Indirect Messaging in Ads

Advertising is not the practice of the obvious. The best ads are often not the ones that address the subject directly. Indeed, an ad that spells out exactly what the seller wants you to buy can be among the worst. Back in the Soviet days, a huge Moscow billboard carried this (translated) message:

DRINK TEA

That was the whole text of the ad. It said exactly what the state-run tea importing and processing company had in mind, but it was hardly persuasive. Every Russian was already aware of the option — indeed, tea drinking was as essential element in Russian culture as it was in Victorian England — but they were drinking something else (water, vodka… I don’t know) and “drink tea” certainly wasn’t going to do much to make them change. Perhaps it just needed a little tweak: the addition of an incentive, like this one:

DRINK TEA

…OR WE’LL SHIP YOU TO THE GULAG

In contrast, this Geico ad takes an indirect approach.

Geico isn’t trying to sell you insurance — at least not here in this ad. No one buys insurance because an ad makes it sound appealing. You buy insurance when you find you need it: when you buy a new car, or when your current carrier raises your premiums and you decide to look for a better price.

Geico (or its ad agency) understands this, and they build their ads not to sell insurance, but to make you remember Geico in a positive light. They’ve created a whole campaign of ads that are ¬†funny, well-produced, and based on startling (but not disturbing) visual images (e.g., a camel in an office). So that when you find you need insurance, Geico comes to mind: they’re the guys with the funny ads! Remember the camel in the office? Remember the gecko with glasses who looks like Warren Buffet? Of course you do. And there’s a damn good chance that they’re who you’ll call, rather than some more straightlaced company that preaches to you about protecting your family or your investment and whose name you don’t immediately recall.

The indirect sell isn’t right for all products in all advertising environments. If you’re pitching an engineering product in a trade journal ad, for example, you might need to appeal to the engineer’s specific application requirement: our bearings last 33% longer in agricultural applications; our marine pollution spill response service is available for immediate deployment worldwide. But for consumer products, making the consumer love you is often the way to their wallets.

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