Choosing the Advertising Message

Advertising campaigns vary in their creativity. In the late 1990s, Taco Bell launched a clever television campaign featuring a chihuahua saying, 'Yo Quiero Taco Bell," meaning "I want some Taco Bell." The campaign struck a chord with the chain's 18- to 35-year-old customers and spawned an impressive array of chihuahua merchandise such as T-shirts, magnets, and talking dolls. Taco Bell's sales shot up 4.3 percent in the campaign's first year; the firm now spends $200 million a year on advertising and is keeping the chihuahua in its ad campaigns.18

In developing a creative strategy, advertisers follow four steps: message generation, message evaluation and selection, message execution, and social responsibility review.

Message Generation

The product's "benefit" message should be decided as part of developing the product concept. Yet there is usually latitude for a number of possible messages. Over time, the marketer might want to change the message, especially if customers seek new or different benefits from the product.

Creative people use several methods to generate possible advertising appeals. Many creative people proceed inductively by talking to consumers, dealers, experts, and competitors, while others use a deductive framework. Regardless of the process, how many alternative ad themes should the advertiser create before choosing? The more ads that are created, the higher the probability of finding an excellent one. Yet this is a balancing act, because the more time spent on creating alternative ads, the higher the costs, even with the use of computerized tools to create rough versions of ads.

Message Evaluation and Selection

A good ad normally focuses on one core selling proposition. Twedt suggested that messages be rated on desirability, exclusiveness, and believability.19 When the March of Dimes searched for an advertising theme to raise money for its fight against birth defects, managers brainstormed several messages. They asked a group of young parents to rate each for interest, distinctiveness, and believability, assigning up to 100 points for each. For example, "Seven hundred children are born each day with a birth defect" scored 70, 62, and 80 on interest, distinctiveness, and believability, whereas "Your next baby could be born with a birth defect" scored 58, 51, and 70. The first message outperformed the second on all accounts.20 Smart advertisers conduct market research to determine which appeal works best with their audiences.

Message Execution

The message's impact depends not only upon what is said but also on how it is said. Some ads aim for rational positioning and others for emotional positioning. U.S. ads typically present an explicit feature or benefit with a rational appeal, such as "gets clothes cleaner," while Japanese ads tend to be less direct and appeal more to the emotions.

Message execution can be decisive for highly similar products, such as detergents, cigarettes, coffee, and vodka. Consider vodka. Although it is generally viewed as a commodity product, the amount of brand preference and loyalty in the vodka market is astonishing. Most of it is based on selling an image. The Swedish brand Absolut became the largest selling imported vodka in the United States by mounting a well-integrated targeting, packaging, and advertising strategy geared toward sophisticated, upwardly mobile, affluent drinkers. The distinctively shaped bottle, suggestive of Swedish austerity, has become an icon—and is used as the centerpiece of every ad, accompanied by puns such as "Absolut Magic." The firm also runs short stories about the brand written by distinguished authors in ads designed to appeal to readers of such magazines as The New Yorker21

In preparing an ad campaign, the advertiser usually prepares a copy strategy statement describing the objective, content, support, and tone of the desired ad. Creative specialists must also find a cohesive blend of style, tone, words, and format for executing the message. Any message can be presented in a number of execution styles: slice of life, lifestyle, fantasy, mood or image, musical, personality symbol, technical expertise, scientific evidence, and testimonial. For example, testimonial advertising is used by Rogaine extra-strength for men, which promises to grow back more hair than does its predecessor. Rogaine television ads feature noted sports figures such as Utah Jazz basketball star Karl Malone delivering testimonials; in the ads, Malone says he got good results after using the product for 5 months.22

The actual words in an ad must be memorable and attention-getting to make an impression on the audience. The following ad themes (column on left) would have had much less impact without the creative phrasing (column on right):

Theme Creative Copy

Milk is good for you. Got milk? (Milk industry)

Our technology can help you do Where do you want to go today?

almost anything. (Microsoft)

No hard sell, just a good car. Drivers wanted (Volkswagen)

You set the price instead of paying Name your own price. (Priceline.com) the regular price.

Format elements such as ad size, color, and illustration will affect an ad's impact as well as its cost. Yet a minor rearrangement of mechanical elements can improve attention-getting power. Larger-size ads gain more attention, though not necessarily by as much as their difference in cost. Four-color illustrations increase ad effectiveness as well as ad cost. Still, by carefully planning the relative dominance of different elements, companies can achieve better message delivery.

Social Responsibility Review

Advertisers and their agencies must be sure their "creative" advertising does not overstep social and legal norms. Most marketers work hard to communicate openly and honestly with consumers. Still, abuses occur, and public policymakers have developed a substantial body of laws and regulations to govern advertising. Under U.S. law, for example, companies must avoid false or deceptive advertising. Also, sellers are legally obligated to avoid bait-and-switch advertising that attracts buyers under false pre-tenses.23 And, to be socially responsible, advertisers must be careful not to offend ethnic groups, racial minorities, or special-interest groups. For instance, a commercial for Black Flag insecticide was altered after a veterans group protested the playing of Taps over dead bugs.24

Some companies have begun building ad campaigns on a platform of social responsibility. Look at Ethical Funds, a Canadian mutual fund firm that will not invest in corporations that are involved in the production of military weapons, tobacco, nuclear power, and those with unfair employment practices, poor environmental records, or companies that support reactionary political regimes. One Ethical Funds ad shows scenes of child labor and people dying from cancer, presumably caused by smoking, then asks, "Do you know where your money goes?" Ethical Funds has grown from $100 million in assets to more than $2 billion over the last decade.25

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