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How to Save Advertising From Its Three Worst Faults
by Dan Hill, President, Sensory Logic


The joke that nobody much laughs at in marketing circles is the one liner ascribed to John Wannamaker. "Half my advertising dollars are wasted, but I don't know which half."

If only the reality of marketing was that good! Rigorous reviews of sales performance data by those willing to take an incisive look at the state of marketing leads to a less generous total - maybe 15% of advertising pays back its costs.

So what are the three most essential keys to doing better?

Casting is crucial

A dozen years of research has led me to realize that the talent cast, especially in TV spots, but in print ads, direct mail and web sites too, can create a swing of as much as 30% in preference, even when all other variables tested are identical, i.e., tagline, product shot, layout, design, etc.

Fundamentally, we have more positive emotional responses to, and prefer to buy from, those who have "stage presence," and project likeability and authenticity. Fake, or social smiles, are the bane of advertising.

Unfortunately, most talent is chosen through a casting process that by its very nature leads to the selection of actors given to putting on fake smiles, rather than true ones (in which the muscles around the eyes relax), which are signaled by a twinkle in the eye. Often actors "fake smile lingers too long, comes across the face too quickly, or departs too fast, in what I call the guillotine smile." Meanwhile, portrayals of negative emotions - sadness, fear or surprise (which should last a second or less) - are often more problematic.

Worse, executives who appear in their brand ads are more prone to inauthentic acting than professional talent. Since trust is the key emotion of business, good casting and authentic performances are crucial to creating engaging, persuasive advertising.

Our normative database indicates that both drama-based ads, and ads that rely on testimonials, struggle to drive purchase intent. The biggest culprit in execution being off-emotion acting that undermines the delivery of on-message claims.

Simplicity is sweet

Nevertheless, most clients suffer from message-itis, in the desperate hope that adding one more claim, benefit, or fact will somehow carry the day and lift market share. It won't.

Meanwhile, most agencies love special effects and add more camera angles and edits than the average viewer can follow. Cut! I've found that frustration is the hidden emotional cancer of advertising: typically, 20% to 40% of emotional responses consumers during initial exposure to an ad qualify as frustration. Why? People don't feel they "get" what's going on.

That's no way to grow market share. Neurobiology has shown that forcing people to over-think causes them to under-feel, to drop out, just when creating an emotional connection is essential, given that the emotional part of the brain processes 10 times as much data as the rational brain. Lose people emotionally and you lose the sale.

Provide a sense of change or other form of tension.

Half the brain is devoted to processing visuals. To leverage that brainpower, motion is vital. That could be anything from a change in people's expressions, to the movement of people or objects, a change of settings, or animated imagery. Stimuli in motion works because the mind is geared to notice changes in the status quo, which represent threats (survive) or opportunities (thrive). Either way, people will be motivated to heighten their awareness.

Moreover, in getting people to focus on change make sure the motion is placed in the middle of the screen, or layout, so that it commands both eyes. We instinctively focus on the middle field of vision, or on things moving into the middle field. What's visually peripheral is also mentally peripheral.

Finally, in regard to change there's the often-necessary option of depicting change not only by literal motion, but also from a change in plot line. Many an ad involves a problem/solution scenario, or other form of contrast. The problem is that often the cautious client won't agree to depict the problem in a heartfelt manner. Unfortunately, when a problem isn't deeply felt, its' solution won't be seen as valuable. In other words, Milquetoast depictions of human discomfort or disappointment aren't compelling and don't drive purchase intent.

At the end of the day, or spot, if you want your ads to pull, make them sincerely address a heartfelt problem in a realistic manner via an authentic depiction. And, ask the CEO to stay in his office.

This material was drawn from Dan Hill's forthcoming book About Face: The Secrets of Emotionally Effective Advertising, Kogan Page, October 2010, ISBN: 978-0-7494-5757-0


The Author

About Face

Dan Hill ( is a recognized thought leader and practitioner in helping companies build stronger sensory-emotional connections with consumers. His previous book Emotionomics was chosen by Advertising Age as one of the top 10 must-read books of 2009. His newest book, About Face: The Secrets of Emotionally Effective Advertising draws on a database built up over a decade of experience using facial coding as a non-invasive, scientific research tool on behalf of major companies.


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Copyright 2010 by Dan Hill. All rights reserved.

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