3 irrefutable proofs: people-centered ads win

people centered adsI’ve been seeing some pretty crappy advertising recently and it’s all crappy for the same reason. All of it tries to make a point with clever concepts rather than benefits and relevance.

It made me think of the following article I wrote a while back. Some of the examples may be a bit dated, but the point is still valid.


There’s a saying: Dumb people talk about people. Smart people talk about ideas.

This might be true in some areas of life. But in marketing, it’s flat out wrong.

In fact, I’m going to show you why people-centered ads are very smart indeed, much smarter than abstract concept-centered ads.

And I’ll prove it by taking you on a tour of my local grocery store, the experimental lab of evolutionary biologists, and my own advertising swipe file.

People are interested in people!

The first stop on our tour is my local grocery store to glance at the magazines. Why look at magazines? Because they’re in the business of offering editorial and photographic content they know people want.

They can instantly gauge which words and pictures generate the most sales. So, if you want to quickly know what people respond to, look at high-circulation magazines.

They’re all over the store. Sports, auto, and biker magazines by the beer. Cooking, home decor, and fashion near the bakery. News, puzzles, and gossip at the checkout.

They’re all different in their subject matter, but the most successful all share one vital characteristic: they feature people.

Psychology Today shows a picture of a woman looking at herself in the mirror. Headline:

Body Image
An In-Depth Look at How We See Ourselves

Entertainment Weekly does little more than show pictures of stars with short blurbs:

Harrison Ford Teams With Brad Pitt in ‘The Devil’s Own’
Liv Tyler in ‘Inventing the Abbotts’
Tim Allen in ‘Jungle 2 Jungle’
Meg Ryan in ‘Addicted to Love’

American Health for Women shows a close up of a beautiful woman. Headline:

Exclusive Sex Survey
500 Women Tell Why It’s Hotter Than Ever

Mademoiselle show another beautiful woman. Headline:

Your Friends & You
Understanding the Relationships That Can Make or Break Your Life

Ditto for Time, Newsweek, Reader’s Digest, and just about every other magazine. In some form, they all feature people in pictures, in headlines, and in editorial content.

People think in terms of people!

Next stop, a laboratory where evolutionary biologists are exploring a unique question: What is the brain really for, anyway? The heart pumps blood. The stomach digests food. But what is this great big brain actually designed to do?

In a series of experiments, researchers give subjects a problem to solve. To one group they present it in the form of an abstract logic problem. Only 10% solve it correctly. To another group they present the very same problem, but in the form of a social situation between people. In this case, 75% get it right.

From this and numerous other experiments, the researchers develop a theory that the human brain has evolved very specialized ways of thinking. It’s not a calculator or computer, but an organ that is designed primarily to help us deal with social situations.

How can I make a better living? Is this person trying to cheat me? Will this person make a good spouse? What do people think of me? How can I use this relationship to my advantage? What will that person’s reaction be when I do this?

The researchers conclude that while our brain is fully capable of processing abstract information, it was never specifically designed for this. It works best when it must deal with people, emotions, relationships, and other elements of the human experience.

People respond to messages about people!

The final stop is my swipe file, which is a box under my desk where I toss direct mail samples until I file them away in my basement. Let’s take a look at some well-crafted pieces.

American Online sent me a polywrapped magalog-size piece showing a father and his two sons at a computer. Headline:

More access, More content, More AOL for you!

The Hume Group sent me a 6″ x 9″ manila envelope. Teaser:


Inside the “report” is actually a letter with a picture of a financial planner. Headline:

Special Report …
“Forget the hype of get-rich-quick schemes,” says this top financial planner

Nightingale Conant sent me a 6″ x 9″ full-color envelope with a picture of Zig Ziglar on the front. Teaser:

Thousands of Sales Professionals Have Benefited From His Dynamic Presentation …

There’s a lot going on in these and the thousands of other samples I have, but the point is that the best are often all about people — pictures of people, names of people, subjects distinctly people-centered and loaded with people benefits, and language that is personal and emotional.

General guidelines for people-centered marketing messages:

What have we gleaned from this whirlwind tour? We humans are captivated with ourselves. It’s the most interesting subject we know. It’s not just a media or marketing trend, but an evolutionary fact. So, why fight it? Use it to strengthen your sales message.

Develop concepts around people and their concerns. Forget abstract ideas and deep meaning. Marketing is about PEOPLE selling things to other PEOPLE who are primarily interested in PEOPLE, most especially themselves. Arbitrary images and concepts are completely irrelevant.

Find the human element in your product and build your offer around it. Anything you have to sell has something to do with people, otherwise it wouldn’t exist. What’s the human need? What’s the human benefit? But don’t stop there. Dig to find the human stories, human qualities, and human relations in what you’re selling. Offer that.

Write copy that speaks to the human experience. Your language should be full of names, pronouns, feelings, hope, helpfulness, kindness, and warmth. Raw technique can certainly makes sales if your offer is good, but to supercharge your message, make a meaningful personal connection.

Speak directly to your ideal prospect about his or her wants and needs. People listen when you talk to them personally about what they want. Make your offer about them. People also respond to promises. Make a dramatic but believable promise — and keep it. And make it easy for people to identify with what you’re offering.

Use design that triggers the appropriate emotional response. A good designer does more than typeset the copy. A designer must help to communicate the copywriter’s message with type that has the right feel, with images that elicit clear emotions, and with a layout that encourages reading and involvement.

What’s wrong with abstract concepts?
There’s nothing inherently wrong with clever advertising “concepts,” except that they too often focus on an analogy or image that is not about people. All things being equal, the farther away your focus strays from people-centered concepts, images, language, and benefits, the harder it is for your prospect to be interested, to process the information, and to respond positively.

Consider these examples from my what-the-hell-were-they-thinking file.

From the United States Postal Service — a self mailer with a picture of an orange stamped PARCEL POST. Headline:

From ADWEEK Directories — a 6″ x 9″ envelope with a graphic of a clock and a dollar sign. Teaser:

1/2 the cost
1/2 the time
All the benefits of our unmatched worldwide resources

From Roosevelt Bank — an envelope with a photo of an eagle flying in a blue sky. Teaser:

The Search Is Over
Not Just Another Gold Card … A Better Gold Card

Every one uses an abstract concept to make a point. But the concept and the point are divorced from the central subject people are interested in: people.

When you use an abstract concept to deliver a message, your audience has to connect the concept to your message then try to relate your message to something they find personally relevant. Why make people work so hard, when there’s one subject they are guaranteed to find interesting? PEOPLE!

If there’s only one change you make in your direct response advertising this year, make it this: Build your message around people.

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6 Responses to “3 irrefutable proofs: people-centered ads win”

  1. Mark on August 17th, 2010 10:07 pm

    Another great post.

    Reminds of something I was reading the other day about “Made to Stick”, and how important it is to make that instant emotional connection.

  2. Joshua Black | The Underdog Millionaire on August 18th, 2010 11:03 am


    I think that this may be one of the most important points that any copywriter can take home.

    Just like the fact that people don’t like to buy from a corporation, but love to buy from other people.

    Now more than ever, people want to feel a CONNECTION with something around them.

    We have texted and emailed ourselves out of a physical existence and the way that we can connect is sometimes through the products we buy.

    If I get this cream then I can be just as pretty as that movie star.

    If I buy this drink then I can be just as cool as that race car driver.

    If I subscribe to this newsletter then I can be just as well-off as Dean…

    When there is a human element that people can paste into their own lives, then marketing magic can happen.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire

  3. Ted Grigg on August 18th, 2010 9:39 pm

    People are principally driven by emotion to act. I think rationalization often takes place after the emotional decision is made.

    In other words, show the emotion, but support it with good rationale so the buyer or donor can use it to support the decision.

    Good copy typically integrates this seamlessly in powerful headlines.

    I’ll leave it up to you Dean to demonstrate how this is done with one of your great posts.

  4. MaKenzie Birchell* on August 20th, 2010 12:10 pm

    What an insightful post to reiterate the fact that people buy the person behind the business, rather than the business itself. Thanks for the great resources!

  5. Dean Rieck on August 20th, 2010 12:22 pm

    Thanks, MaKenzie. Though what I’m talking about here is the simple idea of putting people in advertisements, whether it’s photos, stories, personal benefits, or whatever. Ads should be about people rather than things. However, yes, I suppose you could include people behind the business as well if that’s a selling point.

  6. MaKenzie Birchell* on August 20th, 2010 12:39 pm

    My apologies! Friday thought processes get a little scattered sometimes. To clarify–for me, this post provoked the thought of how people-centered ads are often correlated to the company or product itself, although this concept is more prevalent in regards to material used to convey the people of the company (website images, customer service features, etc.) Thanks again!

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