A brief history of persuading people to buy things

6 Feb

By Jonny Cameron

Think Small! The creative revolution in Madison Avenue during the 1950’s and 60s put people at the centre of successful advertising; an evolution that has accelerated into the digital marketing era.

The difference with digital… it’s easier to understand people.

Having recently read The Real Madmen by Andrew Crackell, I cursed my poor timing that I couldn’t have published this blog to coincide with some sort of season finale (timely content is always good boys and girls). It made me think about the differences between traditional advertising and digital advertising. What’s changed and which one is right for your business?

Some advertising lessons from the 1950s

Cracknell’s book introduces us to the real-life game-changers working on Maddison Avenue in the early-to-mid 20th century. A time when the makeup of advertising agencies evolved into the structured, multi-facted marketing departments that we see today. It was all spurned from a deeper understanding of what motivates buyers and was fuelled by a growing desire to take creative risks.

In the early part of the 20th century, advertising agencies moved from merely selling ad space for newspapers, to producing and writing ads, which led to it becoming a lucrative business. Paid for public advocacy became more competitive as merely buying the space was no longer enough. You needed to catch attention and be persuasive.

Cracknell describes an era where the banality and aspiration were removed from advertsing, in favour of a people-focussed approach and an understanding that with creativity comes great rewards, but also the potential for mistakes.

1950s ads

Clockwise: Bill Bernbach’s ad for Ohrbach’s; Schwepps, Hathaway’s, Volskwagen

It all seems so simple now…

Among the campaigns that caught my eye (excuse the pun) was Ogilvy’s for Hathaway shirts. It depicted a character wearing not only a Hathaway shirt, but also, for some reason, an eye patch. Simple, bizarre, yet memorable. It helped Hathaway shirts sell more.

And have you ever heard of Commander Whitehead of Schweppes? During the 1950s he began appearing in adverts described as the “Schwepsmann Extraordinary”, surely a harbinger to the meerkat or GoCompare opera singer.

Bill Bernbach from ad-agency DDB created an advert for a high street ladies clothes shop with the line:

“Liberal Trade-in. Bring in your wife and in just a few dollars… we’ll give you a new woman”.

It pictured a man carrying his wife under his arm. A simple notion now, of taking language from another industry and applying it to this situation, but in the 1950s, this was quite a move. The ad played on language, made the target audience remember it and stirred all the emotions of saving time, money and pleasing your wife.

Then, there’s the famous Volkswagen ad telling people to “think small”, surely a contradiction in terms when it comes to cars, an industry that had for so long been telling people that bigger is better. This was the non-sell-sell and showed a greater understanding of what mattered to the every day consumer; reduced fuel bills, being able to park places.

The purported hedonism of the 50s and 60s as depicted in the TV series Madmen may have declined (at this agency we have a slighlty less liberal attitude to alcohol and a more developed take on gender equality), but does the digital advertising era mean more opportunity?

Creativity and fear

With digital advertising on search engines, social media and display, you only pay when people click or see your ad. This means you can be specific with your targeting, but you can also experiment with creatives in order to find one that works. If something doesn’t work, you’ll quickly know, revise and try again. This increases the scope to be creative.

Just because there is a “technical” element to any digital marketing campaign, it does not diminish the importance of the creativity. Whilst a well-structured Google Adwords account will help you get more relevant clicks for less money, it is the strength of the message in your ads that will get you a good click through rate and a better return on investment.

All good digital ads should catch attention, explain the offer, why it is unique and even instruct people what to do next. Good creative will stand out on flooded web pages and search engine results pages.

Understanding potential customers

More than ever, we can understand the needs and wants of potential customers and make sure we remove all obstacles to them becoming actual customers, through researching of online behaviour. We can determine the language they use, the questions they are asking and the motivations that make them act.

The balance of power continues to shift towards the customer, which means that advertising has to be more ethical. If your features and benefits aren’t as broad as competitors, you’ll soon get found out. But, if you can stand by what you do and say… then digital advertising is a cost effective way to let customers know.


2 Responses to “A brief history of persuading people to buy things”

  1. amyheller23 February 7, 2014 at 1:32 am #

    This blog was very useful in educating people about how digital media allows the advertisement company to understand and reach their specific targets more efficiently! Very good information starting with advertising lessons from the past that lead to how things are now!

    • navajotalk2013 February 7, 2014 at 9:46 am #

      Thanks for the feedback Amy! I agree with you about the importance of targeting, definitely something that differentiates digital from traditional advertising – Jonny

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