor don’t know who was given the test product and who got the placebo). Worst of all, statistics usually need the endless buttressing of legal disclaimers. If you don’t believe me, try to read the full-page of legally mandated warnings for that weight- loss pill you’ve been taking. Bottom line: stick to facts. Then back them up with sound selling arguments that address the needs of your customer.

“The difference between the right word and almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” To write really effective ad copy means choosing exactly the right word at the right time. You want to lead your customer to every benefit your product has to offer, and you want to shed the best light on every benefit. It also means you don’t want to give them any reason or opportunity to wander away from your argument. If they wander, you’re history. They’re off to the next page, another TV channel or a new website. So make every word say exactly what you mean it to say, no more, no less. Example: if a product is new, don’t be afraid to say “new” (a product is only new once in its life, so exploit the fact). “Great people make us feel we can become great.


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