You Need to Captivate, Not Capture, Your Audience

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(NOTE: I originally wrote this article in 2005 and wondering if any of this has changed in 5 years since I originally wrote it. The audience is getting smarter and tougher. We keep talking about transparency and the audience being in control. Well, if we keep telling them they’re in control, they’re eventually go to expect to me in control. Then what are we going to do?)

Caution: Reading this piece is likely to result in raised blood pressure, seeing red and perhaps a core questioning of what the hell you do every day!

OK, so I’ve read another series of articles in the various trades about the growth in in-"Something" advertising. Ads on cell phones, ads in airplanes (one airline is even making a pitch during the pre-flight announcements!) and even more eBay "body advertising" auctions. And all of the articles come with yet another series of quotes by execs saying something to the effect of "Isn’t it great that the audience can’t leave and they have to watch your ad?" (UPDATE: As we start to see mobile and location-based advertising take off, I believe we’ll see the ad industry try to deliver more ads that can’t be turned off.)

Is this what the advertising industry has become? Is this how we want to harness the incredible, creative power of our industry? In trying to figure out places that the audience is trapped so they can’t get away from our messages? Are we really aspiring to create the world of Clockwork Orange, where we hold your eyelids open and force you to watch our messages?

Well, if so, let’s really tap into our creative abilities. How about ambulances and hospital emergency rooms? "Welcome to your emergency, triple by-pass. Brought to you today by LowChol. Don’t want to be back here again in six months, ask your doctor for LowChol, the prescription rotor rooter for your arteries. Our one-a-day pill will save you a visit here in the future!"

Or maybe funeral homes? There’s another place that people are generally captive. "This eulogy is sponsored by HappyPill. If you’re depressed over the loss of your loved one, let a HappyPill make it all seem better." And let’s not forget the casket. I mean, we don’t really know what happens in the afterlife and I have lots of friends who think that shopping may be involved. Do you really want to miss the opportunity to have your message be the last thing someone sees before heading off into eternity?

If you’re reading this publication, there’s a good chance that you’re in the advertising business. So, riddle me this Batman — when was the last time a friend, colleague or family member came up to you and said "You know, if you could just figure out more places to put ads that I can’t escape, that would be really cool!"

And yet, while the industry is happily writing articles about how we can capture the audience, there are numerous articles from people outside the industry complaining about being captured. A recent article by Edward Wasserman, Knight Professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University, discussed the proliferation of branded content and even quoted from to ask "Why create a commercial when you can own the show?" And it’s not just TV where branded content is a hot topic. Print media are feeling the challenges, both from companies looking to create "branded editorial" to companies asking for control over how they are covered in magazines where their advertising appears. And while it’s not the first time it’s happened, Sweet Charity got trade press when they changed a line to include a sponsor mention. He ends his piece with this, "What’s astonishing that the same audience that has proven acutely sensitive to any whisper of political bias is tone deaf to the glare of grossly manipulative communication that our media are eagerly mutating to serve."

Advergaming is booming today and I have rarely seen a single mention about the audience in the discussion about what a great opportunity this is. In fact, rarely do you see a discussion about the impact on the audience of the many, pervasive techniques we’re using today. Well, other then isn’t it great that they can’t get away.

It’s what happens when tactics over take narrative and strategy. Look at the press the Paris Hilton commercials have scored for Carl’s Jr. But a recent article in Ad Age indicated virtually no lift in sales. And Carl’s is now going to create more teen male oriented content on their site, to make it a destination for that audience, based on the number of people who wanted to download that single commercial. That’s an idea being driven solely by tactical thinking, not strategic thinking.

You can be sure that after the success of programs like BMW Films and Subservient Chicken that many companies called their agency and said "Give me one of those subservient chicken things!" There was no thought as to how it fit into their brand or story, but if it worked for them, it has to work for us!

And just look at the entire WOM phenomenon. Now, as part of full disclosure, we participated in the first WOMMA conference and are very good friends of the WOMMA team. But think about it, if you identify campaign A as your WOM campaign, aren’t you saying that your other campaigns aren’t worth talking about? Shouldn’t the goal of great storytelling be that people talk about everything you do??? Shouldn’t you be creating TV commercials, or events or online activities that all make people want to talk about them?

Here’s what I say about great stories:

  • People want to tell a great story
  • People want to hear a great story
  • People want to participate in a great story

    Examples like the Paris Hilton ads or the Pontiac giveaway on Oprah show what happens when tactics rule story. Yes, people will talk about it, but it doesn’t translate into action.

    But when the American Girl Doll Place opened in NYC, it was the toughest restaurant in the city to get reservations for on a Saturday night. That’s the power of great story telling! No ads, no capturing the audience so the can’t get away, well, unless you have an eight year-old daughter, then you’re trapped! No, they’ve created a compelling, authentic and relevant story that they deliver to their target audience.

    I’m an old theatre person, so I do tend to approach things from the theatrical point of view. We usually start with two things – the audience and the show. We don’t say, "Hey, we have sets that look Roman, so let’s do Julius Ceaser." (Although, I guess it does sometimes happen in smaller theatres!) No, we start with the audience and the show and then build backwards. My wife calls it backward design.

    This is not rocket science. There’s always been an excellent ROI on telling a great story. Just look at the products and services you use every day.

    And you can also very accurately look at what will happen if we don’t make a change. People in captivity always revolt — you can take that to the bank. If we don’t start looking for ways to captivate rather then capture, then we need to start fortifying the barricades. For the revolt will come. And sadly, many people in this biz will be yelling, "Let them watch commercials" as they’re led to the guillotine.

    Image source: an untrained eye

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