Lateral thinking speaks louder than words

Advocacy advertising, which ought to be very important, usually stinks.
Of course, in a broader sense, all advertising is advocacy advertising ('I advocate that you should buy my stuff'), but I'm talking about it in its usual buzzword sense. One textbook (Bovée and Arens) describes it as 'aim[ing] to sway public opinion rather than to sell products'. That'll do.
The trouble with most advocacy advertising is, it is done by zealots.

Advocacy advertising, which ought to be very important, usually stinks.

Of course, in a broader sense, all advertising is advocacy advertising (‘I advocate that you should buy my stuff’), but I’m talking about it in its usual buzzword sense. One textbook (Bovée and Arens) describes it as ‘aim[ing] to sway public opinion rather than to sell products’. That’ll do.

The trouble with most advocacy advertising is, it is done by zealots. They see their situation in pure black-and-white (labour good, management bad; baby seals cute, seal hunters ugly) and think everyone else should quickly fall into line with the pureness of their views.

Their strategy appears to go like this:

State the case.

If not immediately effective, state the case again, louder.

Anyone who has ever been a) married, or b) in a business partnership can testify to how well this approach works. Yet paid communicators still do it, and do it often, on behalf of unions, charities, governments, under-the-gun corporations, and a whole bunch more.

In the rare case that they don’t yell at me, they get cute. They come at me with a glib phrase, like the one currently trying to revive the lost Toronto courtesy of stopping for red lights. The posters say, ‘IT WON’T KILL YOU TO STOP’. Not a bad phrase, but will it really stop that idiot in the Beemer bearing down on me?

In general, advocacy advertising seems to lack lateral thinking. They figure out who they want to have change their behavior, and then they run ads saying, CHANGE YOUR BEHAVIOR! If it’s going to work, it’s got to be a lot subtler than that. In fact, it may be talking to a whole different audience than it appears to be.

The recent Toronto Transit Commission campaign is a good example. The TTC wanted money from three levels of government, and used the wall space in their subway stations to say so. They addressed a continuing campaign to city councillors, Ontario MPP’s, and the Federal Cabinet. But they weren’t really talking to these people at all. (When did you last see a politician reading an ad on a subway?)

They were raising the issue to their riders, building awareness, building a bandwagon, building their story for the general public, who just might write a letter or two and answer the phone when the pollster calls. (Politicians do read those.) It has apparently worked. The latest ad says, THANK YOU, PRIME MINISTER, and shows Jean Chrétien in a subway. The power of advertising is indeed extraordinary.

Magicians call what the TTC did ‘misdirection’: luring you to look over there while the real action is going on back here. The outstanding creatician, Paul Grissom, did a similar feat of misdirection a few years ago up in Muskoka. (After lots of experience with biggies such as Y&R and SSCB/Lintas, Paul now runs Grissom & Friends Creative Services and will soon announce his partnership in a new Toronto enterprise called Kazoo Advertising.)

Paul’s crusade was to get cottage country boaters to slow down, mute their engines, and stop annoying and sometimes killing people. He too chose to address one audience while really talking to another.

Paul created, among several other powerful ads, a cartooned speeding boatman with the headline, SMILE, STUPID, YOU’RE ON CANDID CAMERA. And in that ad, and in surrounding publicity, he urged the cottagers to take action: to photograph offenders, whose pictures and names would then be published in the (very gutsy) local paper.

Even though the headline appeared to be doing so, Paul was not shouting ‘CHANGE YOUR BEHAVIOR’ at the bad boaters. He was empowering the rest of the community. As his body copy put it, ‘Here’s your chance to vent your rage. Not the hopeless slow burn at the end of the dock…not the powerless grind of tooth when safety, consideration, and common sense are disregarded…. Pick up your camera and shoot the offender.’

Smart communication, and it worked. I wish such strong lateral thinking had gone into the Toronto red-light campaign. Maybe I’d someday get to make a left turn again.

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 or by e-mail at burgwarp@aol.com.