Reference only the known

If you create an advertisement that centers around a reference, be sure it is recognizable to a sizable portion of your target audience. I know. That seems so simple. There should be no need to write it. There are expensive examples where such a basic idea is ignored, however. 

Take the recent Lexus automobile advertising campaign. In one television spot, an unshaven pencil-neck nerd’s girlfriend gives him a cell phone for Christmas. She triggers the phone to play a musical tune from within a nicely wrapped gift box. His eyes widen. They look at each other. She has provided the perfect hint. He now knows what he got.

Unfortunately, no one else does. Lexus, and its ad company, would like us all to recognize the song and join the fun of discovering along with pencil-neck that there’s a new car for him in the driveway. But, the tune is unknown. Worse, repeated play of this commercial and others like it is unlikely to make the melody memorable. There is nothing catchy about it.

A constant barrage of the spots may force us to know what they’re up to, but it only achieves that communication from the situation setup–not from the supposed hint of the Lexus tune.

Fortunately for Lexus, this failure is not fatal. Lexus is the number one luxury car brand in America. (Mercedes-Benz occupies the top spot for prestige and is known for “precision engineering” rather than luxury.) Lexus is unlikely to fold its tent and abandon its car-building business.

Even wildly successful corporations, however, would prefer to spend money efficiently.

View a sample Lexus ad with the referenced tune.

In contrast, let’s look at a successful campaign ad with a recognizable reference. A recent FedEx Office television spot showed a pair of professional colleagues encountering Transportation Security Administration agents at an airport.

During inspection of the pair’s carry-on luggage, the TSA workers stumble upon a printed presentation and alert their supervisor. “Look,” says one agent, “starting off with sales figures.” The professionals look at each other. Their expressions show what everyone is thinking: boring!

The supervisor confirms with his comments. “I’m yawning.” Then, “I’m yawning some more.” Finally, the supervisor drops his head and snores. The message is to go see FedEx office to get an attractive, lively and effective presentation.

The reference, “starting off with sales figures,” resonates with everyone. We all can imagine sitting in a meeting and being force-fed endless numbers. That would make most anyone suffer a nightmare. But those are better experienced at home in bed instead of in the workplace conference room. TV spots with unrecognizable references can do that to us while we’re sitting on our living room couches with our eyes wide open.

View the FedEx Office ad mentioned above.