The Difference Between Bad Ads and Good

“Silence is golden.  Duct tape is silver.”  The wit of these 7 words is rooted in the fact that the second sentence is an anomaly – an unexpected intrusion into the oft-repeated idea that silence is golden. The anomaly is then brought to closure and resolved in the mind of the listener. Duct tape is, in fact, silver.  You smile a little.

Bad ads leave no gaps and have no anomalies. Everything is stated clearly. No questions form in the mind of the customer.

Good ads intrigue the customer and arouse their curiosity. Online marketers call this “engagement.”

Novelists, screenwriters and storytellers have been intriguing us for decades, yet few people in advertising ever bother to study how they do it.

Good news: I am one of those few people.

Good storytellers use gaps and anomalies to trick the reader/listener/viewer into supplying the information they intentionally left out. 

Result: engagement.

But… it’s up to your reader/listener/viewer to find resolution and bring closure to your mystery. Will he or she be able to piece it together and figure it out?

Here’s an example of an effective ad that uses gaps and anomalies to elevate the interest of the listener:

Guy2: You heard about John and Elisabeth?

Guy1: Never thought he’d do it.

Guy2: I never thought she’d say YES. [both laugh]

Guy1: She definitely could’ve done better.

Guy2: Yeah. I think John knows that, too.

Guy1: Did he go to Ramsey’s?

Guy2: Yeah, he got that part right, but he was about to mess it all up.

Guy1: How?

Guy2: He was just gonna hand it to her like it was a box of cookies.

Guy1: Who saved him?

Guy2: His ring consultant at Ramsey’s asked him how he planned to propose.

Guy1: Yeah, mine asked me, too.

Guy2: John didn’t have a plan, so his consultant said, “Hey, you’re giving her a ring from the Heart of New Orleans collection. Why not give it to her in the Heart of New Orleans?”

Guy1: Please tell me he’s gonna follow through on that.

Guy2: Yeah, he’s putting together a big master plan.

Guy 1: Every town should have a Ramsey’s.

Guy 2: Definitely.

ROY: Rrrramsey’s Diamond Jewelers, on Veterans at I-10 in Metairie and on the West Bank in Fountain Park Centre on Manhattan.

Caroline: and at Ramseys dot com.

How long did it take you to figure out that John had asked Elisabeth to marry him? Yet the characters never say marry, marriage, engaged, engagement or proposed. Likewise, the fact that Ramsey’s is a jewelry store was left unsaid until the announcer finally mentions it in his closing tag.

Here’s another ad – written on the same day – that leaves out a different kind of information. This ad features two characters that have been in this radio campaign together 52 weeks a year for more than a dozen years.

Sarah: Shopping for an engagement ring at Spence is different from every other jewelry store on earth.

Sean: [doubtful.] That’s a pretty big statement. You’re going to need to back that up with some evidence.

Sarah: Number One: We have virtually every style of engagement ring that has ever been designed.

Sean: [speaking as though judging.] Yes, that’s true.

Sarah: Number Two: All our rings are out in the open where you can pick them up and try them on and read the price tags.

Sean:  Yes, I’ve got to give you that one, too.

Sarah: Number Three: A truly fanTAStic diamond is included in the price and you get to CHOOSE the diamond for yourself.

Sean: Also true.

Sarah: That means I’m winning three-to-nothing, right?

Sean: Sarah, it’s not a contest.

Sarah: [a little bit defiantly] No, it became a contest the moment you challenged what I said.

Sean: [quietly. realizing his mistake.] I think you’re still mad that I told everyone you weren’t born in Canada.

Sarah: [a little bit angry.] Canadian engagement rings are the BEST engagement rings in the world.

Sean: I agree.

Sarah: [still angry.] And Hockey is better than football.

Sean: [Conciliatory.] And YOU are very Canadian.

Sarah: Thank you.

LOCATION TAG: Spence [SFX – scream of joy] plus Locations

Sean’s rejection of Sarah’s opening statement is interesting because characters in ads rarely – if ever –  challenge the credibility of positive statements about the advertiser. Later, Sarah’s “three-to-nothing” comment communicates an undercurrent of emotion because it is likewise unexpected, another anomaly. You raise an eyebrow and wonder, “When did this become a contest?”

Sean has done something wrong that he isn’t aware of. But you are required to figure this out for yourself.

When Sarah blurts out that “Canadian engagement rings are the BEST engagement rings in the world,” you wonder, “What the hell is a Canadian engagement ring?” Because there is no such category. This is followed by an even weirder anomaly,  the non sequitur* “And hockey is better than football.” But then you realize that Sarah is trying to prove her Canadian-ness. Finally, you have closure.

Traditionalists would argue that all of this is a waste of time and does nothing to help us convert the listener into a customer.

But they are wrong.

People will remember stories long after they have forgotten your bullet points.
— Laurie Beth Jones

And people remember people long after they have forgotten facts.

Any idiot knows what to include if you have the customer’s attention. But most ads fail to win the customer’s attention. Most advertising is just white noise.

There can be no conversion until first you have engagement. 

Carefully chosen gaps and anomalies are the signature of skillful storytellers.

It isn’t what you include that makes you a great writer.

It’s what you exclude.

Roy H. Williams

* A non sequitur is a conversational and literary device, often used for comedic purposes. It is something said that, because of its apparent lack of meaning relative to what preceded it, seems absurd to the point of being humorous or confusing.