Occam's Razor and Cutting Your Own Throat

by Dean Rieck

Once a month or so, I unchain myself from my desk, turn on my voice mail, and brave the mad morning traffic to make a pilgrimage to the local library.

Up two flights of stairs, I enter the sanctum sanctorum. The holy of holies. (The Business and Technology section.) I thumb through the investment newsletters in front. Run a few computer searches on Disc Net. Gather any books on my research list. Then head to the back, where I spend the afternoon working my way through two or three dozen publications.

In a recent excursion, while wading through some of the more erudite (i.e. stuffy, jargon-laden, hard to read) periodicals, I ran across an article in the January/February 1997 issue of the Journal of Advertising Research.

The title: "To Whom Do Advertising Creatives Write? An Inferential Answer." The premise: Carry out an experiment to see if creative personnel have difficulty making a connection to their audience. The result: They do.

The authors selected a group of creatives and a group of TV viewers. They showed each group television commercials and asked them to respond "personally" to those ads through a questionnaire. Keep in mind that this research project focused on New York City ad agency personnel, mass market television commercials, and TV viewers. So, let's not overgeneralize here. The results, however, are telling.

In a nutshell, these agency creative people could not respond personally to the ads, only "professionally." Their responses "very closely paralleled those of the other advertising professionals who judge advertising awards." And the authors concluded that even though the creatives' job was to "translate strategy into (a) meaningful message," they did not in fact communicate with consumers, but with other advertising people.

The TV viewers, on the other hand, had no problem responding personally. And their responses had nothing to do with the professional quality of the ads. Instead, they responded positively to advertising that was "self-enhancing," and were "puzzled, confused, even angered" by some of the well-crafted messages, especially those using so-called "professional" techniques, such as "quick cuts, arch and cutting humor, (and) advertising that featured people and situations implicitly putting down the viewer."

Gosh, you could have knocked me down with a feather.

Imagine that! Creative people in the ad business disconnected from the good people they are paid to communicate with. Why, it's a scandal! It's unimaginable! Say it ain't so!

Sheesh. Of course many creative people in advertising are out of touch. Not just in general advertising, but in direct as well. No one had to conduct a study to show me that creative people often don't connect with their audience. It's obvious.

What might not be so obvious is what smart creatives should do about it if they're at all concerned with results. Or perhaps it should be. Because what I suggest is just that — the obvious.

With your permission, I will resurrect the 14th century Franciscan philosopher, theologian, and political writer William of Occam, who put forth what has come to be known as "Occam's Razor." It is also sometimes called the Law of Economy or the Law of Parsimony.

In William's words, non sunt multiplicanda entia praeter necessitatem. Translation: Entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity. Further translation: Keep things simple. Translation for direct marketers: When faced with a creative challenge, do the obvious first.

Now, be careful. I'm not suggesting enrolling in the Swipe File School of Selling. All I'm saying is that the most commonsensical way to connect with a prospect is to just do what is most commonsensical.

Don't get all wrapped up in new techniques. Don't put form before function. If you have something to say, say it. If you want a prospect to do something, ask them to. The very best creative people in our business are those who do not feel compelled to justify their salary by wowing people with their brilliance.

A few other obvious suggestions to connect with your prospects:

Obvious, isn't it?

Remember, if you want to avoid cutting your own throat in this business, use Occam's Razor.

Copyright © 1997 Dean Rieck. All Rights Reserved.
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