How to drive the train of thought

Posted on 12 September, 2017 by Paul Walden

Contrary to what much of contemporary advertising might make you believe, copywriting is not necessarily about witty wordplay. Whilst being witty might help achieve your goals, good copywriting is essentially about directing the reader’s train of thought in a subtle, yet not too subtle, way. But exactly what does this mean in practice?

First, choose one major selling point as focus. Only one. Several competing selling points will reduce the impact on the recipient and make the ad less memorable. Then consider just how attractive is the selling point. If it’s simply irresistible, your job is more or less done, and all you need to do is trumpet your fantastic offer in the right media and then brace for the onslaught of crazed hordes of customers.

However, with preciously few exceptions, products are far from irresistible. If you think yours is, think again. What about your competitors’ products? Aren’t they at least nearly as attractive? Your price may be low, but does the target group really have a pressing need for your product? If so, do they understand how the product is going to make their lives easier? Stay grounded, and you will most probably realise that there are lots of communicative hurdles up ahead.

Whilst your product competes only with comparable products, your advertising will compete with the marketing of everything between heaven and Earth. You have a very small window of opportunity to grab people’s attention and get your message across. So make your creative concept stick out from the crowd, and ensure that it immediately makes people think what you want them to think.

This last advice might seem obvious – of course the goal is to make people think what you want them to think. But the point is: they are the ones who should do the thinking. People should feel that they draw their own conclusions, so don’t use your headline and picture to tell them what they should think. Instead, provide inspiration that can only lead to one conclusion.

There’s an award-winning ad for a 4WD brand that exemplifies this really well. It consists merely of a picture of a flock of birds taking flight from densely vegetated and rugged terrain. Then there is the logotype of the 4WD brand. Nothing else. No headline. No body copy. Yet, the ad inspires a lightning-fast train of thought: “there’s a 4WD in those bushes > that terrain is rough as guts > that 4WD is extremely capable!” What’s more, once people have arrived at the conclusion “that 4WD is extremely capable”, they will be reluctant to let go of it, because that would mean changing their minds.

You could visualise the mechanics of this interpretive process as a nearly closed circle, where the missing piece represents what recipients have to fill in themselves.

If you leave out just enough information from this circle, you will have directed people’s thoughts well enough for them to arrive at the desired conclusion. And in doing so, they will not only feel ownership of the idea you wanted to plant; they will also feel a little bit smart for having solved the riddle, and this will make them identify with your brand.

On the other hand, if you leave out too much information, people will be unable to complete the circle on their own. Your ad will confuse them, and they will feel frustrated and stupid for not understanding. Needless to say, such ads are inefficient and downright detrimental to your brand.

Then, of course, you’ve got the third alternative: closing the circle altogether by spelling out what people should think. This leads to static, boastful and uninteresting ads. The kind you flip by in the paper every day. Just imagine the aforementioned 4WD ad with the headline “Our 4WD can traverse any terrain”. It sits there like a sad sack of potatoes.

Unfortunately, closing the circle is oftentimes the favourite option among advertisers. This is probably due to the fact that it takes a lot of skill to come up with efficient creative concepts. It’s much easier to revert to good old bragging. You see it everywhere, and, truth be told, bragging does actually work, too. It’s just that it requires huge media budgets in order to nag people into buying the product (look at most cleaning aid commercials, and you get the picture).

The bottom line is that you’ve got everything to gain by producing strong creative concepts that respect the intelligence of your target group. You stand to achieve maximum sales in the minimum space, with the added benefit of strengthening your brand. The choice should be simple.