$#!* Happens — A Dirty Story About Ad Testing

by Dean Rieck

I'd like to talk to you about having the proper attitude for ad testing. But to properly discuss testing your advertising, I need first to tell you a very, very dirty story.

It was about 11:00 a.m. when we started up the mountain outside of San Pedro Sula in the northwest corner of Honduras. The humid air lay heavy and still in the valley below, causing the fields of sugar cane to shimmer in the hot sun.

We were videotaping b-roll for a few TV spots one of my fundraising clients wanted to test. Our task that day was the same as it had been every day that week: to capture images of the devastating poverty these people suffer.

The camera crew donned their battery belts, cables, and assorted gear and we followed the narrow dirt path toward the shacks above. As we ascended a steep rise and veered to the right, we came across a young boy toting an armload of dry firewood. One of our videographers wanted to shoot this and positioned himself in the middle of the path.

That's when it happened. And to understand what happened, you must understand the term "wrap-and-throw."

Many of the people my client helps are so poor they live in makeshift shacks, some of mud or wood, others little more than plastic or cardboard nailed to sticks. These places often have no sanitary facilities. So the residents have developed a practical way to deal with their waste: They wrap it in a small bag and throw it.

Thus, we were walking in a "wrap-and-throw" community. And while the videographer set himself to shoot the kid with the wood, one of our guides trotted ahead to ask the child's permission. The boy agreed, and the guide came running back toward the cameraman.

A wrap-and-throw lay silently in the path, aged and ripe. A group of unsuspecting, sunblock-smeared gringos stood stupidly smiling three feet away, anticipating nothing but the images they were about to record. Our guide's foot came down hard at ground zero. The principles of ballistics did the rest.

It gave new meaning to the term "$#!* happens."

Three people were hit, the brave videographer getting the worst of it, sprayed heel to cheek with the brown, foul-smelling slime. Fortunately, I had been walking ahead of the group, upwind and out of range. But when I heard the ruckus and walked back, it was like a scene in a war movie. Shocked, pale faces. Cries of shock and disbelief. People running in all directions.

The videographer stood stock still, looking down at his body in disbelief, mumbling, "I can't believe that just happened. I can't believe that just happened." Others in the group tried to act concerned as they cautiously inspected their own bodies for damage.

I must admit, I would have been equally disgusted if I had been a casualty of this incident, but I would not have been surprised. In fact, that's what I found most interesting about it — the utter surprise that this had happened.

Surprise? We had been walking in wrap-and-throw for days. The only surprising thing was that it hadn't happened before. We knew where we were going and what we were doing. And we knew the risks. In my mind, this was proof that we were out there doing what we had to do to get the job done. That wrap-and-throw was just part of the process.

Which brings me to testing. (How's that for a segue?)

I am forever baffled by the unrealistic attitude so many direct marketers have about testing. These delicate souls don't really want to "test;" they merely want to "confirm." They expect to rack up victory after victory with little or no effort. Failures are dreaded experiences, not learning experiences. Fear is the reigning emotion, and avoidance is the primary technique.

The first thing I tell everyone who calls me wanting to start a testing program is that the first order of business is to establish a basic control. Then start methodically testing to improve results. Testing means just that. Testing. Trying things out. Seeing what works and what doesn't. And by definition, testing means experiencing failures along with successes.

But again and again, otherwise brave business people, who have risked great peril to start businesses, launch products, and develop markets, suddenly quiver in horror at the idea of "failing" in a test. So, what often happens is that good test ideas are talked about but never acted upon. Or new ideas are mauled by committees till they are little more than tweaked versions of previous promotions — safe but ultimately unproductive.

Testing means getting out there — getting your hands dirty and getting the job done. And occasional failures are just part of the process. In fact, the best way to increase your success rate is to increase your failure rate! In other words, the more you test, the more you learn. And the more you learn, the better your results will be in the long run.

And while I'm on a rant about testing, allow me to specifically catalog and comment on some of the most egregious mistakes I've seen direct marketers make:

In all cases, testing is about acquiring knowledge, because you don't "know" anything until you test. Knowledge is the gold for which you should be panning. And testing is not something you do once and forget. It is not something you do only when you have a little extra in your budget. Testing should be — must be — part of your routine, everyday business. You should forever be in what I call the Testing Loop: 1.) Run a test. 2.) Analyze the results. 3.) Act based on the results. 4.) Repeat.

Remember, testing is not about confirming your savvy or proving your biases. All those little so-called mistakes are not mistakes at all. They are nuggets of precious knowledge. They are your most valuable asset.

Indeed, $#!* happens. But that odor is not failure; it's the sweet smell of future success.

Copyright © 1998 Dean Rieck. All Rights Reserved.
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