Inside Story: The secret of perfect pitch: The media explosion has saturated our age with messages. In a new book, Winston Fletcher unveils the state of the art of driving advertising through our highly selective mental defences

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The Independent Online
THE BEST WAY to think about how advertising works is to imagine a crowded street. Each time you walk down a crowded street you see hundreds, maybe thousands, of people and almost every single one of them passes by unnoticed. You won't remember the majority of them 30 seconds later - let alone 30 minutes or 30 days later. It is much the same with advertisements.

A few of the people you pass, a tiny handful, make some impact on you. Why do you notice those you notice? Why do you remember those you remember? Naturally you tend to notice people who are unusual, people who by definition stand out in a crowd.

Perhaps they stand out because they are inherently, physically different from others. They may be strikingly beautiful, or ugly, or look funny or charming, or especially aggressive.

Perhaps they stand out because they have made themselves seem different. They may be dressed stylishly or eccentrically, or be made up garishly. They may be shouting, or singing, or moving strangely.

Perhaps, on the other hand, they do not stand out for other people at all. To other people they look quite ordinary, but you notice them because something about them has particular relevance for you, personally.

Perhaps they are wearing something that especially interests you, maybe something you have been searching for, or something you particularly like. Maybe you know them already, or they remind you of somebody else. Or maybe you seem to keep seeing them, and they are beginning to impinge on your consciousness.

And there is another occasion when you will pick out a face in the crowd: when it is a face you are looking for. When you are searching for someone in a throng it often seems as though you can see everyone else but them. In reality your eyes are rapidly skimming across dozens and dozens of faces, without taking them in, until finally they alight on the correct one - if it is there to be found.

These interactions and relationships are exactly replicated in people's reactions to advertisements. And they reveal that there are only four basic reasons why people notice and remember advertisements:

When the product is itself inherently different;

When the advertisement itself is sufficiently unusual;

When the advertisement has some particular, personal relevance (they may even have been searching for it);

When they seem to keep seeing it, and eventually it penetrates their consciousness.

As with faces in the crowd, these are not mutually exclusive. High- ground campaigns will blend and dovetail all four.

The campaigns which somehow or other get through to you penetrate the barrier of your selective perception. This perception is the extraordinary mechanism by which our eyes, in concert with our brains, pick out and notice particular items from the morass of visual data which assails them at every waking moment. It is the mechanism underlying the four factors which make some advertisements noticeable and memorable, while most are neither.

Selective perception is the protective mechanism homo sapiens has developed because it could never cope with all the sense data - let alone all the advertising - which bombards it from morning to night. Selective perception is the mechanism which sorts out all the clutter, negating its capacity to overwhelm and confuse us.

Selective perception is still hardly understood by psychologists, the intractable difficulty being that people can only report those perceptions they know they have had, and can remember, and are aware of - not those perceptions they do not know they have had and cannot remember, and so are unaware of.

Selective perception is of immense importance in advertising. It is simultaneously advertising's best friend and worst enemy. It is the reason why we notice advertisements, no matter how small, if they include messages of personal relevance to us.

But it is also the barrier that high-ground campaigns must constantly strive to break through, in order to get their messages across to people who have not made a conscious decision to ignore them (it is not as deliberate as that) but whose minds are protecting themselves against information overload.

To overcome the barrier of selective perception, most advertisements need to squeeze their messages into people's already junk-laden minds and memories. They need to have impact to build awareness, to be able, in current jargon, to 'cut through'. They need to intrude.

By no means all advertisements, however, need to intrude. And in some respects the unintrusive advertisements are much more important to people than the intrusive advertisements. Unintrusive advertisements are those people search for; intrusive advertisements are those which search for people.

The average 35-year-old British adult will have seen some 150,000 different commercials - most of them half a dozen times or more. New commercials do not fall on virgin soil. They are received by seasoned, sceptical advertising-literate minds.

Yet most advertisements are of no interest to most people most of the time. We buy only 400 or so brands each year, from the 9,500 that spend more than pounds 50,000 a year each on advertising. I am not in the least bit interested in buying most of the things I see advertised. Indeed I won't buy them. Nor will you. Nobody is influenced by most of the advertisements they see. A few individual advertisements benefit each of us, every day of the week - and that is quite sufficient to make advertising cost-effective - but the great majority of advertisements are irrelevant to us.

About a quarter of all the money spent on advertising goes on classifieds. Classifieds are the epitome of unintrusive advertising. Every day hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of classified advertisements appear. Nobody knows the exact number - but there must be at least a hundred times more, and quite possibly a thousand times more, classified than display advertisements. There cannot be a single literate adult who has not at some time responded to a classified advertisement, and indeed very few who have not placed one for themselves.

That is one reason why Mr and Mrs Average understand advertising far better than they are often given credit for. Everyone has occasionally sold a second-hand stuffed camel in the local free-sheet - or maybe sought a compatible lonely heart.

Indeed, lonely hearts classifieds reveal a great deal about some of the key ways in which advertising works. If you are in the market for a prospective partner, you will require a fair amount of information. The advertiser (your suitor) knows this, and because advertising space is not free, he or she will aim to select the most relevant information and communicate it to you as succinctly as possible.

The single most important fact about them, their availability, is self-evident from their presence in the lonely hearts column. The fact that they are hoping that you (or somebody) will take action as a result of their advertisement is also self-evident because they have spent their money on advertising. Both those bits of information are implicit, and are important, in every kind of advertising.

The prospective lonely hearts respondent will naturally wish to know the advertiser's sex, age, tastes and interests. Those are all more or less objective facts. The prospective respondent will also require information which is much more subjective in nature: the advertiser's looks, character, style.

There would be little point in the advertiser lying about the objective facts. But don't people have an incentive to lie about the subjective data? To describe themselves, for example, as much better looking than they are?

Only slightly.

If you are in any doubt, study the lonely hearts columns yourself. The advertisers - like all advertisers - know the truth will be discovered by anyone who responds to their advertising (buys their products). They know there is no point in claiming they look like Robert Redford or Glenn Close, if they do not.

Indeed, an analysis of lonely hearts advertisers in Time Out magazine showed that only 36 per cent claimed to be either good-looking or attractive. A modicum of self-enhancement is acceptable and is expected. Too much would be counter- productive and indeed wasteful - the wrong people would respond to the advertising, hoping to meet a Redford or Close lookalike, and would be disappointed.

All of which applies, universally, to every kind of advertising.

However, lonely hearts advertisements are unlike most consumer advertising in that they are not intrusive. As with all classifieds, the reader seeks them out. I have often wondered why TV and radio stations don't carry similar 'classified' sections, at well-publicised times on specific days, when job ads, house ads or lonely hearts ads could be bundled together and those who are interested could watch out for them.

Nor are classifieds the only advertisements people seek out. Much retail advertising is built upon the premise that lots of people will be looking for particular items, and searching for the lowest prices. Whether it be butter or bitter, a three-piece suite or a VCR, those who scan retail advertisements generally have a fair idea of what they are looking for, in advance; or alternatively they may not know precisely which product they want, and may just be looking for a bargain or two.

Either way it is the shopper who does most of the work, not the advertisement.

Beyond communicating quickly that it contains loads of bargains, the advertisement hardly needs to intrude. The shopper is a willing accomplice. Unfortunately not one advertising person in a hundred seems to understand this.

And a further group of advertisements which people look out for, when they are relevant to them, are financial offers. If you happen to have some cash which you are contemplating investing - a windfall, perhaps, or hard-won savings - then you will scour the personal finance pages for the best offer on offer. If you are desperate for a mortgage or other kind of loan, you will do the same.

Such advertisements do not need to intrude. They simply need flag those who are looking for them. But if you are not thinking of a mortgage or a loan, the financial advertisement will need to tap you on your shoulder and bring itself to your attention.

It will need to make you think about all the wonderful things you could do if you borrowed some more lolly. So some financial advertisements can be small and undemonstrative, while others have to be bigger and noisier. It depends on the objective, and on the target market.

Yet another group of advertisements which hardly intrude are those in hobby publications: advertisements for photographic equipment in Amateur Photographer, fishing tackle in Angling Times, DIY materials in Practical Householder and the like. Everybody agrees people buy such publications as much for the advertisements as for the editorial.

If you add together all classified advertising - including recruitment, some retail advertising, some financial advertising, hobby advertising and some business-to-business advertising, then it can be no exaggeration to say that in total 45 to 50 per cent of all advertising is non-intrusive. These are advertisements which people patently want. People look for them of their own volition.

And you might tack on another group of small ads, classic patent medicine advertisements. You know the type. They flag the sufferer with such succulent headlines as 'Acne?' or 'Piles?' or 'Embarrassing Irritation?' They are perfect examples of selective perception at work.

These small medicine advertisements spotlight the borderline between intrusion and self-interest. They depend upon the readers' consciousness of their ailments. To some extent the readers are subconsciously on the look-out for a remedy. But the advertisements also need to penetrate the reader's mind, because the reader may not be consciously searching for a remedy at that precise moment.

To an individual who is suffering, treating his ailment may be quite as important to him as finding a new job or house. That is why small medicine advertisements are not unlike classifieds. The advertiser can rely on the reader's selective perception doing much of the work.

The less work the reader is willing to do, the more intrusive the advertising must be.

Many things that are advertised are not of immense importance to us, and unless they are drawn to our attention we won't bother to watch out for them. In fact we don't bother to think much about them at all. Not many people would peruse the classifieds for a toothpaste advertisement in the way they will do for a holiday or a home. Houses and holidays are worthy of considerable attention and effort: nowadays toiletries, by and large, are not - though in days gone by, toiletries were probably pretty engrossing too.

But surely if consumers really wanted something, they should be willing to search for its advertising? Why can't all advertisements be tiny classifieds, activated by people who are genuinely interested in them, rather than big jobs produced by people who want to foist their messages on to other people - people who apparently don't want to receive them? This is the underlying basis of most criticisms of advertising.

The answer is that nowadays there is too little time, and there are too many products. People frequently do not know whether or not they are interested in a particular product, or service, or warning, or whatever, until an advertisement knocks on their mind's door and tells them about it. And often they need to be told again and again before they take any notice. The need for intrusion and repetition in advertising is, I think, widely misunderstood.

No advertisers can afford to wait years for their advertising to take effect. Nor should they. Advertising must generate responses both today and tomorrow. It is treated as a revenue-cost by accountants and by balance sheets, rather than as an investment, because it is a revenue-cost (although it also provides long-term benefits). It may take years to pay for itself, but it must start to pay for itself forthwith, if not sooner.

Not that short-term results and long-term benefits are mutually incompatible. Indeed it is one of the greatest benefits of advertising, as compared to all other means of marketing communication, that it works both quickly and slowly.

Perhaps that explains why the endless debate over whether advertising is a short-term cost or a long-term investment has rumbled on for so many years. It is neither. It is both.

WINSTON FLETCHER AND THE SEVEN PILLARS OF ADVERTISING WISDOM

Advertising introduces people to useful new products and reminds them of old products they had almost forgotten.

Advertising tells people where they can buy goods at low prices and where they can invest their savings at advantageous rates.

Advertising informs people where they can go to be entertained and what they can do to alleviate their pains and sufferings.

Advertising lets people know how to use products in ways they had not previously thought of, and how to improve themselves in ways they had not previously dreamed of.

Advertising warns people against behaving dangerously and encourages them to behave responsibly.

Advertising adds extra dimensions - of consistency, glamour, quality, reassurance, value - to the things people buy.

Advertising saves people time, by providing neatly encapsulated, easily absorbed information.

From 'How to Capture the Advertising High Ground' by Winston Fletcher, published by Century at pounds 17.99.

(Photograph omitted)

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