Viewpoint: The right spark gap

I was driving along in downtown Toronto the other day, and I saw a billboard.It was very colorful, lots of reds and yellows, and it had this headline:'Nacho same old Doritos.'And that billboard got me thinking.First, about what the hell it...

I was driving along in downtown Toronto the other day, and I saw a billboard.

It was very colorful, lots of reds and yellows, and it had this headline:

‘Nacho same old Doritos.’

And that billboard got me thinking.

First, about what the hell it meant, and then, about something very important in communications, and not sufficiently discussed, called the spark gap.

The spark gap will, therefore, be the subject of today’s lecture. Please take notes, there may be a quiz.

The spark gap is a term borrowed from the mechanics of the internal combustion engine. If I really knew anything about the internal combustion engine, I might still have the Castrol account, but I think it works like this.

To create an effective reaction, a spark must leap from the sparkplug and ignite the fuel-air mixture. If there is no spark gap, the spark cannot leap. If the spark gap is too wide, the spark leaps into nowhere, like Thelma and Louise, and dies, like Thelma and Louise.

The same thing applies in business communications.

The spark is the commercial message; the fuel-air mixture is the audience.

And if you want to get them lit up and humming, you’ve got to leave a small gap in your communications, so that the spark can take action. But, if the gap is too wide, your message leaps into the air and fizzles.

Traditional hard-sell advertising, in the old Procter & Gamble or Anacin style, usually has no spark gap at all.

The message is 100% complete: ‘This stuff washes whiter,’ or ‘Fights headaches three ways.’

This leaves no space for combustion to happen. The audience sits there, idle. If the messages work at all, they work through media weight and endless repetition.

The great all-time ads leave a spark gap. For example, Volkswagen’s ‘How do you think the guy who drives the snowplow gets to the snowplow?’ It involves the audience, lets them chuckle and think.

Same goes for Oscar Ross’ classic billboard, with nothing on it but an apparent rip in the poster, and the words, ‘Quick! The Elmer’s Glue!’

It requires a small-but-pleasant thought process for the viewer: ‘The poster is torn, so it needs Elmer’s Glue, so that must be damn good glue.’ Spark. Leap. Ignition.

Bob Neighbour’s celebrated ad for outdoor advertising itself had the right spark gap. It simply said, ‘Me? I never read billboards.’

It caught the reader in a contradiction. It stimulated, once again, that small-but-pleasant thought process.

But, I saw a sign on the back of a bench just the other day that had the same strategy, with no spark gap: ‘You have just proved that bench advertising works.’

Sorry, but you failed to ignite me. You left me with no room for a chemical reaction. You told me a story and explained the punch line.

So, anyway. Back to the Doritos board. Now, let’s see.

‘Nacho same old Doritos.’ Four words, they paid a lot of money to put them up there, they must mean something. Is this a gigantic typo? Do I, maybe, have to know Spanish? Or, it might be an ad for the competition – Pringles or somebody – telling me that Doritos are same and old.

Oh, wait a minute. I think I get it. ‘Nacho’ is a play on words. I’m supposed to understand, without any kind of audio aid, that ‘Na-cho’ is a pun on ‘Not your.’ It really means ‘Not your same old Doritos.’ I get it now. Aren’t those advertisers clever?

No. They’re not. They made their spark gap far, far too wide.

Remember the average viewer of that billboard is zooming along at about 100 clicks, with his mind on his girlfriend, or his job interview, or his next beer, not on advertising. He – or she – is not particularly into wordplay, and not into deciphering puzzles.

Back in a less politically correct era, David Ogilvy said: ‘The consumer isn’t an idiot. She’s your wife.’

What he meant, and what we all too often forget, is that we adpeople are not advertising to each other, but to people out there who don’t go to award ceremonies and don’t read Strategy.

My wife is far from being an idiot, but she would not ‘get’ that billboard. She simply would not make the effort. Nor would nine out of 10 other non-advertising folks, I assure you.

To make good advertising, create a spark gap. Involve your audience. But don’t make that spark gap too wide, or there ain’t no fire.

John Burghardt, formerly president of a national advertising agency, now heads his own communications firm in Toronto.