Before I accidentally start any Internet rumors, let me be clear: Kim Kardashian is not going to be playing Babra Streisand in a new biopic. At least, we hope not. The point of this stunt headline is that it is attention-grabbing, and demonstrates how ad copy (and a headline is basically an ad for an article) can truly stand out and bring attention to your business.
After all, every business that advertises dreams of the holy grail of advertising -- the idea that makes people guffaw; the commercial they don't want to fast-forward through; the billboard they stop and actually read; the teaser that is all over Twitter; the outrageous stunt that generates free media coverage. In other words, the ad that is a hit and makes your business a hit along with it.
As a former national media journalist and two-time book author who now runs a media consulting business -- Nutter Media Insider Solutions -- helping businesses and commercial artists get on the public's radar, I always advise my clients that, regardless of what you are advertising, the mechanics of ad and branding copy that work, and that don't work, are exactly the same.
Here are some "Dos" and some definite "Don'ts":
Be in touch with your target. Whether your idea is in touch with your target or out of touch is the single most important factor to whether your advertising reaches your target demographic or falls far short.
For example, one of the most in-touch taglines I ever came up with for a client was for a spa-dental practice that specialized in making the dental experience as painless as possible. The copy in the ad reads: "Look forward to going to the dentist." Why is this idea so in touch? Because it starts off where people really are -- which is that everyone hates going to the dentist -- and then communicates that this practice makes going to the dentist enjoyable.
Great examples of an ongoing ad campaign that is in touch with the target are the billboards for Manhattan Mini Storage. One of the most famous taglines -- "Oh yeah, you'll fit right in in Connecticut" -- demonstrates they understand that New Yorkers can get so fed up with space limitations they'll consider moving, but they would never fit in anywhere else. Manhattan Mini Storage solves that dilemma for them. Understanding your target like Manhattan Mini Storage understands their target is what being in touch is all about.
Being in touch isn't safe and sanitized -- it can be gritty, like starting off with the premise that what you do (say, dentistry) is something that people hate. But being in touch and showing them that you get it gives you a shot at reaching them.
Stand out. When coming up with the headline for this piece, I started off imagining the context for it: that it's on a page competing with dozens of other headlines, many of them involving famous people or famous brands and in positions of greater prominence. Understanding that the piece has a lot of competition, I had to figure out a way to make my headline stand out in that context -- to, essentially, go from 1D to 3D.
A 1-D headline for this piece might have been something predictable and safe, such as "How To Write Ad Copy That Stands Out." That's pretty boring, and not very competitive with news items about Facebook or Supreme Court rulings. The idea of Kim Kardashian playing Barbra Streisand in a movie, on the other hand, puts the piece that the headline is promoting in the game of getting the reader's attention.
Is this headline a stunt? Yes, but stunts stand out. The recent "gay Oreo" ad that Kraft put out around Gay Pride is a great example because the stunt worked: the ad garnered Kraft gobs of media attention -- turning into de facto free PR -- and untold millions saw the ad as a result. It also brought untold numbers of consumers to Oreo's Facebook page. Was it controversial? Sure. But controversy brings attention. (To read more about how to bring attention to your business using PR, take a look at my recent piece, "The 10 Commandments to Perfect PR For Your Business.")
The best example from my own work is the teaser I designed for a cooking show about discerning the difference between real and processed food: "If you don't want to eat sh*t listen to Let's Get Real." It was a risky move because the teaser uses profanity and also because the in-your-face approach is the antithesis of food-show advertising, which is almost universally soft, sweet and inoffensive. And it worked: the bold move helped the show garner major national media coverage and a rabidly loyal audience who will never tune in to Rachael Ray, but who will tune into Let's Get Real.
Niche. If there is an aspect to your brand that is unique, zone in on it in your ad copy: that way you won't have any competition. A good example from my own work is the tagline I came up with for a nation branding exercise in Condé Nast Traveler. I was assigned Panama. The tagline? "Oceans Together." In two words the single characteristic that Panama can claim that no other nation can is put to the forefront, in a way that is also romantic and would help promote tourism. The teaser I designed for the website My Latino Voice -- "The American Experience. The Latino Point of View" -- is another simple example of the power of putting the focus on the niche. So if your business can claim a niche, get right to the heart of it in your ad copy and you will get out of having competition altogether.
Be clever. Clever ideas always stand out. For instance, when I was designing the street-poster ad campaign in New York to promote my first book, which was a self-help book for gay men, I had a problem in that I didn't want to use the terms "self-help" or "gay" because they are so loaded down with baggage and have been used to describe so many other titles. And there's just nothing "sexy" about them. So I came up with the teaser for the ad campaign from a completely different angle. The result? "Nirvana is not just for straight people." This approach is simply a clever way of communicating that the book is indeed a work on spirituality for gay people, but without using those staid terms. And the clever tagline helped with everything from book signings and endorsements to sales and media coverage.
Speak like people do. A lot of ineffective ad copy is the result of simply trying too hard, which can easily produce ad campaigns that don't make a lot sense. AT&T's current ad campaign "Rethink Possible" is a great example of not saying it like a person would say it. As a result, the tagline sounds false from the get-go, not to mention being impossible to remember because it's so convoluted. So when trying to communicate effectively in an ad just say it like a person would say it. FedEx's current teaser to promote their new overnight 8 a.m. delivery service -- "We'll try not to wake you up" -- says it in a way that anyone would say it, so the copy makes sense and it works.
Rely on big teams. As anyone who has worked at a big ad agency with corporate clients like I have can tell you, big teams can be toxic to designing ad campaigns that are in touch with the public. The problem with teams is that there are too many opinions; they tend to cloister themselves from reality outside the boardroom; and the voice of anyone who is actually in touch with the target often gets lost in the shuffle.
Look at Pepsi's attempt in 2008 to be in touch with the economic terror the public was suffering when they redesigned their world famous logo -- one of the most successful logos of all time -- to appear as if it's smiling. I try to imagine how many people -- 50? 100? 500? -- went into deciding that forcing a smile on Americans losing their savings, their homes and their livelihoods was going to make them buy Pepsi.
Meanwhile it would only have taken one person who was in touch with what economic terror actually feels like to advise them that reinforcing Pepsi as a comfort brand in times of crisis with a logo the public grew up with was the clear way to market the product and be in touch with people and the culture at the same time. It would also have allowed them to keep their world-famous logo and its incalculable brand equity -- not to mention saving Pepsi the $100 million it reportedly spent on the unnecessary and questionable redesign.
Ask focus groups if they "like" your new ad. Much like focus-grouped politicians who are trying to be liked by everyone and wind up being liked by no one, focus-grouped ads often water copy down to an equivalent meaninglessness. The fact is that effective branding and advertising isn't about whether one likes it or not -- it's about whether it works. Focus groups can be helpful if you know how to use them to assess how an ad is likely to be interpreted. But they are the downfall of effective advertising if used to make sure that everyone will "like" it.
Use clichés. "Simply the best"; "Experience the best"; "Experience the difference"; "Customer service excellence"; "Why pay more?" "Same great product, all new look!" The examples of clichés that are still being used in ads are endless. It's better to say something plain and clear that will at least mean something to the viewer than use a cliché that has become meaningless with overuse.
Use "quotes" or exclamation points! I regularly see ads that put the copy in quotes. But quotes imply that someone is being quoted, which is not the case with ad copy. Worse, quotes can inadvertently call the veracity of the ad into question, such as when quotes are used to sarcastically suggest that, while something has been said, it isn't necessarily true. As a result, putting ad copy in quotes can actually suggest your business is the opposite of what you're trying to say. So unless you're quoting someone in the form an endorsement, keep quotes out of it. And exclamation points are the grammatical form of screaming -- if your ideas are good you won't have to scream.
Put safety first. If safety in the form of not offending anyone and only doing what's been done before is your first priority when coming up with the ad copy for your business, then it will, with absolute certainty, be instantly forgettable. If that happens you've already lost. So you didn't take any risks and as a result there was no benefit for your business. It's true that my policy with my clients in all communications is first do no harm. At the same time, nothing great in the history of civilization was achieved without risk. Whether it's landing on the moon or coming up with effective commercials for toothpaste, the principle is the same: if you're reaching for greatness there will always be risk involved.
And in an age where we're all competing with the Kardashians for attention, taking a little risk in your advertising in order to garner attention for your business might in fact be the safe thing to do.