The value of simplicity

John Foust
By John Foust, Advertising Trainer

Statisticians disagree on the number of commercial messages we are exposed to each day. Some say 1,000. Some say as many as 3,000. And others claim the number is closer to 20,000.

With estimates all over the map, all I can say for sure is that we live in an over-communicated world which has a short attention span. There is no way that anyone can notice and digest every single message.

This presents a challenge. How can we break through the clutter when we’re creating ads? How can we gain – and hold – favorable attention?

1. The first step is to simplify the essential message. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, “In all things, the supreme excellence is simplicity.” Apple’s first marketing brochure in 1977 quoted Leonardo da Vinci: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Simplicity was more than a slogan to Apple’s Steve Jobs. It was a requirement. Years later, when he was overseeing the design of the iPod, Jobs insisted that each prototype pass a strict test. If he wanted to access a song or a function, he wanted to get there in no more than three clicks.

Smart salespeople know that it is better to communicate a simple concept than a complicated one. And successful advertisers know that simply stated points have more consumer appeal than long explanations.

I remember a radio spot which featured the sound of a car with a dead battery. For 25 seconds, listeners heard the groaning “err errr errrr” of a battery which was fading. The only words were in the voiceover at the end: “This wouldn’t have happened with a DieHard battery.” Additional words would have killed the drama. The message was simple and clear.

2. Next, use your audience’s language. I remember visiting someone in the hospital and hearing a conversation between two doctors on the elevator. Although I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop, I couldn’t help but hear what they were saying. It wouldn’t have mattered if it had been confidential, because I didn’t understand a single word of their technical discussion. When the elevator stopped at their floor, I remember saying to myself that they would have to speak in plain language when they met with their patients.

It’s the same in marketing. We must speak in terms that our target audiences can easily understand.

3. Then eliminate unnecessary words. Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.” In other words: edit, edit, edit.

The most effective advertising slogans capture the essence of their products in only a few words. “Snap, Crackle, Pop” works better for Rice Krispies than “Our cereal is well known for its distinctive sound.” “Nothing runs like a Deere” is more memorable than “John Deere equipment operates more efficiently than the others.” And Nike’s famous “Just do it” slogan has more impact than “Get into action instead of just thinking about participating in sports.”

Simple messaging should not be limited to national advertisers. Local businesses need it, too.

 (c) Copyright 2019 by John Foust. All rights reserved.

John Foust has conducted training programs for thousands of newspaper advertising professionals. Many ad departments are using his training videos to save time and get quick results from in-house training. E-mail for information:

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