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I don't remember that

Each of us is exposed to an average of 3,500 advertising messages everyday; 99 per cent have no impact whatsoever

Vision thing: the headline says one thing, the visual says another. ApparentlyHave we forgotten the importance of the headline in generating impact, asks Phil Cox?

Each of us is exposed to an average of 3,500 advertising messages everyday; 99 per cent have no impact whatsoever.

A recent national newspaper article analysed the number of advertising messages that we are exposed to. A subject, wearing a pair of high-tech specs that recorded everything he saw, logged an astonishing 250 ads in a 90-minute period, (they were for 100 different brands using 70 different communication formats).

What really makes you sit up and take notice is that his unprompted recall was staggering. Just one ad. In a 45-minute journey across London, despite spending 29 minutes looking at ads, he couldn't recall a single brand without prompting.

What (and this is the scary bit) if the subject had been a doctor and, after this deluge of communication, he reached the surgery and picked up a copy of his regular medical journal.

What possible chance does your ad have of being noticed - let alone remembered?

Sainsbury's AdvertEven within the rarefied atmosphere of the medical press, the clamour for attention is vast. It has been estimated that the total rate card advertising spend by the UK pharmaceutical industry, in the GP press alone, is in the region of £25m. That's on top of everything spent on exhibitions, mailers and rep support. Yet, could it be that these thousands of pounds you spend developing, researching and running your ad are wasted, and nobody, except the product manager, the art director and his mum, will ever notice it?

Look through any medical publication. You will find a number of press ads that are bang on strategy. They focus on the product's distinctive features, communicate its benefits to the physician and patient, yet no one will notice them. It's as if they have blended into the background. They are what are called wallpaper ads.

You can try to get noticed by putting more media spend behind your brand. But this doesn't always work. Lane Earl and Cox developed an Effectiveness Index to analyse press ad impact and recall; it revealed that you can spend half that of your competitors and get twice the recall.

Playing safe
No healthcare professional reads a medical publication just to look at the ads. If the first duty of any ad is to get noticed, the second is to be remembered. If we don't get that right, then everything else we do is irrelevant.

Have we concentrated too much on getting the right message at the expense of making sure it is well communicated? That's not to say we should produce ads that breach the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry's (ABPI) Code of Practice. An experienced creative team should know the code backwards.

Its restrictions can actually serve as a stimulus to creativity - as happened in those other two highly regulated markets, tobacco and alcohol.

One of the origins of the word 'advertise' is animum advertere - to turn the mind towards something: to grab attention, which is just what healthcare advertising sometimes fails to do.

For memorability which, after all, is what we want to achieve, we need content and impact in harmony. But this rarely happens.

A real gem: this feldene ad gets it rightHeadlines that grab you
Impact comes not just from the visual approach. While it may be the image that first catches the eye, it's the headline in combination with the image that attracts attention. We shouldn't underestimate the power of the headline. A picture may be worth a thousand words but tell that to Masters and Johnson. They discovered that erotic writing was far more arousing than erotic pictures. Douglas Adams once claimed that he preferred to work in radio, as the scenery was better. Perhaps copy can also make better pictures!

I wonder if we haven't moved too far in search of the ultimate visual and left the headline to the medical department. Take the headline: Simply the logical choice in hypertension, or asthma, or in-growing toe nails - we've seen every variation.

It's accurate, carries several important messages and is eminently sign-offable, but there is nothing here that would possibly encourage the reader to engage with the ad. Indeed, you could imagine the headline had been devised to introduce a coma of disinterest in the reader.

Some headlines appear designed to actively discourage your reader from want-ing to find out more. Others force you to. To take one example: I've got two books on my bookshelf, one is called: Men Who Stare At Goats and the other, The Price of Freedom. They're both fascinating books. Yet it's a sure bet which one you'd want to read first - the goats win every time.


What can we learn from some of the most impactful, memorable and successful ads that have run in the past?

  • State the ordinary in an extraordinary way: colloquial English leaps off the page in an ethical publication. In the Big Issue, for example, it doesn't. We expect to see words like success, treats, and manage in Pulse or GP. We don't expect words such as cabbage, taxi or umbrella. Using language that is out of context will always stop a reader.

  • Playing it safe: for more controvserial products the best policy is to say nothing at allDefy convention: obesity, for example, is a serious issue. Sufferers experience psychological distress and, as a result, must be treated with sympathy and sensitivity. So one US agency produced an ad for a weight-loss programme with the headline: Hey Fatso, read this.

  • Talk about something else: Who wants to read another car ad about how fast it goes or how safe it is? David Ogilvy's famous ad for Rolls Royce talked about the clock. From that you inferred the rest. If I want to communicate trust, reliability or confidence do not use the words in a headline. It's a bit like shouting don't panic - the effect is the opposite. It is far better to focus on another aspect of the brand that allows the reader to deduce quality for themselves. The conviction will be longer lasting.

  • Combine words that have not sat together before: David Bernstein in Creative Advertising refers to it as the clash of ideas. Working on the Ryvita account when it was being promoted as an aid to slimming, he put together two unassociated words and created The Inch War. It built the brand.

  • Make your headline echo: if your headline has a similarity to a well-known phrase or saying it will resonate with the reader. Not long ago, a top antidepressant used the headline I'm a Believer (Cipralex by Lundbeck). Instantly memorable to anyone over 40 as it was the title of a Monkees hit. Stuck in the mind like glue. Brilliant!

  • Talk to the heart as well as the head: although they wouldn't like to admit it (perhaps they don't realise), doctors prescribe for emotional reasons, as well as rational ones. We all know how powerful habit can be, but think of the other things your audience might feel about your brand or need from your brand, and address this. It is said that when Charles Saatchi's agency was pitching for the British Airways account the original line was: The World's Number 1 Airline. Charles Saatchi suggested changing Number 1 to Favourite. Emotion, not statistics; the line ran for years.

  • Create a tension between headline and visual: we all know it's wrong to use the headline to say the same as the visual. What if you get them to say the opposite? It really engages the reader.

  • Tell people what they need to know:
    because medicine is empirically based, healthcare advertising tends to follow.This is why we focus on facts not emotions. Yet more than that we focus on the facts that we can prove. This often leads us to telling people what we want to communicate, not what they want or need to know. Think of some of the amateur ads from small businesses. What do they show? A picture of the factory - the single most important thing in the managing director's life but a total irrelevance in everyone else's.

  • Get the brand name in the headline: it is said that when David Abbott pitched for the Sainsbury's account he promised them the name would always appear in the headline. Note the plain, simple English of that endline: Good food costs less at Sainsbury's. Like a piece of Shaker furniture, it's clean and functional with no twiddly bits.

Cipralex advertA plea for the humble pun
I know this is terribly unfashionable. Puns are thought to be either bad or funny. In fact, they don't have to be either.

You're offering a literary device that enables me to say two things at the same time? Fine, I'll take a dozen!

The double-entendre (which doesn't have to be smutty) is a powerful weapon, so long as both meanings are relevant. It makes it more memorable as it forms a bond between previously disparate ideas. The Feldene ad (above left) from the US is a gem. Both meanings of articulate are relevant and contribute to the communication.

Despite what I've been saying about the power of the headline, there are times when the ad is better off without it. In the case of alcohol and tobacco advertising it was safer to say nothing. It is also very effective for posters that have to work in around three seconds.

It seems obvious but if your ad is to be remembered, it needs to be noticed. If people don't remember your ad, to misquote the old adage, probably more than half of your advertising spend is wasted.

GP advertising is one of the most competitive of all markets and if you don't stand out from the background noise you won't succeed.

Yet, success doesn't always go to the brand that shouts loudest. Sometimes, you can win by out-writing and out-smarting the competition rather than outspending it.

The Author
Phil Cox is creative director of Lane, Earl and Cox Advertising, TBWA/WORLDHEALTH's London agency

2nd September 2008


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