If I disappeared… would you notice I’m not here? (Mental Models Memo, September 2018)

Let’s talk about sex.  

Or, more specifically, whether or not it sells as well as its cliche.

David Ogilvy, often lauded as the “father of advertising,” created possibly the first American advertisement to feature a naked woman.

Unfortunately for Ogilvy, the advertisement was terrible.  It wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on.

Why?  Well… not because it wasn’t sexy.  Ogilvy, for one, thinks it was. (He admits he’s a little biased.)

But the naked woman had nothing to do with the Aga cooker Ogilvy was trying to sell.  The lady was salient.  The kitchen appliance, sadly, was not.

As Poor Ash’s Almanack readers know if they’ve read the mental model, memory works via association.  The advertisement created no memorable association between naked women and cooking appliances, nor were readers likely to have a pre-existing one (unless they had some weird, weird hobbies).  

So people remembered the lady, and forgot the Aga Cooker.  At least in this case, sex didn’t sell.

At the other end of the spectrum, but sticking with the theme of selling cooking appliances, it’s hard to get less sexy than a blender.  

So how did a clever marketer get a blender to go viral on a miniscule budget – transforming the company behind it into a household name?

It sounds impossible.  Blenders are profoundly unsexy.  I mean, just think about it. Directionally, blenders are about as good at conversation as a dead doornail.  Curves usually mean something has gone horribly wrong in your culinary endeavors.  And – to paraphrase Warren Buffett – you can fondle your blender, but it won’t respond.  

Blenders, then: the epitome of function over form. They’re the twenty-two year old Honda Accord of kitchen appliances.  No points for style, but they’ll get you from point A to point B in one piece… or, I guess, in many very small blended pieces.  The metaphor sort of breaks down here, just like the kale I’m pureeing. (No, really, kale puree’s amazing.  Try it.)

So anyway: a blender, not usually primo Instagram selfie material, would probably rank dead last among its graduating class in voting for “most likely to become a YouTube star.”

Yet one did just that: turns out some blenders aren’t as dull as their blades.  Blendtec’s “Will It Blend” advertising campaign, featuring their nifty blenders pulverizing everything from two-by-fours to iPhones, helped launch the brand into hundreds of thousands of kitchen cabinets – including mine.

A scene from BlendTec's "Will It Blend" ad campaign.

Ogilvy would’ve been proud.  One of his catchphrases, which we’ll come back to: you can’t bore people into buying your product.  So if your product is boring, add a few pieces of flair – but in a way that keeps attention on the product.

Advertising for the… intellectual?

Advertising may seem like a weird topic du jour for me to suggest you dive into.  It’s not a field typically associated with, well, intellectualism. Madison Avenue has a similar reputation to sales desks on Wall Street: the domain of former jocks, not nerds.

Indeed, many intelligent people I know fall into one of two camps as it regards advertising:

1. They disdain advertising – believing that it may be effective in convincing other people, but not us.  We’re smarter than that.

2. They dislike advertising – believing that good products sell themselves, and advertising ranks on the moral scale somewhere between “multilevel marketing” and “billboard lawyers.”  (I’ll leave it up to readers to determine which end of the scale is which.)

I prefer to view advertising as simply a force, akin to gravity.  And what a force it is: as contrarian serial entrepreneur Peter Thiel sagely observes in Zero to One (Z21 review + notes):

“In Silicon Valley, nerds are skeptical of advertising, marketing, and sales because they seem superficial and irrational.  

But advertising matters because it works. It works on nerds, and it works on you.  You may think that you’re an exception; that your preferences are authentic, and advertising only works on other people.

[…] but advertising doesn’t exist to make you buy a product right away; it exists to embed subtle impressions that will drive sales later.  

Anyone who can’t acknowledge its likely effect on himself is doubly deceived.

It’s important to understand forces that may affect us.  We have to respect them, even if we don’t like them.

Forces don’t inherently have moral dimensions: the current that sucks a swimmer out to sea, or foils a naval invasion, isn’t good or bad.  It just is: a force of nature we can choose to succumb to, avoid, or harness.

And as we discussed in last month’s memo – Resilience from Xerxes to Taylor Swift – successful execution of any strategy requires identifying these forces, and either harnessing them to our advantage, or at the very least finding ways to skirt around them so we’re not swept out to sea.

It turns out advertising can be intellectual, too.  Opining on the culture of his eponymous advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather – which had industry-leading profitability, I might add – David Ogilvy put it in a way that I think Poor Ash’s Almanack readers very much agree with (and should share on Twitter):

We pursue knowledge the way a pig pursues truffles. - David Ogilvy Click To Tweet

I confess that I had never heard of Ogilvy until my friend Jon Glatfelter – a marketing professional – highlighted Ogilvy’s books in the same monthly Reading List book recommendation that brought me (and thus you) the delightful The Genius of Birds (GoB review + notes) by Jennifer Ackerman.

Jon’s prose (which Ogilvy would admire) convinced me that the books were worth a look.  The first few paragraphs of The Unpublished David Ogilvy (Oglvy review + notes) did the rest: Ogilvy’s outsider, multidisciplinary, principles (i.e. mental models) based approach to advertising is well worth learning from.

Between that, Ogilvy’s eponymous Ogilvy on Advertising (OnA review + notes), and the more modern, research-driven Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Wharton professor Jonah Berger (vrl review + notes), we have a lot to talk about this month.

Without further ado, here are three of the highlights of the mental model latticework interactions I took away from studying American advertising through the ages.  For the rest, you’ll have to read the books (and my notes thereon).

Disaggregation x Utility

One of my best friends, Clayton Young, discovered why Buzzfeed exists.  Clayton runs a Japanese small-cap research newsletter called Kenkyo Investing, and focuses on creating valuable content to help investors learn about under-the-radar Japanese investment candidates.

The problem is, no matter how awesome Clayton’s content is, his content has a gatekeeper.  That gatekeeper is called the headline. If it’s interesting, people will click it. If it’s not, people won’t click it.  The headline has a vastly disproportionate influence on whether or not anyone discovers Clayton’s insightful research.

Clayton is the sort of person who prefers to focus on research rather than brainstorming snappy headlines – but he’s, grudgingly, had to make the business decision to spend a little time on the latter.

Clayton’s discovery, of course, is not new – it’s a rediscovery of something generations of copywriters have known.  And, in a sense, like much of advertising theory, it’s merely a repurposing of the lessons collected by Dale Carnegie in How To Win Friends and Influence People (HWFIP review + notes)

Carnegie, in turn, was probably not wholly new, either.  But that’s the power of learning timeless principles like mental models.

Most readers are probably aware of the importance of headlines and introductions; we all remember being taught how to do the “elevator pitch” when we were in college.  

But David Ogilvy offers an unusual and important insight: while the headline has to be carefully tailored to get people to read the body copy, and thus must not waste a word, one can take a different approach to the back end of the body copy.

Many (including Ogilvy himself) stress concision.  But there’s also a danger in being too concise: Ogilvy, smartly, notes that people who are reading deep into your body copy have self-selected as people who are interested enough in what you’re selling to want lots of information on it.  

So give them more!  Ogilvy’s research found, counterintuitively, that longer, more informational advertisements sold better than shorter, more information-poor ones.  So did research by famous direct-mail copywriter John Caples.

This is a phenomenal example of using disaggregation to maximize your utility: breaking a problem (how to write the most effective copy) down into its constituent parts.

Ogilvy similarly applied disaggregation and utility to asking whether or not advertising firms should praise “creativity.”  He notes that “creative” advertising may win awards… but “good” advertising rings the cash register.

So be careful what KPIs you’re tracking: you get what you measure.

Salience x Memory x Incentives x Base Rates

“Don’t let’s be dull bores. We can’t save souls in an empty church.” - David Ogilvy Click To Tweet

Among Ogilvy’s many loves in life, perhaps none exceeded that of what he called “factors.”  In another analogy involving truffles (hey, he had a thing for France), Ogilvy quips:

“As a copywriter, what I want from the researchers is to be told what kind of advertising will make the cash register ring… plus and minus factors…

a blind pig may sometimes find truffles, but it helps to know that they grow under oak trees.”

It’s subtle, but brilliant: you can search as hard as you want for truffles in an aspen grove, but you ain’t gonna find them.  Ogilvy’s “plus and minus factors” are, in other words, base rates – they won’t guarantee that you’ll find a truffle, but they’ll give you the highest starting probability of doing so.  

Ogilvy documented dozens of them.  Black type on white background is easier to read than white type on black background.  Headlines that include a promise sell better. And so on and so forth. 

There are tangible demonstrations of these factors at use in Ogilvy on Advertising (OnA review + notes) – I found it really engaging / educational to work through the pictured ads looking for factors.  Both the ones that Ogilvy mentioned… and the ones he didn’t.  (Where would the fun be if I told you everything?)

One of these factors may not matter; three may start to.  When you amass 90-plus, as Ogilvy did, you’re starting to talk about a meaningful advantage right out of the gate.  It’s the ad-agency equivalent of a latticework of mental models. No wonder Ogilvy & Mather was so successful.

Are these factors hard and fast rules?  No, of course not – Ogilvy observes:

“I am sometimes attacked for imposing ‘rules.’  Nothing could be further from the truth. I hate rules.  

All I do is report on how consumers react to different stimuli… a hint, perhaps, but barely a rule.”

It’s like Dr. Atul Gawande states about checklists in The Checklist Manifesto (TCM review + notes): they’re supposed to turn our brains on, rather than off.  Base rates clue us in to the starting point that’s statistically most likely to succeed – but it’s up to our judgment to refine the exact approach from there.

The concept of “factors” flows through into the much more modern Contagious: Why Things Catch On (vrl review + notes).  Wharton professor Jonah Berger brings Ogilvy’s concepts into the modern era: in the era of “sharing” and social media, what causes some products or advertisements to “go viral” – while others languish unviewed in the dusty corners of the internet?

I love Berger’s approach – he’s cognizant of survivorship bias and seems to have set up his research to make sure he’s not falling prey to “connecting the winning dots,” as Phil Rosenzweig of “The Halo Effect” (Halo review + notes) might put it.  But he does come away with some useful base rates on what makes things more likely to be shared.

Reductionistically, since the details are beyond the scope of this memo, we’ll summarize a few key items – all of which Ogilvy seemed to have predicted, by the way.

First, to loop back to the intro, salience – things that stand out as unique, interesting, or unusual are more shareable.  As Ogilvy said, you can’t bore people into buying your product – so make it interesting.  Have some flair.

For example: a blender making a smoothie isn’t that exciting.  No flair. But a BlendTec making, from scratch, piping-hot tortilla soup in front of an appreciative crowd at Costco – now that’s exciting.

It’s so exciting that even a moody, hard-to-impress tween clad in a sulk and all black (yours truly!) begged his parents for years thereafter to buy that blender.  

(Which they eventually did; I promptly informed them that – screw property rights – it was mine and I was taking it with me whenever I moved out.  A decade later, the friendly family disagreement is still ongoing.)

Clearly, that blender has way more than the minimum required flair.  In fact, I’d estimate it has at least 37 pieces of flair.

But the critical thing here is that the salience / flair / sexiness has to relate to or, better yet, critically involve the product.  BlendTec accomplished this: you can’t really tell the story of the tortilla soup (or the two-by-four, or the iPhone) without mentioning the blender.

This isn’t always the case, though.  Berger points out that many “viral” advertising hits – like Evian’s “Roller Babies” commercial or one casino’s sponsorship of a guy crashing Olympic diving with a belly flop – fail to generate any impact at all, because, as with Ogilvy’s naked lady, consumers remember the funny/cute/shocking commercial, and completely forget what it was selling.

Conversely, consider good examples of “stunt marketing” from our latticework of mental models: Sam Walton’s panty sales in the early days of Wal-Mart, which drew all the ladies of town into the store, and Marc Benioff’s wild stunts at Siebel conferences, which launched Salesforce into the limelight.  

Go read about them in Made in America (WMT review + notes) and Behind the Cloud (BtC review + notes) respectively – and reflect on the relationship to what Berger/Ogilvy have to say here.

Second after salience in my mind: utility and incentives.  Give consumers something useful, and they have an incentive to share it with friends and family.  Self-explanatory.

Finally, last but not least, storytelling: it’s the human operating system.  As Berger puts it:

“Stories provide a quick and easy way for people to acquire lots of knowledge in a vivid and engaging fashion.”

This more than makes up for any nuance that may be lost in the process; Ogilvy consistently highlights “story appeal” as important.  

In fact, in The Unpublished David Ogilvy (Oglvy review + notes), he admits to making up a certain story to prove a broader (true) point.  

Poetic license, he calls it, the king of honest and factual advertising – so no wonder it turned out to be one of Berger’s six factors.

See Contagious: Why Things Catch On (vrl review + notes) to learn about the rest of them.

Tradeoffs / Opportunity Costs x N-Order Impacts x Local vs. Global Optimization

One of the fun things about Ogilvy is that he’s clearly a long-term thinker.  Much as Ogilvy delighted in portraying himself as a mercenary ringing the cash register with wild abandon, he was also very thoughtful about walking the tightrope between stimulating short-term sales and protecting the long-term interests of his clients.

Ogilvy frequently approached this local vs. global optimization problem by taking the long-term view:

“I find that most manufacturers are reluctant to accept any… limitation on the image and personality of their brands.  They want to be all things to all people…

And in their greed they almost always end up with a brand which has no personality of any kind – a wishy-washy neuter brand.”

He focused on similar tradeoffs elsewhere: I mentioned, for example, how Ogilvy & Mather wasn’t the biggest agency, but it was unusually profitable in a notoriously thin-margin industry.  Ogilvy was keenly aware of his opportunity costs: using the analogy of scraping barnacles off a ship to keep it moving forward, he noted that not every client was worth pursuing, and not every service line worth offering.

Why spend time, energy, and resources inflating the top line if it doesn’t lead to bottom-line profitability?  

Finally, Ogilvy was thoughtful about thinking about long-run effects in another way: he well understood the n-order impacts of certain behaviors.  Continuing to rail on the shortsightedness of manufacturers trying to boost short-term sales, Ogilvy discusses the dangers of discounting:

“Manufacturers are buying volume by price discounting… they are training consumers to buy on price instead of brand.

… there used to be a prosperous brand of coffee called Chase & Sanborn… They became addicted to price-offs.  Where is Chase & Sanborn today? … dead as a doornail.”

I discuss a modern iteration of this phenomenon in more depth in the zero-sum games mental model.

So… would you notice?

It felt like I had my very own lake in Minnesota.
Weight’s at a premium when I’m backpacking… but I’ll always make room for a book. Or three.

Whether or not you’re interested in advertising yourself – or your company – there are tons of lessons to learn from studying this often overlooked field.  

Ultimately, the waves of time wash away all but the strongest imprints on the beach.  Successful advertising aims to make as deep an imprint as possible – so you stand out from the crowd, and so your legacy lasts well beyond your ad campaign.

To return to the title: I think the song stuck in my head as I read these books sums up the challenge particularly well.

You only hear what you want…

I can’t see you; you can’t see me.

We’ll be lost in here together.

If I disappeared… would you notice I’m not here?

Would you notice I’m not here?

– “Hear What You Want” by Real Friends