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Nobody Reads Advertising

“Nobody reads advertising. People read what interests them, and sometimes it’s an ad.”

Howard Luck Gossage

The effort you put into crafting the perfect advert is wasted on your audience if it isn’t more interesting than what they’re already doing.

The late, great, Howard Luck Gossage was a living legend among the ‘Mad men’ advertising agencies of the fifties and sixties. ‘Mad men’ was a long-running TV series about a prestigious ad agency. It’s a slang term coined in the 1950s by advertisers working on Madison Avenue.

Howard Luck Gossage courtesy The Dippel Family

Howard Luck Gossage.
Copyright and courtesy of the Dippel family

He didn’t build an ad agency empire in the way some of the big hitters did. In fact, he didn’t even like advertising.

But his style was no less provocative and no less successful than that of his contemporaries. And it leaves behind a great legacy of powerful observations such as the most famous of his quotes, above.

Howard Luck Gossage took advertising very seriously. He would scrutinise each and every word to squeeze out as much value as possible in order to create the greatest impact. But more than direct impact or shock tactics, his goal was simply to fully engage his readers.

He was quoted as saying, “An ad should ideally be like one end of an interesting conversation.”

Howard’s strong dislike of traditional advertising was the catalyst for the unique style he developed. His content would invite readers into a conversation, to which he responded with a second ad, and then a third ad to continue the conversation. People responded in their thousands by writing in. Who today would have time for that?

These days, we might be less inclined to be fully engaged in this type of campaign. We have so little time, and everything is accessible everywhere all the time anyway.

But in the fifties, people had time for a good story or a yarn that would feed their imagination. And Howard exploited that desire over and over again through his creative thinking and witty campaigns.

Being a man of few words is not what Howard Gossage was known for. In fact, quite the opposite. He became famous for writing advertisement stories that engrossed the reader. He understood the relationship between brand storytelling and the audience in a way that few others did. He accomplished this not with short, sharp, hard-hitting headlines, but by crafting atmospheric stories that drew readers in, and left them wanting more.

Qantas and the kangaroo

When Australian Airline, Qantas Airways began using the same aircraft as TWA, the ‘Super Constellation airplanes’, they asked Howard Gossage to create a campaign to encourage people to fly with them, rather than TWA.

His response was not to compare features and benefits, nor to explain what might be better. Instead, he created a campaign that talked directly about TWA’s aircraft and how delighted Qantas is that they flew them too. Then he asked people to name the new Qantas aircraft, and the winner of the competition would receive a real, live kangaroo.

Quantas Advert
Copyright and courtesy of the Dippel family

A stunt like this may not impress us quite as much now. We may even believe it was a prank. But sixty years ago it was a ground-breaking and massively successful campaign

Gossage announced the winner in a subsequent ad, in his own inimitable style:

“So, to you, Dena Walker Siebert, small daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Seibert, 17 Stuyvesant Oval, New York 9, N.Y., our Grand Prize Kangaroo and gratitude. Good show.”

Oh, and the winning name that Miss Seibert suggested for the new aircraft? Sam.

Leaving people wanting more.

“People read what interests them” is a powerful observation. Howard Gossage used it to create some of the most effective campaigns of all time.

Conversations were key to the success of his adverts some fifty years before today’s digital marketers reinvented it as ‘inbound marketing’.

Howard’s advertising stories were not always complete, but purposely so.

He would sometimes leave readers hanging, as though part of the story had been accidentally left out.

The technique was unheard of and almost offensive to the traditionalists.

It may also have caused some frustration among readers, but this was print, where the next edition might be a week away, so readers had no option other than to wait.

In 1958, the Whiskey Distillers of Ireland posted a series of weekly adverts (stories) in the New York Times, penned by Howard Gossage, of course. Such was Howard’s confidence that he could keep the audience engaged, the first story, of no fewer than 287 words, ended like this:

“There’s no need to tell you what these other ways of drinking fine whiskey are. It’d be like teaching your grandmother to “

Without so much as an ellipsis (…) to manage readers’ expectation that more was to follow, or indeed why.

However, the following week the story continued, as:

Number II, with the title: “Oh, it’s a horrid thing to be torn between pride and profit.” The text began, as if unbroken: “suck eggs. [What we were saying when we (The Whiskey Distillers of Ireland) ran out of space last week is that it would be presumptuous of us to tell you how to drink fine whiskey. It’d be like teaching your grandmother to suck eggs, as they say. Whatever that means.]”, and it ended with: “Perhaps you’d better write us via the air mail. It’s speedier for one thing, more flamboyant, and be- ”

This time it wasn’t a split between words, it was splitting a hyphenated word. The following week the story continued with another ad that began: “sides you’ll probably be terribly anxious to receive your Pride Badge or your Profit Badge. For the befit of the latecomers we {The Whiskey Distillers of Ireland} are referring to the very nice badges we are sending out from Dublin to all who write us here…” and so on.

If that wasn’t enough, when no advert was published one week during this campaign, a purposeful tactic by Mr Gossage, people actually wrote to the New York Times asking where the ad was!

Now that’s true engagement and, in marketing terms, that really is pure gold.

What happens next?

What separated Howard Gossage from the rest of the pack was his willingness and sheer bravery to keep readers dangling and wanting more; desperate to know what happens next by not giving them everything in one go. Often he would publish his ads once, and only in the New York Times.

So, what exactly does happen next? Do you recall an advertisement that left you asking this question? No, me neither. Oh, wait. Let’s not forget the brilliant Gold Blend coffee ads of the late Eighties, with Antony Head and Sharon Maughan as the separate flat-owning yuppies engaged in a six-year, caffeine-fueled flirt. They were known simply as the Gold Blend couple, and their relationship gripped the nation (ahead of IRA bombings and a crisis in Europe) as they moved seductively from initial attraction to finally declaring undying love for each other. Advert after advert we waited with bated breath to see… what would happen next. More than a set of adverts, it was a soap opera split into one-minute episodes.

These days there seems to be no time for wondering what happens next as everything is measured by the second and we, the advertisers, want people to complete the AIDA (Attention, Interest, Desire, Action) process in as short a time as possible. There it is. You like it, you want it, now buy it! Also, creative types are less brave than they might be, and advertising real estate is too expensive to waste time on drawn-out stories spanning minutes, let alone weeks or years.

Why did the great Howard Luck Gossage go to so much trouble, anyway? Isn’t good advertising simply measured by the volume of revenue it generates? Revenue is one measure, yes. But while restaurant chefs appear content with not knowing how much their customers enjoy the food they spend hours slaving over, advertising execs need to create an impact in order to satisfy their egos. And the quickest way to boost the ego is with a quick and successful result.

I can’t remember ever seeing a really outstanding ad that couldn’t be traced to an outstanding ego.

Howard Luck Gossage

Grab their interest.

Whether writing long, interesting blog posts or short, sharp edgy adverts, the single, unequivocal goal is to garner interest in the reader – even at the expense of immediate action. Interest creates a perception, and the essence of ‘brand’ is all about perception.

‘Brand’ is what people think about when they’re not there – wherever ‘there’ may be. It could be at a supermarket, in a car, in front of a TV, on a flight – when you’re not there, what do you think about that object or place? Whatever it is, that’s the brand at work, and it’s why big players work so hard and spend so much money to make you feel the way they want you to feel. And you thought it was your free will.

Whatever the size of the content you’re creating, from a small advert to a social media post, blog post or full article, it should be interesting enough to engage your audience and help to build a perception of you. Ideally, it wants to keep them wanting more and, ultimately, buying whatever it is you’re selling.

With so much content bombarding our senses from every angle it’s tough to grab someone’s interest long enough to begin creating the mystery and intrigue that makes them want more. But it’s not a new problem. In 2010, Craig Davis, Chief Creative Officer at JWT (one of the world’s largest advertising agencies) said, “We need to stop interrupting what people are interested in and be what people are interested in.”

To be what people are interested in takes many forms, and it might be as simple as saying “half-price meals all weekend”. That’s definitely what some people are interested in, but if you cant offer something as simple as a discount on a popular, everyday product, how can you be what people are interested in?

Creative types would have us believe it’s all about being creative, and to some degree, they’re right because creativity has the power to separate one piece of content from another. However, the phrases ‘design over content’ and ‘form over function’ tell us a lot about creativity sometimes being allowed to take precedence when it’s not strictly necessary, and often to the detriment of the message or product.

When I write an advertisement, I don’t want you to find it ‘creative.’ I want you to find it so interesting that you buy the product

David Ogilvy

Take away tips:

  • When creating your adverts, whatever form they take, begin with trying to understand why people will be interested in what you’re about to say or write, and try to stay away from what it actually is. You might need to include the latter at some point, but first try writing your content without it.
  • There’s a reason publishers place ads between the paragraphs of the stories people are interested in reading, or at the beginning and midway points in YouTube videos – to interrupt them. But remember what Craig Davis (above) said; “We need to stop interrupting what people are interested in and be what people are interested in.
  • We each possess the ability to be creative, so whilst offering a live kangaroo may not be practical (especially in the UK), try to think beyond simply ‘click here’ or ‘buy this’. Think about the emotional response you might create in people and how you would like them to respond to you.
  • Be empathetic with something your ideal customers can relate to, but use it sparingly or you may appear to be disingenuous.
  • Accept that not everyone will even read your ads, let alone be interested in them.
  • Don’t be afraid to write what you feel. If it’s interesting; people will read it.

Keep in mind that being interesting is your goal. Often you have to say exactly what it is you’re ‘selling’ (in whatever form that takes). So, if your thing is running personal 1-2-1 training sessions, you need to tell people you’re offering personal 1-2-1 training sessions, but find something they can connect with that will heighten their interest. Choose your words carefully – perhaps swapping training for coaching. Relate it to what they might gain from the sessions and how they might feel, and not just that it includes an hour of cardio-busting circuit training.

With more than 30 years experience in business and marketing, Clive is the visionary behind The Marketing Alliance, launched in 2018. Clive leads a curated tribe of accomplished marketing and business support professionals who consistently delight clients through their creativity, innovation, strategy and an unwavering commitment to excellence.
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