You’ve Lost That Selling Spirit

Television commercials are losing their ability to sell. This thought came to me after being inducted into the Direct Marketing Association Hall of Fame a few months ago, when someone asked me how TV advertising had changed over the past 40 years.

Admittedly, as a television direct response advertising practitioner, I’m biased in favor of commercials that sell. But my statement applies to all types of television commercials. From image-focused car commercials to boundary-pushing beer ads to direct response insurance offers, these spots don’t motivate viewers to take action — to go to a store, to call a toll-free number, to visit a Web site. By and large, most commercials are unable or unwilling to make the cash register ring.

Why? Because product demonstrations tend to be poorly conceived and executed (or not used at all). Because toll-free numbers and Web addresses are presented poorly: They’re not on the screen long enough; they appear at the wrong time, and the commercial doesn’t compel viewers to get off the couch and respond. Because too many commercials focus on being clever and conceptual rather than creatively communicating reasons to buy. Commercials today seem almost embarrassed to ask for the order, as if doing so might offend viewers’ sensibilities.

It wasn’t this way in the early days of television, when commercials sold with bravado and tremendous effectiveness. Of course, what worked then would never work today because viewers have become much more sophisticated buyers — they’d be turned off by the crude look and hyperbole of some of the spots. What would work, though, is recapturing the selling spirit of those early commercials. I believe you can learn a lot from history, so let me share a bit of television advertising history with you.

Until Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton Minnow delivered his “vast wasteland” speech in 1961 and the maximum commercial length was set at two minutes, spots were sometimes five to 10 minutes or even longer. Some of these longer commercials were actually listed in the television section of the newspaper and were as popular as the programs they competed against.

In a number of instances, advertisers brought in professional pitchmen from carnivals, department stores, open-air city markets and the Atlantic City boardwalk, trained the camera on them and gave them free rein to sell. And sell they did — slicers and dicers, car polish, cosmetics, real estate and jewelry.

The production standards of these early commercials were low. The pitchmen often looked disreputable. The odds are that at least some of them stretched the truth to make a sale.

When they were finished, though, you wanted to buy. The demonstrations were compelling: They set cars on fire to demonstrate the durability of a car polish; they made chopping vegetables look easy and fun. They worked their audience into a buying mode, building on the benefits and presenting an airtight case for why you couldn’t do without a product. They motivated with meaningful premiums, warnings that the deal wouldn’t be available for long and slashed prices.

Pitchmen weren’t concerned about building brands, an integral part of television advertising today, even for those of us doing television direct-response work. But it’s possible to build a brand and sell at the same time. Too often, though, advertisers and their agencies act as if they’re mutually exclusive activities. They rarely incorporate tried-and-true selling tactics into their spots — testimonials, call-to-action devices, demonstrations, guarantees — as if these techniques might somehow taint their brand building.

Too many spots focus on being provocative, funny or emotional, but fail to make a sale. Viewers scratch their heads, laugh or cry, but they don’t buy.

To recapture the selling spirit, I suggest these tactics:

1. Create longer commercials. Some products and services are too complex to be sold effectively in 30 seconds, and a longer length allows for better demonstrations or more compelling offers.

2. Use a two-step process. The commercial should be the first step to drive customers to call a number, visit a store or go to a Web site. For many products and services — especially high-ticket ones-it’s much easier to sell viewers on taking a no-commitment step than actually buying. Once they make the effort to take this step, however, they qualify themselves and greatly increase the odds they’ll buy if the second step is handled effectively.

3. Include an act-now reason. Try this experiment: Watch 10 commercials and see how many of them give you a good reason to buy now rather than later. Not many. Act-now reasons can be anything from limited-date offers to special pricing. One caveat: These reasons need to be presented with more conviction and sophistication than a car dealer’s ad.

4. Tell agencies to create spots that sell. Agencies are perfectly capable of creating commercials that produce results, but they won’t do so unless advertisers give them that direction.

Let me assure you that I’m not suggesting that all commercials should resemble late-night pitches for personal injury lawyers. That would simply make a bad situation worse. What I am suggesting is that television advertising is in danger of forgetting its true purpose, and that when commercials stop making the cash register ring, advertisers will look toward other media to achieve that goal.

Ron Bliwas is CEO and president, Ogilvy & Mather’s A. Eicoff & Co.