The Drama of the Data

[November 27, 2009]

Screenwriters use the phrase “on the nose” to describe dialogue too literal to be believable. Having observed that people express their deepest emotions indirectly, a good screenwriter conveys young love through the intimacy of a lover’s conversation—a conversation in which no one says “Oh, how I love you, my Darling!”

For exactly the same reasons, any “on the nose” interpretation of research data is just as unlikely to move your audience. This is especially true today, when every square inch of our environment is saturated with advertising. People know when they’re being sold—despite any attempt to camouflage sales tactics with an ill-fitting Cloak of Invisibility. If trumpeting product benefits was ever effective, that time is past. Even 50 years ago, I suspect that headlines like…

Tired of Vacuuming the Old Fashioned Way?

…were merely tolerated. People weren’t stupid back then, either—but advertising certainly was. In fact, I see every marketing innovation of the last 50 years as an outgrowth of a single realization: People are far more intelligent than traditional marketing theory allows.

That’s why I start each project by wondering what my audience has on its mind—and leave the bullet points for later. As the people at Shamwow recognize, effective marketing depends on your ability to summon the emotions surrounding a core human need.

The Shamwow announcer personifies the wow-factor, but the messaging grows out of a single, emotionally charged cultural value: Messy spills are disgusting and a terrible waste of time.

Lucky for me, I’ve never been asked to hawk products in this way, but my approach is the same. Whether it’s a promise of financial protection or eternal youth, I also have to dig beneath the surface of that promise, to discover the emotions at its core.

Like a screenwriter. however, I can’t stop there. I base my approach on direct observation of how people talk to themselves about those emotions. Instead of writing “on the nose,” I need to trigger the same response the topic itself triggers in my audience.

The current campaign for the American Express charge card puts this principle in practice. The headline:

“Don’t Take Chances, Take Charge”

…appeals to anxiety about fraud, loss and theft and opens the door to a clever series of images, in which consumers’ purchases echo their feelings. This shows what can happen when you go beyond a literal statement of market research. Instead of leading with:

  Worried About Fraud, Loss and Theft When You Use Your Debit Card?

…they’ve evoked emotion rather than talking about it, word for word.

Sure, “fraud, loss and theft” might have turned up in focus groups and SEM analytics. Taken out of subtext, however, the drama of the data never makes it to the screen.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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