Why Is This So Freaking Hard To Do?


Friday, 2:33pm
Reno, NV
Get away from me, kid, ya bother me…” (Tom Waits, “Step Right Up”)


So, let’s take on the entire advertising model of western civilization, what d’ya say?

Here’s a good place to start: It’s the end of baseball season, playoff fever in the air. I’ve been watching the SF Giants stumble-bum their way through a summer swoon (barely making the last NL wild-card spot)…

… and generally enjoying the age-old process of heartbreak and joy. I followed sports religiously as a kid, but paid less and less attention to it as the real-life adventures of adulthood took up all my time… and now, having a wee bit more time to indulge, I’ve returned to the fold.

But I record the games, and watch them after-the-fact.

Because of the mind-numbing commercial breaks.

I’m not alone, of course. Across the country, grown men and women run screaming from rooms when someone inadvertently turns on the evening news, for fear of hearing the score in a game they’re recording for later.

And being forced to endure the entire broadcast — including the endless, mind-melting commercial breaks — in, say, a bar or a friend’s house is pure torture.

The SAME commercials will play over and over, sometimes twice in the same break. Some of the national ones are mildly clever (at best), but hardly classic films that deserve repeated views. And the local stuff is just awful. (The locals can be excused, of course — tiny budgets, no insight to how persuasion actually works, and they’re at the mercy of clueless ad agencies or a brother-in-law with a camcorder. There’s even some charm in the awkwardness of homemade spots… sometimes, anyway. Mostly not, but you might get the flavor of the area at times.)

But the national spots have no real excuse. Yes, there is value in repetitive views — the average buyer sees a late-night cable infomercial something like 7 times, in pieces lasting a few minutes, before pulling out a credit card. There’s a process to the art of long-form, chew-up-the-wee-hours commercials.

However, the model of jamming a single pre-recorded commercial into every break in a sporting contest just begs to be ignored. Any thinking creature knows to check out mentally during the break, and go do something else. If you’re welded to the couch (say, in the midst of watching a blowout, weighed down by one too many beers), you still do not “watch” any commercial for the 20th time…

… you just exist while it flickers on the tube, a vague irritation forced on you while you wait for the fun to continue.

Why do advertisers do this?

Fear, first of all. Fear of making a mistake, of offending viewers, of risking the wrath of clients or shareholders or CEO overlords. And fear of being held accountable — the top Madison Avenue ad agencies never make true direct response commercials, because that would require measuring results…

which, oops, might expose them for the charlatans they are. As long as they make high-production-value commercials with lots of explosions and special effects, while celebrities intone nonsense slogans with Shakespearean urgency, and never ask for a response from viewers…

… well, there can be nothing to measure. Thus, the ad becomes a “success” if the client “likes” it. Never mind if it actually brings in sales or not. (And the few car commercials that actually do push special sales events keep everything vague enough to cover the agency’s ass with plausible deniability.)

Second, few large corporations allow real sales-savvy folks to rise in the hierarchy. The decision-makers have no clue how to create effective advertising — that’s why they hire “the best” agencies money can buy.

But my experience over the decades is that real salesmanship remains a scarce commodity even in award-heavy ad agencies. They like to pretend they understand selling, but their love of white-bread humor, strange metaphors (“buy this car and you’ll be a super-cool secret agent!”) and logic-defying slogans gives them away. I mean, “We’re the best. Period.” WTF?

Total rubes in the selling game. Frauds. (Man, did I just say that out loud?)

Lastly… the big advertisers continue to bore and irritate their best potential customers because…

… they are ignorant fools.

Even a cursory knowledge of the history of commercial success in television gives them the easiest possible answer to this problem. And they’re too self-involved and dismissive of classic salesmanship to even realize what damage they’re doing by refusing to even consider this answer.

Here’s my suggestion… and please, tell me where I’m wrong:

1. Start by hiring a spokesman who is interesting, knowledgeable, perhaps sexy (or so unsexy they’re fascinating), and… I dunno… maybe even a fan of the game. With just a wee touch of actual salesmanship in their blood.

2. Instead of shelling out big bucks for a slot to run your tired old useless pre-recorded commercial…

just go live during your spots. The technology is there, isn’t it? Tell me you can’t set up a camera on a set that delivers a live feed, on call, during breaks in a game. Explain to me how Johnny Carson did exactly this with live commercials on The Tonight Show fifty years ago, with great success…

… but you can’t do it now, because why?

3. The trick is, you ENGAGE viewers, in real time. You’re watching the game, you understand the passion and the occasional irritations of live sports… AND you’ve got a simple sales message to deliver. Be a mensch, be that guy the viewer welcomes into his world, who just happens to also have a small, understandable agenda regarding selling some product now and then.

4. There is no shortage of just-fine actors, or masters of salesmanship with some personality and wit. And ANY halfway-decent marketer with direct sales experience can think of a thousand ways to make this live break work.

The main problem is this: Viewing television is a PASSIVE behavior. As is reading the newspaper, or surfing websites, or listening to the radio. Your job, as a marketer, is to bring your prospect OUT of that passive state (garbage in, garbage out)…

and ignite an ACTIVE state in him. Your advertising should strive to be the most exciting thing he encounters all day long.

Sure, not everyone wants what you offer — but that’s the default case in marketing. You’re after the dude who IS in dire need of what you’re selling.

So focus on him. Make the spot about him, and his needs, and his state of awareness.

This ain’t rocket science. It’s fundamental direct response marketing.

5. Why be scared of something as simple and straightforward as a live spot, rather than a boring “seen it 50 times already” commercial?

In 30 seconds, I can make any sales message better, live, off the top of my head. So can most any experienced, self-respecting marketer. You engage, you keep it real, you know what’s going on (cuz you’re watching the game), and you have a simple, measurable response you request of your viewer.

6. Mistakes are GOOD, even. People will actually watch more intently if they believe a train wreck might occur.

Melt-downs are fine. Heck, get drunk, if you can still do your job. Reveal some humanity.

Messy desks, and non-perfect discussions are great — the best TV communicators have always had a knack for connecting with the audience by being a “regular guy”. By being flawed… but possessing just a small bit of insider knowledge, or a lead on a better bargain, or being a trusted resource for advice.

Yes, this is like the shopping cable shows. With sales-savvy live representatives bonding and engaging and selling the bejesus out of stuff.

Did YOU need to be persuaded by a fancy high-production Hollywood-style commercial to buy the car you’re now driving? Or did you seek out advice and info from trusted sources, drive a bunch of cars around first, take all the salesman’s blather with a grain of salt… and come to your own best conclusion?

The cliche is that middle-aged dudes with thinning hair and bulging bellies buy Porches in order to reclaim some sense of sexy youth. Maybe that happens every so often.

More often, middle-aged dudes lust after those sports cars their entire life, and can only afford one when they’re older. Sure, they’ll listen to Classic Rock while zooming around downtown, and indulge in memories and feelings of power and attractiveness they thought were lost forever…

… but they bought the car the same way you buy cars. You shop, you fool yourself about your budget, you rationalize, you seek out good info to support what you already want to do, etc.

But you are never hypnotized by a sleek, CGI-infused commercial. That’s not what sells you.

7. Finally… sports fans are not imagining that commercial breaks are getting longer and more frequent. That is actually happening. When you see a game live inside a stadium, it’s stunning how much time is wasted waiting for the national feed to finish up the commercials. Players just standing around, waiting for the okay to start playing again.

TV is losing eyeballs every year. The new generations coming up are appalled at the mindlessness of commercial television, and are finding new ways to get the entertainment, news and social connectivity they crave.

So the vanishing audience of TV gets smaller, older, and more frustrated with the endless repetitive commercials. And desperate marketers can’t think of an alternative to bombarding them with the same old shit, over and over and over again.

The live spot has already proven itself, many times in the history of television. The older audiences are already used to it, and any newer viewers trapped into watching a game live can be charmed and woken up by deft handling of good, raw, live salesmanship.

It’s a dance of death on a sinking ship.

I’m just sayin’. If you’re a huge company, and you bought 20 spots for a big game, why not use two or three of those spots to experiment a bit?

Cuz your audience is tuning you out when you run the same commercial over and over. You’re paying to be white background noise while a new pitcher comes in from the bullpen.

No one will ever listen to me on this, of course.

Savvy marketers have always been the minority in biz, and that is our strength. If the rest of the capitalist world ever caught on to how successful direct response can be (when done right), we’d lose our competitive advantage.

Most people are sleep-walking through life, bored shitless and not very good at their jobs. This includes the vast majority of decision-makers in business and in advertising. They do not understand salesmanship, they’re frightened of ballsy, aggressive direct response tactics, and they just want to please the client (who’s even more clueless than they are) and go have a martini.

But it’s fun to tackle these problems with some creative “what if” thinking, isn’t it. Especially when you get trapped into watching a game that hasn’t been recorded, and you can’t fast-forward through the breaks.

Brr. Worst torture there is for an adman. It just offends you at the cellular level.

Okay, rant over. That was fun.

Stay frosty,


P.S. By the way… we’re having yet another mastermind meeting this October, and I’m stunned you haven’t looked into joining us yet.

Yes, it’s exclusive, and not cheap. But the intensity of the focus on your biz, and solving your specific problems, using the vast resources and experience of the experts and fellow marketers in the group is something you’ve got to see to appreciate.

Go here to get a taste of what so many current and former members say about this rare mastermind.

It’s great stuff. I love hosting it, and I love getting to hang out with the guest experts I invite (like Joe Sugarman, Jay Abraham, Dean Jackson, Joe Polish, Rich Schefren, Bond Halbert and others). You get to rub elbows with all of us, cuz this is a small, intimate, and total “get things done” meeting.

Just check it out already… click here to see what’s up.

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"11 Really Stupid Blunders You're Making With Your Biz & Career Right Now."

  • Cheryl Cigan says:

    Can’t improve on the points you made. Not one bit. From *my* perspective, let me share this cultural shock with you.

    Spent the past three months watching only NetFlix in the evening when my brain turned to mush and creative had left the building. Did this while a few of my favorite network programs were on hiatus.

    Last Monday began the season premiere week of two of my favorite programs.

    I couldn’t believe the commercials. One right after the other. Frustrating for sure.

    NetFlix and the gentleness of a few MidSomer Murders are looking pretty good right about now.

    • John Carlton says:

      I think we’re seeing the death throes of television — it might take a decade to just wither away, but with so many other options out there… and with more companies online getting hipper to the wonders of actual salesmanship, PLUS ways to target prospects better…

      Heck. We may end up hating the new paradigms more, cuz every time we sit at the monitor, we’ll be deluged with shit we actually WANT to buy, relentlessly…

  • Chris Chia says:

    Thanks for delivering a good old dose of old-school salesmanship and not-so-common sense, John. I’m currently in the middle of crafting out a sales letter for a client and this post just brings me back to ground zero. You gotta be selling, and you gotta be selling well.

    On another note, you’re absolutely right on crappy commercials on the boob tube. Even in Singapore, most of the major spots are taken by big companies that clearly paid a clueless creative to hash together a commercial that doesn’t push the boundaries, doesn’t ask for response, doesn’t do any of the classic direct-response tactics to actually make a sale… Boy does it suck.

    You’re right. Television’s slowly becoming a thing of the past. Heck, I’m 17 and it’s been years since I sat down to catch a saturday night movie or a sports game. I’m streaming all of it online. At the very least you can skip the commercials…

    “Most people are sleep-walking through life, bored shitless and not very good at their jobs. ”

    Now that’s a harsh truth hardly anyone would have the cojones to admit.

    Thanks once again for cutting the bullshit and dishing the dirt on what really works.

    • John Carlton says:

      Hi Chris. Nice to have a 17-year-old hip to this stuff. You’re the future of advertising, so I’m happy to see you already using good critical thinking skills when looking at it…

  • robin says:


    That’s the post I’ve been waiting for for years!
    I’m having a hard time making people and clients understand how the spots you see on television and advertising generally speaking are NOT real advertisements!

    I always get a “you’re only 21, you don”t get it, these people have experience and know what to do”.

    Yep. I know that I could rewrite ANY ad I see out there to make companies more money from it, but hey, who am I to tell them what to do.

    At least some people in the US know about Direct-Response, I’m feeling quiet lonely here in France as a starting copywriter.

    Thanks for this post John!


    • John Carlton says:

      Hi Robin. Yeah, most of Europe has been playing catch-up in the direct response field. Britain caught up quickly, however, once it got into it. The hold up for Europe was the mail system — in the US, it’s one system. There, it’s a cluster-fuck. However, once the Web came along, all that became irrelevant, and direct response methods made huge inroads.

      Still, the US has a long history of creating and consuming stuff through direct response. Not so much in Europe (nor Asia). You may eventually be seen as the pioneering hero in France of this great sales tool. It WILL work, and work like gangbusters forever. You’re in a good spot, if lonely…

      Good luck.

  • Will Compton says:

    Every time a lame “commercial” splashes across the TV, I can feel my blood pressure rising…

    And then the obligatory ten minute rant about what makes good advertising. It’s gotten to the point where my friends and family, after watching a commercial, turn to ask me, “Now what’s wrong with that one… it was very entertaining wasn’t it?”

    “Yeah, but are you going to buy that product now?”


    But I consider myself, you John, and all the other savvy direct-response guys to be enlightened crusaders against the advertising dark ages.

    By the way, your idea for live commercials is genius… too bad the big guys have no guts… or brains.

    Well, too bad for them.

  • Rich Fercy says:

    We have watched TV for a decade with the mute button the most used item on the remote. I’m not big on baseball, but growing up in Green Bay WI, the Packers are a religon here. Everytime I take a rookie to their first game, I have to explain why everything stops when a guy in a blue jumpsuit with an elbow length orange glove held across his chest steps on the field. Network time out again, and there is no wonder why 60 minutes of football takes 3 hours. Your comments are right on the money. B-T-W, Please explain the origin of ‘Stay Frosty’. Thanks.

    • John Carlton says:

      “Stay frosty” comes from the movie “Aliens”, Rich… they’re about to make a last stand, and Hicks says “Stay frosty”. Loved the movie, the line has stuck with me, and it fits for a good attitude in advertising.

      Man, does it fit.

  • Mike Devaney says:

    Companies only seem ready to do something wild n’ crazy (like a live commercial) during the Superbowl…usually running a contest or something (Go Daddy.com, Bud Light).

    If it “works” on that day, then why wouldn’t it work during other events, like a weekly sitcom?

    On another note, I just read a lead article on Digiday or Ad Age, making fun of direct response commercials…particularly the ones that open w a question related to something unpleasant, “Are you suffering from hemorrhoids?”,”Need a divorce lawyer F-A-S-T?”

    I’m sure the author scored points with the executives who read Digiday and Advertising Age. Now, that he’s got establishment credibility on his resume, he can start groveling for a job.

    • John Carlton says:

      It’s worth repeating, over and over: Civilians (non-ad experts) hate direct response marketing, because it violates their sense that commercials and ads should only be entertaining. The element of actually selling stuff is simply above their pay grade.

      What’s frustrating to direct response masters is that most folks IN advertising feel the same way.

      The real masters of selling will forever be in a despised minority, because the effort it takes to understand the skill, and put it to good use, is simply more effort than most people are willing to expend.

      But then, if direct response was more popular in the ad world, where would rebels like us be? My entire career, and all the rewards I’ve enjoyed financially and fame-wise, have depended on the majority in my field being ignoramuses. Funny, that.

  • Lisa Rothstein says:

    As a former denizen of the big “clueless” agencies, I have to concur. We were all terrible snobs about the “below the line” folks who did the direct response advertising for our clients, while we did the sexy stuff.

    Still, I did do my best to care about the strategy more than the creative kudos and fancy production boondoggles on the client’s dime. I created at least one TV campaign that significantly increased the brands’ distinctiveness and popularity (not all that hard to do with generic white underwear) and which played a big part in the 20% profit gains every year for almost a decade (no I can’t prove it — it’s not direct response :-).

    I’m a big fan of the idea that advertising doesn’t have to be either-or. There can be brand-awareness advertising that appeals to the emotions, makes the brand stand for something AND have direct appeals to the consumer. Today, it’s crazy not to — especially since in the 1980s our viewers were not sitting watching TV with a tool to instantly purchase IN THEIR HANDS. (Of course, I might not buy a new car on my iPhone 🙂

    The live spot idea during sports events is genius — if only to STOP the instant-tune-out starting the second time you see a prerecorded ad in one sitting. Of course, it would be great to do it during scripted TV that had a lot of OMG moments too, with a team of commentators asking viewers to weigh in with their own reactions on Twitter. Even better if the company could get some product placement in the show too. The opportunities for real engagement — AND greater creativity — are everywhere.

    I’m with you John…but it seems sad that not much has changed since the 1980s and 1990s in that the “creative departments” of most big ad agencies can be some of the most stuck-in-their-ways people around. SIGH.

  • Good one John. People are hungry for entertainment and inspiration. Give them both, and they’ll buy all day long. Or at least, that’s the theory 🙂

    • John Carlton says:

      Not really theory, Lawton — it’s been proven, over and over again in the TV age (again, Johnny Carson, and late night QVC rants). It’s not even a gamble to put a REAL salesman in a live spot like I suggest — because, you know, he’s a SALESMAN.

      But then, the world don’t roll on good ideas. It stumbles along on guesswork and bullshit, as always…

  • doug powell says:


    During a nationally televised football game this weekend Lincoln ran 2 commercials for their new mini-suv/station-wagon/space-machine.

    The spot utilized Matthew McConaughey as the narrator/driver.

    2 different 60 second spots filled with the dudes ramblings as he was driving to what I could only imagine was “the old moon tower”

    While the scenery was artsy, the space ship looked ummm spacey shippy, and the stoner had his shirt on – the commercial had zero ***this is why to buy to buy this interplanetary transport”. Reminded me of the Brad Pitt Chanel No 5 spot.

    Totally hard shifting gears. Check out Rhett & Link – Local Commercials on YouTube. They brought the cheese to colonic’s and the fromage to taxidermy.

    Staying Frosty,


    P.S. ‘Alright, alright, alright.’

    • John Carlton says:

      Just saw that flick again recently. Combine it with “American Graffiti” for a mind-bending peek into the soul of America. Add “Woodstock”, and you’ve got a little Boomer festival going…

      “Love those redheads…”

  • Ah….I was enjoying the blog and the replies thinking…get back to work…when you finished me with “love those redheads….” You sold me into making a post. Ha. I think the live commercial is awesome as a concept and can be taken into lots of different arenas. I’m a realtor and did a fake “Open House” video where I pretended the buyer was walking with me through the open house. I met ‘them’ outside the house by the open house sign. I even asked him/her to take off their shoes. Goofy, loose and fun….shaky camera and all. And, oh so easy to do, if you know your stuff about the product.
    Thanks for the inspiration and confirmation. My next video post will be on my Fan Facebook page.

  • David Garfinkel says:


    You and I agree on so many things, and what you wrote here is no exception.

    Of course those smooth-talkin’ suits at the agencies usually have no idea how to sell anything… except, of course, their own services…

    There are a couple other issues, too, maybe:

    1) There’s either some level of explicit or unspoken pressure on the agencies to make their ads _entertaining_, to fit into the milieu of “entertainment” that bookends the ads (the show!).

    To be sure, if the agency folk knew how to be truly entertaining, they might be in “real” show biz, as opposed to agency advertising.

    But occasionally, you’ll see an ad that forces a grin instead of a grimace.

    HOWEVER, being entertaining _while selling_ is a whole nother kettle of fish, altogether. Much harder. Our buddy Mr. Benson has pretty much mastered it, and I would say you have as well, but you guys are a rare breed.

    On a good day, I’m part of that breed.

    Other days, pathetic old me, all I can do is sell.

    Oh, well…

    So, if the mandate is to be entertaining or not get let on the air (and, to be fair, I have no idea how much pressure there is to do that), then the talent (and I mean writing and production talent, not just actors) for the most part, just isn’t there.

    2. Claims. We make ’em for the products we sell, but very, very few big national corporate advertisers have agencies that make actual claims that are palpable (as opposed to preposterous claims– LOTS of those).


    First of all, preposterous claims are safe. The FTC’s reasonable man theory of advertising is never going to take a guy who says, “What am I going to do with my hands? This is the point at which I start throwing things (ATT wireless ad)”… seriously.

    No danger there.

    But what about making powerful, believable claims?

    Again, no know how to do, in many cases. (At agencies.)

    And also, with all the alphabet-agency eyeballs on big national ads, the fear you talk about in your post takes on a whole new dimension.

    Actually, it IS possible to make a powerful claim for a consumer product with a broad consumer market. As ya know. Rosser Reeves kinda mastered that in the 60s. He of course was the guy who invented the Unique Selling Proposition.

    But, the strength of his personality, and the power of his work, scared the shit out of a lot of advertisers (and prolly his bosses, colleagues, and employees, as well).

    Too bad, all of this. Billions of dollars go down the drain, every week if not every day.

    But… such is the world we live in, eh?

    • John Carlton says:

      Great insight, Garf. Thanks for posting.

      Still, all of that gorgeous old-school salesmanship could be channeled into the very live segments I’m advocating. I say bring back dancing cigarette boxes (well, okay, maybe dancing detergent boxes), and a little daring adventure in advertising.

      Ads don’t have to be suspicious piles of psy-op bait, or (as Seinfeld put it) clever nonsense. People need stuff, and often ads are the only way they discover where they can get what they need.

      Good, honest claims… that can be supported by reality (say, by also having a great product)… are the key to good ads. Good point, pal.

  • Stephen Bray says:

    Just moved house. Haven’t unpacked the T.V. from its carton. It’s been three weeks. I think I may have a slide projector somewhere too. I’m 64 BTW not a kid who doesn’t know any better. I agree with you. T.V. is like a withering arm – best to have it off 😉

  • Dan Sharp says:

    John, you are so full of shit on this…

    Didn’t you ever read your Gene Schwarz? The Madison Avenue boys are doing exactly what he tried to bring to direct response.

    Look, no megabuck commercial needs to trigger a response. It needs to take a big, giant, undefined “desire” or “need”… and focus it, like a sun-beam through a magnifying glass in the hand of a sadistic 8 year old… onto the product.

    That is what these commercials are doing. They are not trying to pick off the people who want to “buy now.” Those people are at the dealerships and retailers.

    No, these “bullshit” commercials are playing the long game. They are going after those who will buy “soon” or maybe buy “later”.

    Why do they do this? The answer, as Guru Gary would have said, is simple. Because the “soon” and “later” crowd is much, much, much, much bigger than the podunk, dinky little group of people you could ever persuade to pick up the phone or whip out their credit cards “right now.”

    All that said — I would love to see what would happen if someone tested your “live” idea. Hey, it COULD work.

    • John Carlton says:

      I can’t tell if you’re being serious here or not. The “long game”? For buying a car, sure, there may exist a mythical period where desire is magically inserted into the human brain, where it cooks until a sale suddenly happens. More likely, the need for wheels is organic in this culture, and branding may play a small part of the final decision… after budget stretches, perceived deals, and putting aside the desire for a sportscar to get a family van for now.

      Car commercials are the minority in the commercial wasteland between innings, anyway.

      Regardless, I never said the ultimate action in these live segments would be to “buy now”. Not all “response” in direct response is a sale — it’s also to get a free report, take note of an event coming up, or just jot down the name and number of a service you may need later on. You know — the very standard elements of direct response advertising that moves a prospect forward toward a sale. Not in a direct line.

      In fact, any live segment could just as easily play a “long game” as well (or better) than pre-recorded commercials — it simply depends on what your goal is in your marketing plan.

      And Halbert never went after any supposed “soon and later” crowd. What would be the point, as a direct response marketer, to use Madison Avenue branding and “long game” tactics?

      In direct response, you want to trigger some kind of action. To bring your prospect out of his passive state, where even if he doesn’t buy now he nevertheless engages his brain and retains the info you want him to retain.

      If you believe the relentlessly-repeated commercials on TV accomplish this, great. Met Life has defended its “Snoopy” advertising juggernaut for decades, insisting it works. Maybe it does. By magic that the direct response guys simply cannot fathom.

      Also, the live idea has ALREADY worked, throughout the history of TV. That was kinda my point…

      • Dan Sharp says:

        Here’s the problem.

        What do you do when you run out of lists or PPC clicks or whatever?

        I don’t know if you follow tech at all, but Steve Jobs’s keynote speeches were masterful examples of salesmanship. There was a famous moment, many years ago, when he pulled out a new iPod from the coin pocket of his jeans… just to show how small it was.

        (Marketing nerds may recognize the ghost of Elmer Wheeler’s “it sees where to clean” here.)

        But… if you look at any Apple ad, there’s not a hint of salesmanship or direct response methodology there. None.

        Why? Because what Steve Jobs understood… and what the Church of Direct Response attitude that “brand advertising is BS” misses… is that

        You can build a sales funnel in the minds of the public!

        The people who watched Steve Jobs on stage were eager fans, the kind of people who would go out and buy a new Apple gadget now, or at least very soon. Therefore, it was worth it to go into a long-copy pitch.

        At the same time there’s no way Apple could survive just on that core market of fans. They had to start much earlier — getting the people who might buy a laptop a year from now (when it’s back to school time or whatever) to lodge a very basic association in their minds, that Apple is something they might want.

        This sets them on a course towards “Planet Apple,” where the rest of the marketing “gravity well” takes over as they get closer.

        What a well done TV brand campaign does is it turns the entire world into your “list.” Like a headline that gets people to read the ad, the TV ads serve only one purpose: get the prospect to look into you more when they decide to buy a product like yours.

        Is this direct response? It can be, but the bigger an action you want people to take, the less the number of people who will do it. So it makes sense to ask for the smallest action that will achieve the desired result. Here that action is “remember brand X” and, if possible, associate it with some larger desirable idea.

        (Since they DO measure this stuff, it may be that endlessly repeated commercials do this more effectively — just as intrusive, SCREAMING direct response tactics often do their job better. Food for thought: if Madison Avenue was run by direct response guys, would every commercial break feel like the WSO section of the Warrior Forum?)

        Oh and sure, Halbert never got anywhere near this type of thing. But what he did realize was that the most important advantage you could have was… the biggest “starving crowd” you could get!

        It just so happens there’s a much bigger crowd starving for “be like James Bond” than there is for “a car that does X, Y, and Z.”

        (and, admittedly, a large population of business types who don’t understand what I just explained, and who are willing to hire any “cargo cult” ad man wanna-be who can pretend to pull it off…)

        • John Carlton says:

          You’re kind of off in the weeds here, Dan. I love Jobs, and consider him the most unique marketing genius of our lifetime. But what does that have to do with endless repetitive commercials between innings of a baseball game on the tube? (We can do a whole other thread just on Apple’s use of “launch formula” marketing, which worked as the exception to the rule — any marketer with less than a gazillion to spend on a closely-monitored campaign like that, planned within an inch of its life, would not fare so well. Plus, it all depends on a great product, which was Jobs’ gift to capitalism. You take everything that Apple did, but have the early Android tablets as the final product, you don’t have the same culture-changing results.) (Even many early Apple products were bombs that Jobs couldn’t salvage.)

          Maybe you misread my post. I’m saying, with a gun to my head, I’m not boring the audience or counting on white-noise commercials to carry my message. I’m putting a live salesmanship-heavy person on the screen to deliver my message, whatever it is. That person will be engaged with the game, be able to bond with viewers, and thus HOLD THEIR INTEREST at a time when the current model just forces viewers to check out. What that live person says pitch-wise is a secondary issue. First, the live segment, aimed at bonding and engaging with the audience. THEN, the message.

          And just for the record… Halbert didn’t want “the biggest” starving crowd. He just wanted a starving crowd. Old-school direct response direct mailers (of which he was a master) knew how to work a single list, or a whole market of lists. He liked the diet markets because of the size, but he also knew that scoring a control in that market was not a sure thing… and so we wrote ads for many, many small markets. Just like a poker pro might earn the bulk of his living from multiple small-pot cash games, rather than count on winning the WSOP…

          You’re not “wrong” in most of the stuff you’ve said here (though the claim that Mad Ave agencies “measure” response to their ads is ludicrous). You just missed the point of the original rant.

          Still, it’s good to hear from you. Love the “cargo cult” reference, and you’re welcome back here anytime.

          • Dan Sharp says:

            Cool. I think we’re actually closer to being on the same page than I thought.

            See, my beef is with the idea that “brand advertising can’t work.”

            Sure, everyone to Hopkins to Ogilvy has at least implied this in some way shape or form. It’s part of the “direct marketing marketing.” We’re right — they’re fools.

            And… that’s great if you’re trying to win clients as a direct marketer. (Your posts, incidentally, are a master class in “selling without selling.” At least until you get to the close.)

            But… believing our own PR here blinds us to some fundamental insights into how marketing works. That’s what my posts were about.

            So where was I going with this? Maybe it wasn’t conveyed right, but your live commercial idea IS pretty awesome. It does fits the bill for what a commercial “should” do, whether branding or direct response. I’m just not a fan of the misconception that “a lot of advertising guys are incompetent, so branding can never work.”

            Re: measurement, look up “ad tracking” and “post testing.”

  • Eddie P says:

    My business used an ad agency years ago. I wished I used direct response marketing then. We found out that our “beautiful” artistic ads didn’t quite translate to dollars. The problem I have with the normal ad agency is the they go for “pizazz” but I am only happy with results, ROI. With direct response marketing, everything I put in is trackable, right down to the last cent (same goes with social media ads as well: facebook, twitter and google ads). If I see a positive ROI, I continue. If not, I’ll try something else.

    • John Carlton says:

      One of the first strange things about advertising I encountered, as a pro, was a belief in the “magical powers” that ads were supposed to possess. Marketers with no clue how to use salesmanship in marketing trusted ad agencies who only knew how to make pretty ads… which, by some force they could only hint at (like a “long game”), would produce profit. Down the line. Trust us.

      Direct response either works, or doesn’t. No romance. Creativity and guesswork can pay off, but not by theory — only by actual results coming in.

      Thanks for the note.

      • Eddie P says:

        You are so right John. The ad agency I hired years ago said they have won Clio advertising awards, even showed me the award trophies they won. They even took me out for a nice steak dinner. And then when I asked them about the return on investment on the ads they received, they looked at me like an alien. They kept saying that they have the Fortune 500 companies, showed me their magazine ads, TV ads, blah blah blah… That was the time I got fed up, when I looked into DRM and found out that you are the top ranked copywriter in direct response.

        I now no longer look at pretty ads by Madison Avenue or any of these ad agencies . I now look at results. Whatever I put in marketing is trackable and measurable.

  • KungFuSteve says:

    Hey brother, long time lurker/student/applier of your lessons and you hit the nail on the head…

    I’ve been “at the feast” and moved over here to Eastern Europe to, er, feast. 😉

    Anyways, I was speaking in the U.S. last month so I thought it’d be good to swing home to visit them family and the most stark difference I noticed being in the States for the first time in 9ish months was the three things Americans are concerned with…

    Traffic, weather, and McDonalds… It was mind boggling — I hit the Gym and the 3 TVs in front of the treadmills were traffic, weather, and a McDonalds commercial (no joke).

    I got into the car and as I turned on the radio it was the traffic report… brought to you by McDonalds… “get your $5 value meal for only $5, get a great meal for only $5” (I understand Mickey D’s has their shit together… but who wrote THAT copy?? Blech…)

    It followed me everywhere I went. And I just laugh because I’ve been thinking about what you’ve said here for a long time…

    Maybe they should do live drunken ad spots during traffic and weather reports? Maybe they’d get a better response…

  • steve sapato says:

    Great rant John!!! I am going to post your link in my next rant on Facebook!
    Thanks for ‘entertaining’ me!!!


  • Patrick Williamson says:

    Hi John,

    I have a theory I want to run by you that really struck me the other day as being spot-on about the topic of madison avenue-style brand advertising vs. direct response marketing.

    First things first, I whole-heartedly agree with you and all other direct response marketers/copywriters on this topic (I’m marketing my own home-based biz online through info marketing-based direct response and follow you and various other greats on the topic).

    Let me know if I’m off-base here in my relative inexperience compared to you and other greats such as David Garfinkel, but if there is one fundamental flaw with direct response that the mad ave brand-style advertising doesn’t seem to share…

    …it’s that direct response is all about encouraging/facilitating – in a direct way, hence the name direct response as opposed to indirect response, which would be the mad ave style – a buying decision and the engagement of a buying/ordering process for your product that did NOT *fully* originate in the prospect’s mind.

    The buying decision didn’t fully originate in the prospect’s mind because they most likely didn’t even know that your specific product existed before you started campaigning them for the sale and they didn’t already have it on their mind to buy your product and then sought you out to get the best deal possible (like they would from a car dealer).

    Being that the buying decision didn’t fully originate in their mind as their own idea and that your direct response marketing campaign conjured up the necessary emotion within them to buy your product, they don’t feel fully committed to the sale taking place as they’re going through with it (which is why, I believe, shopping cart abandonment happens to a certain degree with direct marketing campaigns. If you mess up that part of the process, it’s really easy for the prospect to use that as an excuse to jump ship on a decision they know and feel didn’t fully originate in their own thought process, even though they want the benefits of your product and may be a reasonably intelligent human being.)

    Even when all of this is done in a permission-based, opt-in way, the prospect still knows (mostly sub-consciously, I would say) that another entity with direct financial interest in selling a product is actively campaigning them to buy a product that wasn’t in their mind before to do on what they perceive to be their own volition.

    The businesses/products that use the Mad Ave brand advertising style, as grossly flawed as that approach currently is, seems to be trying to get the prospect to make the buying decision *themselves* by trying to make their brand the first brand that pops up in the prospect’s mind when the prospect – through what they perceive and feel was their own decision and volition – is shopping around for that particular type of product to buy.

    To sum up: people love to buy, but mostly resent the process of being *sold* TO – no matter how ethically and skillfully it’s performed.

    The former involves the prospect thinking that the decision was fully theirs (even though they may have been persuaded by factors outside of whatever entities have direct financial interest in making the sale, such as a word of mouth referral from a trusted friend), whereas the latter involves the prospect feeling like the decision isn’t fully theirs and that the decision is being greased along by the emotional conjuring done by the marketer/copywriter – even when it involves a product, that they now are aware of, that they do want the benefits of.

    What do you think John? I know I haven’t heard (or don’t remember) any other direct marketers explain the situation quite like this.

    Patrick Williamson

  • Brandon says:

    I just wish that some day the marketing/advertising firms committing these terrible offenses would truly be shown as the weak, spineless, foolish companies they are.

    • John Carlton says:

      Yeah, but that would require some element of “justice” in the universe.

      And even then, the short memory of the population at large would just return to half-asleep zombie behavior…

  • […] P.P.S. – The rant I referred to by the revered, Mr. Carlton can be found right here. […]

  • Liz Illgen says:

    Holy Crap Batman! I feel like Joan Rivers just rose from the dead and said what others are thinking but won’t say out loud.

    I’m new to copywriting, but an MBA educated 30 year veteran of corporate, and an avid sports fan who prefers to watch ‘live’ for the excitement of the game. I spend a lot of time analyzing the bullshit that passes for advertising these days as part of my ongoing education, at least for as long as I can stand it before my eyes glaze over and my brain freezes up.

    You couldn’t be more right. For ‘fun’, I’ll count just how many times the same boring, say nothing, stick to the middle plain vanilla spots are run during a pro football or hockey game. Not one word that motivates me to dig deeper. Not one call to action that makes me want to move from my comfy spot under the blankets and ‘sign up now’. Nothing but fluff and ‘sex appeal’ that isn’t appealing. Even the super bowl ads I used to look forward to for the novelty and humor are total duds these days. And, as a woman, is there any ad agency or major company out there who ‘get’s that women actually watch these games, too?

    There is good news here, it’s called ‘opportunity’ for those of us who do stick to the basics and remember what Ogilvy said about advertising long ago…it doesn’t matter whether an ad is cute or catchy, all that matters is whether it SELLS.

    Thanks for keeping it real and telling it like it is! I’ve really enjoyed reading your posts and look forward to many more over the coming years.

  • MJ says:

    Thanks, John.

    I, too, remember Johnny Carson’s live commercials with the Camel girl(s) (or was it Chesterfields?). They were a riot and you knew what the product was (at the time!), and all the guys would whistle for the “bimbo(s).”

    I really enjoyed Johnnies live stuff and looked forward to it. And, they did work… they got people’s attention.

    Thanks for the rant.

  • paul hupton says:

    Hi John, came across your blog after reading your book, \”kickass Copywriting Secrets\”. Great content and insight inside your book and in your post for both new and older people coming into the business. Keep up the good work.


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