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Consumer Behavior

Good Advertising is Rooted in Psychology

I share a strange story from my early days in advertising.

Back in the early 1990s, the marketing director of a small software company called me in for a consultation to help them with their advertising. She told me that I had been recommended to her by one of their customers, and by one of their vendors. She explained that the company was in crisis. Until recently, they had been very successful. Their software was a business application which served many different types of companies, and they had grown rapidly. During this time, they had enjoyed the tranquility of being the only player in a niche market. Their success inspired the owner of the company to send out press releases and in turn the company received a lot of positive publicity. The publicity, however, attracted the attention of several larger software companies, who upon learning of the lucrative niche market decided to enter it as well. Soon the little software company was losing market share to the larger competitors.

When I first heard their story, I thought of an old joke my father had told me. It was about a little bird who failed to migrate south early enough and was caught in a snowstorm. It’s little wings iced up and it crashed into a barnyard where it looked like it would soon freeze to death. But then a passing cow dropped a load of manure on the little bird. The warmth of the manure thawed out its wings and the little bird was so happy it began to sing. A cat heard the bird, dug it out of the manure, and ate it. The moral of the story, my father said, is just because someone craps on you doesn’t mean they are your enemy; and just because someone takes crap off of you doesn’t mean they are your friend; and when things are going well you should keep it to yourself so that you don’t attract unwanted attention.

On my arrival at the software company, the marketing director led me into a conference room. As I asked her questions about their current marketing strategy, I noticed she kept looking at her watch every minute or so. After about five minutes, she told me that the president of the company wanted to sit in on our meeting. Almost immediately, the door to the conference room flew open, and a burly, florid faced man burst into the room without introducing himself. He walked rapidly toward me, and I assumed he was the president of the company. I rose from my seat and extended my hand in greeting. He ignored my gesture to shake, and slammed a stack of laminated company advertisements on the table in front of me and demanded, "If you know so damn much about advertising, tell me which of these ads worked and which didn't."

Source: Robert Evans Wilson, Jr.
The science of advertising is rooted in psychology
Source: Robert Evans Wilson, Jr.

I was shocked by his rude behavior and my first thought was, “I’m not taking this - I’m outta here!” My second thought was, “Wait, this could be a lucrative account.” So instead, I took a deep breath and counted to ten. I was a little disconcerted that anyone would question my ability in such an obnoxious way - especially when I had been highly recommended to the company. I had expected my expertise to be accepted because of the word-of-mouth referral. After composing myself, I was able to respond to his request.

This was years before I would teach advertising at Georgia State University, or travel the country giving seminars on how to create advertising that sells. At first I wondered if I could answer his question. He didn’t offer any sales reports or other tangible proof I could use in my assessment. He didn’t tell when, where, or how long he ran the ads. But I had several years experience in advertising, so I believed I should have some idea. I said, “OK, I accept your challenge.” And, I began looking over the six ads he gave me. In less than five minutes, I gave him my answer.

I separated the ads into two piles. The first pile had two ads that were simple, black and white ads with no graphic elements at all - just headline and copy. The second pile had four brightly colored ads with photos, illustrations, and numerous design elements. Pointing to the first pile, I said, "These two ads may have generated a small response, but far from what you hoped for.” I could tell by the look on his face that I was correct. I then pointed to the second pile, and stated confidently, "These four ads generated no response at all."

The company president's mouth fell open and he said, "You're absolutely right.” He then demanded angrily, “How can you know that?”

I tried to explain to him that there is a science to advertising. It’s not rocket science, but there are simple principles of psychology to be followed that insure an ad will work. Most of the ads from the zero response pile had humorous headlines, photos and illustrations that had nothing to do with his product. Beginners, who have watched too many Budweiser commercials, believe an ad has to be funny or clever to get attention. Below the headlines and visuals were dense blocks of copy that would turn away any casual reader. The copy in all of his ads mostly bragged about the company’s growth, and said little about the product other than its features. There was no copy which pointed out the benefits the customer would gain from doing business with this company. By contrast, in a successful ad, the headline and it’s supporting images call out to the target audience letting them know about something beneficial to them.

The greatest failure of his ads was that they did nothing to show how his software would solve his prospective customer’s problems. Advertising is all about problem solving; and people are motivated by solutions to their problems.

After the meeting, I learned from the marketing director that the owner had created those ads himself and had expected me to praise them. When I didn’t, he grew angry. I understood that his anger was really about his company losing market share, but he was also a control freak who had built his business himself, and wasn’t accustomed to accepting advice from others. Needless to say, we did not do any business together. Sometime later, I heard he ended up selling his company to one of his competitors.

The software company owner’s problems seemed to stem from his pursuit of publicity. When you use public relations as a marketing tool, you relinquish control of the message. Advertising is much more expensive, but you control the message and who sees it.

Even though, I didn’t get the job, I learned a lot that day about my ability to diagnose ads which I was able to use in helping other companies. What adverse situations have you encountered, where the silver lining was the awesome lesson you learned from it?

Robert Evans Wilson, Jr. is an author, humorist/speaker and advertising consultant. He works with companies that want to be more competitive and with people who want to think like innovators. Robert is the author of ...and Never Coming Back, a psychological thriller-novel about a motion picture director; The Annoying Ghost Kid, a humorous children's book about dealing with a bully; and the inspirational book: Wisdom in the Weirdest Places. For more information on Robert, please visit

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