May 2005 - Per Inquiry

You Can’t Un-Ring a Bell

By Rick Petry

Oh, no! Are you tired of direct response advertising that follows the same hackneyed yell-and-sell formulas? What you need to know is that there may be a reason why these tried and true techniques are repeatedly employed by successful hard-sell practitioners and it is this: the direct response industry has conditioned consumers to expect certain easy-to-decode patterns in their direct response messages.

Think about your own television viewing behavior. We all make snap decisions in the course of a few seconds as to whether we are going to stick with a channel’s programming or not (and if a man is controlling the remote, far less). With all of the media fragmentation competing for consumers’ attention, it is more difficult than ever to break through to viewers. The well-traveled path of the spot that begins with a rhetorical question is one way to circumvent any confusion as to what you, as an advertiser, are up to.

Perhaps we owe it all to Ivan Pavlov. You may remember Ivan, the late 19th century Russian physiologist with the drooling dogs that you studied in high school science class. Pavlov rang a bell when he gave his hounds meat, causing them to salivate. Then he took away the food and just teased them with the bell, yet they had the same conditioned response. Hence the term Pavlovian response was born.

If you’ve ever bought or been intrigued by a DRTV offer (and who hasn’t?), then the moment you hear that, “Oh, no!” you’ve been conditioned just like those pooches to stand at attention. The meat being plied in this case may be a wonderful and perhaps wacky product that is about to occupy the center of your stage.

This conditioned response doesn’t simply afflict those of us in the direct marketing industry. I’m suggesting that such a reaction may be universal among virtually all TV-consuming tribes.

If you have any doubts about our ability to make consumers drool, simply observe an avid follower of home shopping, another genre of direct marketing that uses formulaic patterns…but be sure to bring a bib.

Brand advertisers entering the DRTV fray are not so keen on these direct formulas, equating it to taking a bath in Cheese Whiz, so the challenge becomes: “How do you take the essence of the formula and reinvent it?”

After all, if it quacks like a duck, then a duck is what you’ve got. But for those who toil on the creative side of our business, a continual search for new approaches that rewrite the code keeps writers, producers and directors awake at night. We may be counting ducks to fall asleep, but we still dream of flying with swans.

Rick Petry is president of agency services for Euro RSCG 4D DRTV, a full-service direct marketing agency based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].


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