Getting attention

by Pari

I was a kid who wanted attention and got a lot of it . . . mostly negative. A rabble-rouser and talk-backer, I spent a good portion of my elementary school years in chalky unlit cloak closets being punished for one transgression or another.

Miss Klein, my third grade teacher – the one I called a “big fat barf” in front of the whole class – told my classmates in her creaky voice, “Ignore her and she’ll stop.” Mrs. Roberts exhorted my 5th grade cohorts with “Don’t pay attention to her, you’re just feeding the fire.”

While my teachers promoted negative PR about me, my peers held me in a certain amount of awe. Fury made me brave and I willingly took on bullies and mean teachers without a second thought. Glorious attention came with each exploit. The good variety provided sympathy, hugs, pats on the back and the occasional extra dessert in the cafeteria at lunchtime. The bad variety – the spankings and groundings – yielded more fodder for the tears that would evoke the good variety.

Through those years of my turbulent childhood and adolescence, I came to one undeniable and hard-earned conclusion: being sad or bad evoked the attention I craved; being content and doing what I was supposed to do rarely brought more than a glance.

In a way, I lived the adage Any PR is good PR . . . or any attention is, ultimately, good attention.

Fast forward to today. I don’t buy into that adage anymore and I don’t need attention like I did when I was a kid. That’s what makes my current life experience a bit odd. I feel like I’m being rewarded for being sad. People I haven’t heard from in years have reached out to me. Their reactions are very moving and appreciated — necessary, in fact — but they’ve also made me think a lot about my childhood and my desire for attention then. And being the person I am today, the woman who studies human motivation through the eyes of a decades-long PR pro — I’ve been thinking a lot about how marketers/PR pros play on our emotions to get us to act.

If you watch television or listen to the radio, you’ll soon notice that most ads are upbeat; even if they’re not funny, they’re selling good news:

This book will change your life!
You’ll love going to this amusement park!
Buy this car and D-cup women will throw themselves at you!
Offering her the diamond will fulfill your dreams.
Look at this starving child; you can change her life with just $.25 a day.

But wait. Not all ads are happy. What about:

Drunk driving kills.
Meth will steal your entire life.
This is your brain on drugs.
Look at the chunk of my face they had to cut off because I got cancer from smoking.

The first set of ads spur us to buy with promises of sunshine and daffodils. Perhaps the motivators have to be positive in order for us to part with our money. So how do we explain the success and prevalence of the second set of bummer ads? And what about political ads? Their efficacity confuses me most of all. Some are the obvious happy variety:  Vote for me and the economy will soar, you’ll be safe and everyone in America will have a Jacuzzi. Many, however, are based on fear or guilt or massive negativity: So-and-so is in league with Satan, wants to drink your children’s blood, voted to let terrorists fly first class to the U.S. without passports and wants to make you poor and kill your grandparents. He’s bad bad bad bad and scary and horrible and everything you don’t want . . . and, oh, by the way, I’m the good guy.

I’m assuming all of these ads and approaches work. Otherwise the billions of dollars spent on each variety wouldn’t pass hands each year. But which ads work best for which messages? Which ones get our attention and make us take the second step of doing the desired outcome?

Hell if I know.

That’s what I want to explore today.

Do you have a favorite ad? Tell us why (add a link if you can find it)
Do negative ads – like the PSAs or political ads I mentioned – work for you? Why?
Are you noticing other trends in advertising that are attracting your attention now?


31 thoughts on “Getting attention

  1. JD Rhoades

    Negative campaign ads, from either side, lead to eye-rolling. Gloom and doom PSA's often lead to mockery (possibly a whistling past the graveyard effect). Smart, funny commercials are memorable, but I can never remember the product. So I may not be the best target audience.

  2. Rae

    My current favorite ad is the Super Bowl VW spot with the wee Darth Vader. It just makes me happy. Here’s the link:

    Negative political ads absolutely do not work for me – as a matter of fact, they pretty much have the opposite effect. I tend to become more interested in the person or issue being slammed, and more likely to listen to their point of view. PSAs about smoking and cancer can be effective, I think.

    The trend in advertising that bugs the bejabbers out of me – and it’s been going on for awhile now – is the unseemliness of some of the personal product ads. In particular, toilet paper ads, and even more specifically, those asinine Charmin bears. It’s to the point now where some of the other TP producers are getting more graphic in their ads as well, just to keep up with Charmin’s ookiness. Blech.

    On a slightly more serious note, the drug company ads (and I don’t mean Cialis and Viagra, although they’re annoying) seem a bit sinister to me. I think I read somewhere that when the drug companies started marketing directly to consumers, it caused a noticeable uptick in their sales. And I’m not sure if that’s so healthy.

  3. David Corbett

    Big fat barf?

    The terrorists have won.

    Pari, there’s an unsettling truth to your observation that bad behavior gets results. I’m sure I’m not alone in having been raised in a family where the angriest person won – or the one who made everybody else’s life miserable until he got what he wanted.

    And as a private investigator, I not infrequently remarked that I had far fewer qualms of conscience defending the average drug dealer than I did the typical self-made man.

    There’s an element of garish narcissism in all promotion: Hey, put down what you’re doing and pay attention to me! It’s grating and off-putting and shameless – and wildly successful. It matters little whether the shill is upbeat or cautionary, at bottom it’s the same con. And it says a great deal that too often our worst traits engender the best results.

    Capitalism is a great economic system for inventors, entrepreneurs, visionaries – and sociopaths. (I know, I know: if you think things are bad here, try blah blah oh shoot me. Forgive me, but I’m tacking in a different wind this morning.)

    One of my favorite books is a slim little thing titled THE BITCH-GODDESS SUCCESS, Variations on an American Theme. The title comes from an apercu of William James: “…the moral flabbiness born of exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess success. That – with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word – is our national disease.”

    As a writer, my greatest aspiration is not to get the rubes to cough up their shekels. I want to entertain and inspire. I want to move my readers’ emotions, engage their intellects, reach that silent hungry place inside them that didn’t know they were craving the story unfolding as they turn the pages. To the extent I kowtow to the market, it’s in the form of learning my craft well enough that people do indeed want to pick up the book, and continue reading it once they’ve cracked the cover. I seem to be pretty good on the second part (rewarding readers who actually give me a try). The first part – getting folks to give me a whirl in the first place – remains as mysterious as the secrets of Eleusis.

    As we all traipse out the P.T. Barnum regalia in the brave new world of constant self-promotion – because that’s what the eBook “revolution” really means – I fear we’ve lost something crucial. Increasingly, we speak of how to market, how to get ourselves out there, how to get our books into readers’ hands. None of which is unimportant. But little of which helps me think deeply about simple things – which is the only way to write a truly great book.

    That said, my favorite ads almost always involve a talking dog.

    There. I said it.

  4. Gayle Carline

    As far as political ads go, I don't vote for mudslingers. Tell me about the good things YOU'LL do in office, not about the bad things your opponent will do. When I was younger, the PSAs to stop smoking or stay away from drugs, etc, used to get to me, but now I'm a little 'meh' about them.

    I love funny commercials, but they don't make me go out and buy the product. Jack in the Box is awful food, but I love the ads. Same thing with Sonic. Geico, Progressive, Nationwide, all have cute ads, but I'm not changing insurance companies because the dang woodchucks are chucking wood and laughing hysterically about it.

    The artsy-high concept ads beg me to make fun of them. So I do.

    Don't tell the advertisers, but all their hard work just ends up being entertainment for me – or fodder for ridicule.

  5. Louise Ure

    Wasn't it the Philadelphia businessman Wanamaker who said, "I know that half of my advertising dollars are wasted, but I don't know which half."?

    And I'm with David and the talking dogs.

  6. Pari Noskin

    Everyone is the best target market, because advertising works on us all. I'm with you re: the funny ads. I only rarely remember brands and usually it's when I think a product looks new AND innovative instead of the same old thing repackaged.

    Thanks for the links. I agree with you about "personal products" — are these really problems? Is that the only marketing edge you've got? And don't get me started on the drug companies and their marketing strategies; I believe they're creating needs. Many pharmaceuticals at this point are only repeats of others – -just new packaging — but nothing new to really benefit the consumer.

    Fascinating. There are too many ideas to respond to in your comments — from capitalism to the meaning of success and our slavery to it.

    Let me tackle one: I've been in a business that so many people frown upon — not writing, but PR — and this makes me acutely aware of how businesses conduct their business and sales AND how we, as writers, do the same. I don't think the e-book "revolution" is the culprit here, I think it's the overload of media in general — and the strategies to break through all the noise in our lives. This goes back to Marshall McLuhan and his observations decades ago.

    What's happening now is that the noise is much more democratic — instead of just a few national television or local radio stations we have cable, the internet and whatever else is out there. Anyone can self promote, anyone can make noise and everyone is. On top of that, several businesses such as publishing that used to control advertising and distribution no longer do so. That has created a perceived need for even more noise. All this shouting is creating more need — but I'm not sure it's creating more sales.

    I work daily in PR and love it. My whole deal is developing and maintaining relationships so that everyone concerned can "win." But as a writer, I now do very little PR or marketing. I'm going to put more of my fiction online and hope people find me. However, I'm tired of yelling. And I'm tired of listening to others do it too.

  7. Pari Noskin

    I'm obviously not the demographic for the hamster ad. What is the message? Can you sum it up? I like the music in all those ads that I've seen, but I feel like I'm missing something.

    I think a lot of advertising agencies aim to entertain with the idea that someday the product name might stick. At least that's the theory. I'm totally with you on mudslingers and have a really hard time when the person is my candidate. I've been known to call headquarters and complain. It didn't make a difference, but made me feel a little better.
    Re: PSAs — Some of the most innovative ones are on the internet now. They can take the time to really explain issues. That said, I do like the Truth anti-smoking campaigns. Pretty interesting stuff.

    And high concept ads? Sheesh.

  8. Pari Noskin

    Yeah, that's pretty much the theory. Throw money at it and some will stick. And I'm a sucker for most animal commercials — with those creatures talking or not.

    That is a great ad. The combination of the music with that wonderful pooch works really well, doesn't it? As far as entertaining you . . .that's exactly right.

    The EDS ad is one of my all-time favorites. I remember seeing it the first time and just bursting out laughing; I couldn't believe a company would be that funny and innovative. However, I didn't understand what the product was and so took it as pure entertainment and nothing more.

    I really like the Geico campaign; my favorite is the piggy going wee wee wee. AND the dachshund ad? I had a mouth full of tea when I just looked at it and almost sprayed my new computer. That's a fabulous piece — really artful and fun — and it really gets its point across effectively too.

  9. Barbie

    I'm not an ads sort of person, but, let me tell you, when one catches my attention, it's a good one. I was appalled when I was in the US and I saw that the political ads for a certain candidates consisted solely of saying the bad things the opponent did. I mean, really? Bad ads may even catch my attention, but it draws hostility from me.

    I had a similar childhood experience to you, Pari, but different. As a child, for some reason therapy hasn't explained, I craved attention and acted out, I did all sorts of things and did attract a lot of attention. Bad attention. People were always paying attention to me, and while adults seemed to be caring, I never seemed get along with other children. But, then, at about 11, 12 I started to change and I turned into the nicest, sweetest kid. Really, I was every parent's, teacher's, friend's dream teenager (I had a lot of issues, but they were all my own and no one new). And I still got A LOT of attention. Even more. But, this time, postitive. So, yea, l like positive advertising better, it brings out better feelings and energies from me 🙂

  10. Kay

    The OLD SPICE guy. (((sigh))) I LOVE those ads. I even watch them on youtube! LOL.

    I would never BUY the product, though.

    Ads don't work for me. Coupons don't work, either. I'm a coop and farmers' market shopper. I grow my own herbs and some veggies, too. I cook, so most pre-packaged stuff doesn't interest me and I'm allergic to most cleaning products and scented soap/shampoo/etc. We tend to buy newer used cars.

    It's interesting to see the effect ads have on my kids, though. They're SURE the advertising is true, and have been VERY disappointed with a few things the just HAD to have. Hopefully, those experiences will make them healthy skeptics.

  11. Gayle Carline

    How could I forget Old Spice Guy? Perfect combination of gorgeous guy plus random silliness. And the voice – deep voices like that make me giggle like a schoolgirl. Did not make me want to go buy a few bottles for my hubby, unfortunately. All it did was make me want to parody it for a book trailer.

    P.S. My son did the voiceover.

  12. Pari Noskin

    I like your experience. Mine didn't play out that way at all. However, I did realize sometime along the line that being happy just felt better than acting out and doing everything else to get attention. Even if I didn't get the attention, I was still happy.

    I think our family is a little more on the consumer side than yours, but we're more toward yours than many American families. If I buy prepackaged foods, they're generally from Trader Joe's and because we like the taste.

    But those Old Spice commercials? Wow. They're wonderful! Love 'em!

    JT, I like that commercial too. Love the song! Really, a Mohawk? Wow. I'm sitting here with the image and it's fascinating.

    Here's the song I'm enjoying today

  13. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I think the stop smoking ad that has the guy wrestling with himself on the floor while his wife watches TV is really spot on.

    I'm with Rae that the drug company ads are creepy. So many of them…

  14. Pari Noskin

    I haven't seen that anti-smoking ad. Here in NM, they're running a bunch of them that have people reading letters to themselves. They're understated and quite powerful.

    Isn't weird how many drug ads there are now? I don't know the stats, but suspect they're close to 1/4 of the marketing we see.

  15. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Pari

    We don't have real TV – just a DVD player connected to a monitor – so we get all our telly without the ad breaks. Sometimes I think we're missing the best bits … and then we see 'real' TV again and realise no, we really aren't.

    US ads are TOTALLY different from the stuff we get in the UK. Your advertisers are allowed to slag off the competition by name, where ours are only allowed to say 'compared to other leading brands' or somesuch. Very boring. I do love the way US drug adverts are compelled to list all the possible side-effects, though.

    Of the TV ads I remember, most of them are probably a long time gone by now. There was a kick-boxing grizzly bear in a tinned salmon ad, though, and the Guinness ads with the hurley match or the surfers. I think my favourites have to be the Trunk Monkey ads somebody sent me links to ages ago. Can't remember what product they were supposed to be for, sorry ;-]

  16. Pari Noskin

    I know what you mean about humor. I think of my books as funny, but most other people think they're "witty" and "quirky." Don't know quite what to think of that.

    Darn! I would've loved to see those.I do know that some of the funniest commercials come out of Europe. I'd enjoy watching a collection of them WITHOUT current commercials, but that's too much to wish for.

  17. Reine

    Negative ads are designed to immunize you against rational thinking. For example ads for medicines are there to make you think that it's hopeless to be considerate about side effects, either because all medicines can cause any and all bad things, or because the "evil government" makes them say that or "money hungry lawyers" profiting from huge malpractice awards make it necessary. The big business of pharmaceuticals benefits most. It is, for them, a very pleasant side effect of being made to reveal these negative possibilities.

    Negative political ads work on the same principle. The more able they are in removing rational thought from the equation, the more people will vote with their emotions.

    Public service ads are the same. The companies that have resisted them now use them to great advantage. The data seem clear in that most people who successfully quit smoking, for example, report having stopped because it cost so much money, with side effects prevention being a hopeful secondary plus.

    Not to say, as with the other negative ads, that some of us are not enlightened, but even the most well-meant PSAs do not do what is intended. MADD does not reach students by scaring them with crashed automobiles put on school campuses. Drug prevention programs have the same immunizing factor. Money might be better spent on introducing helpful legislation and law enforcement – IMHO.

  18. Laura

    I loved an Australian TV show – the Gruen Transfer which took and analysed ads, with a panel of experts and comedians. Very funny stuff (youtube it if you get the chance)
    One of my favourite ads is the Windex birds. Classic. I find funny ads are more likely to make me remember them. However since we bought a TiVo, we start recording the program and sit down to watch it after about 20 minutes… this way we get to fast forward through the ads. If not, commercial breaks are infinitely useful for getting up and making a cup of tea :p

  19. Allison Brennan

    I'm late, sorry!

    Ads that stick in my memory have an image that goes with the slogan. The "this is your brain on drugs" came out in the 80s when I was in h.s. and I'll NEVER forget the image of the egg frying. Very powerful and, I think, effective for the target audience. People still do drugs, but people who may not have or were on the cusp might think twice. It's the continual impression that works not just the one-time visual.

    Nike's ads "Just Do It" with athletes in their element work for me, too. That's a more positive ad (and relates to writing, too! Maybe that's why I like it.)

    I also like ads with animals 🙂 I remember one cat food commercial (again very old!) with a cat cha-cha-cha-ing. 🙂

    Truly, though, you're right in that people tend to focus on the negative. Your not angelic behavior earned you attention, and probably contributed to your behavior. (I see this in my kids ALL the time, but particularly my 8 year old daughter who's in between 2 boys. She'll steal their toys, push one down, or tattle depending on how she thinks she'll get attention or what she wants, their attention or mine.) In politics, everyone says they hate negative political ads, but those are the ones people remember at the voting booth. I wish it weren't true, but it is. No one remembers the good anyone has done, but they always remember the bad. (And sometimes they should! LOL.) But ads for products–trying to sell SOMETHING–are universally positive. Ads for ideas or elections are universally negative. And it's too early in the morning for me to contemplate why, though the reason is bumping around in my tired brain :/

  20. Pari Noskin

    A fascinating analysis. You bring up many points I hadn't considered. I've long suspected that negative ads in election years are designed to keep the electorate home, but hadn't applied the same basic concept to those disclaimers at the end of drug commercials.

    It strikes me that you know a lot about this kind of marketing. Is it a particular interest? And I'd love to know how you know so much about the PSAs too.

    Really. I'm grateful you took the time to write that response.

    I'm going to look for that program; it sounds like something I'd really enjoy.
    Tea, anyone?

  21. Pari Noskin

    Yeah, I was very original, wasn't I? I remember Miss Klein looking at me and not quite knowing what I meant but understanding from the other students in the room that I'd just stepped over a very definite line.

    I've seen the other one on TV, but not this one. Talk about a personal issue. I'm glad they handled it with humor, otherwise it would've been just awful instead of fun!

    If that's the kind of commentary you do before you're fully awake, I think your downright scary. Wow. The idea that selling a product needs to be positive while political/idea ads need to be negative is really interesting. I'm going to have to think about that one for awhile. Maybe I'll reprise this discussion in a few months when, unlike you, I need massive amounts of time to begin to be cogent . . .

  22. Reine

    Hi Pari,

    My ex-husband is a Boston publicist. I studied the psychology of advertising in one of my psych programs and sought to discover the many ways these principles might impact all facets of our social life. I was inspired to study the DARE program because these principles, although clearly well-meant, seemed to be at work there. I believed, therefore, that it would be a failure – and it is.

    Your posts, Pari, always inspire me to think.

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