Amazingly, I actually clicked on an internet display ad yesterday.
Internet display ads are, of course, the most ineffective advertising medium ever invented. And yet clients continue to pour squillions of quid into them. As if somehow, someday – perhaps by divine intervention or sheer good luck – they’ll suddenly start working for their brand.
But the tiny handful that do generate a click through do so because they use classic direct response/editorial techniques and offer something useful to the reader. “Lose pounds with this old wives’ trick’…’Get the new iPad for £30′…and so on.
And this one from Aviva did just that. It offered to explain a little about the government’s new pension rules, due to take effect next spring.
This met a need – my desire for knowledge about how my pathetic provision for retirement (ha!) might be affected – so I watched the little animation.
I was nodding along and understanding what it was telling me until it mentioned something about ‘your marginal tax rate’. At which point they lost me. I had to go and look it up on Money Saving Expert, never to return.
I had no idea what Marginal Tax was. I consider myself a reasonably educated grown-up sort-of person (your views may differ) with a little bit of knowledge about income tax and such like but this was a new one on me. (It’s actually just the way you, for example, only pay 40% on the bit of your income that’s over the 40% threshold. Simple.)
But experience told me instantly what had happened here. Because it happens in advertising agency meeting rooms throughout the land (and probably the world) day in, day out.
The client briefs the suits (the account handlers) about what they want to say in the video. The clients occasionally use industry jargon which is their own in-house language that everyone at the client understands.
At which point, a good account handler will say “Sorry, I’m not sure what you mean there, can you explain it to me?”.
The bad one, who is smiling and nodding but thinking mostly of going to lunch, will just write it down.
The bad account handler will then brief the copywriter and art director.
When faced with the Marginal Tax stuff, the good copywriter will say “I don’t understand that. And if don’t understand it, I can’t write about it in a way our lovely customers will understand it, either.” And the account handler will be asked to go back to the client and get the clarity she should have got in the first place.
But the bad copywriter will write it down, include it in his script and carry on thinking about how can turn Marginal Tax into a pun.
And the little video clip will get made, and the client will approve it because they know what it means and forget that the end viewer might not. (And, to be honest, they’re paying their agency a lot of dosh to think about this stuff and ensure the language used is right for the target group.)
The net result is a piece of communication that fails simply because nobody at the agency/copywriter end had the intelligence or insight (or guts?) to say “Hang on a mo, sorry I’m being thick here, but could you put this into easy-to-understand words for me so I know what I’m talking about”.
When you’ve been working with complicated clients and products for as long as I have – financial services, professional services, healthcare, hi-tech, B2B – you get a sixth sense for spotting writing where it’s clear that the writer hasn’t really understood what he’s writing about.
And it happens far, far too often.