Friday, August 19, 2011

Does Direct Have to be Ugly?

Ask a typical above-the-line creative director what he or she thinks of direct response TV or direct mail and your response will first come in the form of what the Greek satirist Aristophanes called a “fart-smelling face.”  The creative director would make this face with good reason: most direct response creative stinks.  Let’s face it, for every award-winning piece of direct response, late-night TV runs at least two like this one:

Or this one:

We should not blame brand advertising folks for thinking that direct response creative must look awful and scare/appall consumers.  Truly Translinear marketing, however, demands that direct response creative not only drive sales but that it must also look good doing it.

Travel marketers, by and large, understand how to create great-looking direct-response.  

Sure, these ads typically look great because the client and agency hand-picked beautiful locations and populated them with beautiful people.  Chances are, the beach you actually visit will have more people on it than the one in the commercial.  And some of those people will wear Speedos without proper regard to their body shape.  However, the commercial still has a call to action at the end--visit the website--just as any direct response ad does.  Moreover, the point lies in the combination of appealing film and an outright request.

Let’s compare the process of winning a customer to the way a man relates to a woman he fancies (There, I managed to write a post that doesn’t involve baseball.  Happy now?).  The man will do everything to make himself look relevant (no jorts, mustache only for ironic effect, etc.) and attractive (disclosure: I have no idea how to do this).  This primping directly relates to the work of branding.  The man wants the woman to consider him desirable just as the brand wants the audience to add it to their consideration set.

Direct marketing comes in at this point because, after all the grooming, witty banter and ritual display of brand name clothing (like I said, I really don’t know how to do this), the man still has to ask the woman out.  So far, he’s just set the stage.  At some point, he’s got to ask for a specific response and expect the possibility of rejection.  In the same vein, the brand sooner or later has to ask someone to buy something or they will go out of business.

At this point, the “does it have to be ugly?” issue becomes germane.  The man would throw away all his hard work if he said “Hey you, with the rack, you wanna go to the movies or what?  C’mon.  I don’t have all freakin’ day.”

And here, direct marketers often fail.  They often come off as extraordinarily rude (“act now!”) or patronizing (“has this ever happened to you?”).  Yes, direct marketing has a large bag of tricks that don’t look pretty but do boost response.  However, I think that these so-called best practices sacrifice long-term possibilities for very small short-term gains.  

Here’s a case where direct marketers over-measure, or perhaps, simply measure the wrong things.  They can measure the number of responses to two different ads, say one with the addition of the words “supplies are limited” and one without.  However, they can’t (or won’t) measure how many people got permanently turned off by the “supplies are limited” ad.

Instead, direct marketers need to find the advertising equivalent of “Hi.  I’m going to the movies on Friday.  I’d really like you to come with me.  What do you say?”  This approach may require quashing some of the tactics direct marketers swear by, but it will lead to creative that brand folks won’t swear at.

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