What my dog taught me about advertising

People are getting nervous.  They cross the street when they see me approaching.  They say there’s one in every neighbourhood, and it looks as if I’m the one.

It’s the dog’s fault.  She’s turned into an independent lady of a certain age who moves at her own pace, which is becoming more ruminative.  She also considers it undignified to be on a lead.

As a result she’ll often be a long way behind me, especially if there’s some old fish and chip paper or an open butcher’s shop to investigate.   I pause now and then to call her.  Naturally, she ignores me.

So I’ll frequently be seen shouting and gesticulating on street corners.  The dog will be out of sight in the butcher’s by then, so, to passers-by, I’ll be yelling at a lamp post or a floral display.  I fear I’m on CCTV somewhere remonstrating with a pillar box.  I could be on someone’s mobile phone video shouting at a Victorian bollard.  It’s not fair, but perception is everything.  Therefore, I’m mad.

It was the same a few years ago when I had a different dog.  This one used to try to attack any other hound he saw.   We got a dog psychologist on the job, and his answer was to train me, not the dog.  I had to anticipate the trouble and head it off by growling loudly and fiercely at the hapless creature.

That was bad enough, but what made it worse was that I had to growl the word “Bah!”.  It usually worked, and the dog would accept the warning and restrain himself before anything happened.  But it meant that, to an observer, nothing occurred but me going “Bah!”.

So what locals saw was a well-behaved dog attached to a disturbing bloke who would suddenly yell “Bah!” into space, for no reason at all.  Elderly ladies were terrified.  Small children became too frightened to leave the house.  We had to move.

Instant impressions

Now, there may be one in every neighbourhood but city centres are different.  There’s usually more than one.

When I lived in Manchester I often used to see a well-dressed man who would walk around town in an ordinary manner until he came to an office block or public building on a street corner.  Then, with great drama, he would drop to one knee, stare up and stretch out his arms vertically as if he were gauging the height of the building with an invisible tape measure. Then he’d get up, nod and carry on, only to fling himself into the same procedure at the next junction.  He became a familiar sight, and was inevitably known as John le Measurer.

Another fellow would turn suddenly on anybody who might be walking behind him and say, perfectly politely: “Hello, how are you?”  Most people would reply, just as politely, “Very well, thanks. How are you?”  He’d reply by blowing an earth-shaking raspberry, turn again and continue on his way.

Now I don’t know if there was a back-story to either of those characters, but without it  you’d have little difficulty in forming an opinion.

Work out the angles

A famous TV ad for the Guardian showed the importance of point of view when making a judgement.  From one angle we see a skinhead running towards an unsuspecting man with a briefcase and pushing him against a wall.   It’s a mugging!

Cut to the reverse angle and we see that the supposed mugger is, in fact, a saviour – he’s dashed to push the chap out of the way of a toppling pile of building debris.

The Guardian’s point was that the same thing seen from a different angle can look like something else.  You need to see the whole picture before you form an opinion.  But there’s an important variation on that point for advertisers.

As an advertiser you should never show the whole picture – not because you’re being deceptive but because you’re being selective.  You’ve a short time to get your point across, so you need to concentrate on the part of the picture that’s relevant to your specific message and audience.    Anything else is a diversion.

But misjudge the angle and you’re in big trouble.  You could be communicating the opposite of what you intend – as poor old Littlewoods found with their ‘My Mother’ Christmas commercial.

Festive foot in the mouth

All Littlewoods wanted to do was what countless other retailers do at this time of year: to suggest that parents will make their kids very happy by choosing the little darlings’ presents from this wonderful selection at these fantastic prices.

Imagine the strategy meeting: “Let’s show the kiddies’ delight at their gifts, and their heartwarming gratitude to Mum.  Aaaahh, lovely!” (Pity about Dad in this scenario, but let’s not go there right now.)

Then witness the audience reaction:  “How dare you encourage children to behave like cynical, opportunistic profiteers, extorting expensive tat from their parents with not one mention of Santa!”   The facts are the same, it’s the perception that’s different.  We even see the kids appreciating gifts for other people, but the audience is seeing things from a completely different angle, and nobody forecast that.

It’s just not fair.  However, fairness doesn’t exist in advertising.  Get your message and your target audience right and you’re home and dry.  Get the angle wrong and you’re in trouble, no matter how good your product or your intentions.

Littlewoods devised the ad in-house.  That might have saved some expenditure but it might well cost  more in lost revenue.

It’s certainly worth calling for some specialist input and a dispassionate, objective view long before you start shooting.  In this game, how you present yourself becomes how you’re perceived becomes what you are – even if you’re not.   So, Littlewoods, let’s hear it.  Join in with me:  Bah!

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