Think like your prospects and your ads will improve

Before the November federal election, there were lawn signs all over east central Toronto promoting the candidacy of the noted and worthy Dennis Mills. The signs were large and red, and they flaunted the curious phrase, 'BE PART OF A NATIONAL...

Before the November federal election, there were lawn signs all over east central Toronto promoting the candidacy of the noted and worthy Dennis Mills. The signs were large and red, and they flaunted the curious phrase, ‘BE PART OF A NATIONAL ELECTION EXPERIENCE.’

I am not quite sure what those words mean, but I am pretty certain the Mills campaign considered a national election experience to be a good thing. The nation did not seem to agree. The Globe and Mail called the election ‘a campaign based on nothing but personal attacks,’ The Toronto Sun headlined ‘Grit Your Teeth and Vote,’ and the public responded with the lowest participation in a national election experience in Canadian history.

Meanwhile, in another part of town, the committee behind the 2008 Toronto Olympic bid is running radio and television commercials to elicit local support. With violin strings a-blazing, they ask the citizens to ‘Share The Dream’ and to ‘Expect The World.’ There is no hint of annoying little Olympic realities like the Montreal debt and Ben Johnson’s chemicals and the ‘Bread Not Circuses’ faction which scuttled the 1996 Toronto bid.

Advocacy advertisers have the same boardroom blindness as most organizations, and I think they have it even a little worse. They believe that everyone sees the world precisely as they do. (If that were the case, why advertise in the first place?)

They create messages framed by believers, and then they place them in media supported by believers. Left-wing causes go in The New York Times and right-wing causes go in The Toronto Sun, where everybody is sure to nod and few disbelievers have to be troubled with what George Will called ‘the unaccustomed torture of thought.’

That’s human nature. Wise media departments have long known that you should buy the TV shows the client watches, because otherwise he’ll charge into the agency shouting, ‘I’m spending four million bucks and nobody ever sees the goddamn spots!’ He’s doing simple mental math: Everyone thinks like me, and I don’t see the spots, therefore nobody sees the spots.

But sadly, just because it’s human doesn’t mean it’s right. All advertisers who risk boardroom blindness should be forced to pay attention to the Young & Rubicam Creative Work Plan, which used to feature – I assume it still does – a very important item called The Problem The Advertising Must Solve.

Being also human, the dumber account guys used to screw this up, too. They would come in waving a Work Plan, proclaiming that The Problem The Advertising Must Solve was to sell more of the client’s stuff. They would be sent away to stand in the corner.

The real genius of The Problem The Advertising Must Solve is to get us ad honchos down from our ivory towers, and to see the world as real people see it. In other words, to frame the situation as ‘I, the prospect, am NOT buying your cookies/choosing your bank/finding your car irresistible. Why NOT?’

When you start to think this way, instead of echoing the attitudes of the flunkies around you (National Election Experiences Are Wonderful, The Olympics Still Feels Like Chariots of Fire), really good advertising often starts to happen. Let me offer two examples, both from the world of advocacy.

Toronto’s United Way has faced up to a real Problem The Advertising Must Solve – that a significant part of the public thinks charitable money goes to fat-cat directors for posh hotel rooms and front-of-the-plane air travel. The United Way has enlisted a number of real-life people who have benefited from supported programs, and recorded them telling their stories. Then they wrap up the radio commercials and transit ads with the lovely line, ‘Your money got to me.’

The line has a double meaning: in the colloquial sense, you got to me, you reached me, you affected me…and in the literal sense, your gift reached its intended destination. No violin strings, just reality, well aimed. Very nice.

And my pet charity, UNICEF, marketed their Christmas cards this year with a slightly shocking dose of reality. Amidst the usual excess of our modern holiday season, they presented a clear, direct poster saying ‘This Christmas, give a mosquito net.’ And ‘This Christmas, give an artificial leg.’

The Problem The Advertising Must Solve: People see Christmas only from their own perspective. Advertising Solution: Jolt them, however briefly, into substituting a view of a third-world recipient’s Christmas. Also nicely done.

Developing good advertising is a little bit like developing your muscles. If you’re not pushing against something difficult, you’re not going to have much effect.

John Burghardt’s checkered resume includes the presidency of a national agency, several films for the Shah’s government in Iran, collaboration with Jim Henson to create the Cookie Monster, and a Cannes Gold Lion. The letterhead of his thriving business now reads ‘STRATEGIC PLANNING • CREATIVE THINKING’. He can be reached by phone at (416) 693-5072, by fax at (416) 693-5100 or by e-mail at