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The Emotional Impact of Facts

Posted by Doug Garnett June - 25 - 2013 - Tuesday

Facts used in advertising leave behind emotion.

I ran across this thought provoking idea in the Jaques Ellul book “Propaganda” (published in 1965, I read this book in the 1980′s and recently decided it was worth a re-read). 20130114-191437.jpg

Rational and Irrational Communication. Ellul considers the difference between information and propaganda and the tendency to believe that “information addresses reason and experience … where propaganda addresses feelings and passion”. He concludes: “It’s not that simple.”

Ellul Finds Information Uniquely Important to the Human Psyche. “Modern man needs a relation to facts, a self-justification to convince himself that by acting in a certain way, he is obeying reason and proved experience.”

Ellul is, of course, primarily looking at political propaganda. But he also knows this to be true in advertising.

Suppose someone sees a car ad about a new engine. Ellul notes “All those technical descriptions and exact details will form a general picture in his head, rather vague but highly colored – and when he speaks of the engine, he will say: ‘It’s Terrific!’” (this dated term confirms that Ellul was a sociologist and not a copywriter.)

Truth is that too much emotional advertising leaves behind vague feelings of emotion where more persuasive advertising leaves behind conviction – for example a feeling of “that tool is amazing” along with an emotional tendency to purchase.

Ellul concludes that after factual communication “What remains with the individual affected by this propaganda is a perfectly irrational picture, a purely emotional feeling, a myth.”

Ellul confirms my marketing experience. In dashing for advertising “simplicity” most agencies decide to include fewer facts. But Ellul suggests that “The more facts supplied, the more simplistic the image.”

Of course, this isn’t true if they are disconnected facts thrown at the receiver of the communication. Simplicity results when a series of facts (often apparently disconnected) build toward the same conclusion.

And Ellul gives us an interesting insight into extremes in emotion. “It has even clearly been proved that a violent, excessive shock-provoking propaganda text leads ultimately to less conviction and participation than does a more “informative” and reasonable text on the subject. A large dose of fear precipitates immediate action; a reasonably small dose produces lasting support.”

I’m struck by Ellul’s similarity to Byron Sharp’s observation last year that “It’s rare that the hot-blooded emotions create strong brand loyalty.” Link here.

Why do I find this so compelling? I find my agency’s work unusual in the ad business. We take Ogilvy’s admonition quite seriously that whether the ad impresses someone as “creative” isn’t critical but that the ad makes them want to buy the product.

As a result our work paints pictures about a product with a rich combination of visual clarity, people, and ideas all sitting on a base of facts. And we know the net result is that people (consumers) get excited about the product and retain superb brand connections. And, we know this work drives immediate sales while creating strong brands. (Link here.)

That said, I’ve found it takes tremendous discipline to continue this work when many agencies and potential clients need creative work to, primarily, entertain themselves — skipping the question of whether this work is meaningful to consumers in ways that are profitable.

This Truth about Facts is Supported by Experience. While selling supercomputers in the late 1980′s, my mantra was to sell “heart and mind”. Far too many ad agencies can see no further than to appeal to the heart. (Sadly, the portfolio school farm team approach seems to entrench an attitude that rejects the mind as fertile territory for advertising.) By contrast, far too many engineers move into marketing only to sell to the mind.

The supercomputer example is an extreme when somehow we’d expect emotion plays little part. But emotion played a central role in even these big purchases. And, after 20 years in consumer advertising, I’ve found that whenever we exercise a disciplined approach leveraging both heart and mind then sales happen faster, the brand loyalty is stronger (and lasts longer), and the consumer is more satisfied.

Back to Byron Sharp. Just today he posted about emotional vs rational advertising (link here). And he nets out that this dichotomy isn’t a critical dichotomy for advertising because both play their role (an idea with which I suspect Ellul would strongly agree).

Similar to Ellul’s observations, in his post Sharp suggests examples of highly emotional facts such as “baby dolphins are dying because of plastic bags you throw away”.

I think there are far more subtle emotions around facts like those describing a car engine or a new wrench. Yet these facts also generate emotions, and in the right situation are far more powerful than more abstract brand storytelling.

Sharp suggests we consider persuasion oriented vs entertainment oriented advertising as a more useful dichotomy. I think that’s one smart breakdown. There are probably many more. I’ve suggested in this blog that considering the client profit horizon is often a useful approach for looking at ad choices. And I’ve found that early life cycle products or brands have far different needs than those in later life cycles.

The key take-away from Ellul should be that facts have a surprising results; that their primary value is emotional. And both Sharp and Ellul show that the human psyche is far more complex than advertising agencies often expect. We need to respect both these learnings. Because great advertising takes advantage of every tool to deliver the most powerful work.

Copyright 2013 – Doug Garnett – All Rights Reserved

All references from pages 84-87 of “Propaganda, The Formation of Men’s Attitudes” copyright 1965, Vintage Books Edition 1973, Vintage Books (A division of Random House), New York, NY.


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Doug Garnett, DRTV and Technology Industry Expert

Doug Garnett is founder and CEO of DRTV agency Atomic Direct and a leading expert on innovative uses of DRTV, infomercials and other in-depth TV and non-TV messages to build brand and drive sales.

Doug has been working in and around the technology field for 27 years. After starting in aerospace, he spent 5 years selling and marketing supercomputers. Since shifting to advertising, his clients have included AT&T, IBM, Apple, Disney Mobile, Ugobe, Presto, and Netpliance.

Doug sits on the editorial board of Response Magazine, is an adjunct professor of general advertising at Portland State University, and is a member of the Jordan-Whitney Greensheet Panel.

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