Cut It Out

When looking for the source of an ad’s power, we naturally focus on what’s in it: the copy, the claims, the cast, the graphics, the music, the pacing. But the key is often in what’s left out.

Powerful ads compliment the audience, making them more receptive. But all too often, ads are insulting. Two decades ago, more than two-thirds of the U.S. population said advertising insulted their intelligence, according to DDB data. Today, that number is just under one-half. But that’s not necessarily cause for rejoicing. If we continue to insult nearly half of our audience, we may also be alienating them from our brands.

Every ad implicitly reveals what the brand thinks of its audience. We insult people when we underestimate their capacity to understand. The best ads are conversations between brands and consumers, and research in linguistics has found that the most effective conversations are those in which everything the listeners can supply themselves is left implicit. Include too much and they feel insulted or patronized. Include too little and the message is unintelligible. Strike a balance and they feel the brand understands them. What’s left out establishes a degree of complicity, a level of emotional closeness.

Think about some recent campaigns. Apple tells us its computers are for people who “Think different” and invites us to join them. Nike repeatedly demonstrates how well it understands the spirit and beauty of sport. “Got milk?” reminds us that, without milk, our favorite foods can torture us. How about Volkswagen’s claim that its drivers see the world as a more interesting place? Or Budweiser’s celebration of uninhibited friendship in “Whassup?”

Each of these campaigns won an Effie for proven effectiveness. Each communicates a great deal about the brand while saying little explicitly about it. If these ads had said more, they would have communicated less.

Of course, ads do need to include new, critical information that the audience cannot supply themselves. The danger lies in creating a lecture that alienates rather than a conversation that leaves enough up to the audience to involve them.

What’s left out not only establishes a rapport, it invites participation. When we tell the audience something, the source is automatically suspect. If they tell themselves, the source is unimpeachable. If we explicitly claim our brand is fun, stylish, exciting, liberating, friendly, warm or trustworthy, we are in danger of communicating just the opposite. We cannot claim to be cool. We have to be cool. We have to demonstrate the desired quality of the brand in a compelling, memorable way. Only then will the audience tell themselves we possess it.

Now comes the hard part. What’s left out places a great deal of pressure on what’s left in. The audience will eagerly participate if what’s there provokes, stimulates and engages them. They will ignore an ad that is boring, ordinary, or repetitious.

Bill Bernbach said the writer is concerned with what he puts in his writing, and the communicator is concerned with what people take out of it. When evaluating advertising, always ask yourself if you’ve left enough out to draw the audience in.