Shadow Reading: Text & Subtext in Effective Communication (3)

[Semptember 17, 2011] 

Before you spend six figures testing your copy in focus groups, ask yourself this: Is the bottom-line subtext “Us” or “You?” Depending on the answer, you could save a bundle in test dollars by going back to the drawing board.

For some brands, the temptation to rattle on about “our fine products” is as irresistible as it is antediluvian. Back when advertising was young, spinning your brand yarn into a pledge narrative might have seemed central to the art of persuasion. But today, this approach has a serious drawback: It’s all about “Us.” Take a look at an exceptionally well-preserved specimen from the fossil records, on display at Progresso.com as of 9-16-11:

Our story is all about quality.
We craft all our soups, broths and foods from authentic recipes using only the highest quality ingredients. We are dedicated to making better taste better for you. We believe that food should always be delicious, and there is no reason that delicious food can’t fit within your diet. At Progresso, we love great food. It’s been our passion for more than 50 years.

As if suspended in amber like a 100-million-year-old termite, this classic pledge message lacks only the phrase “That’s our promise to you.” Maybe that bit got snapped off when this copy stumbled into the tree sap. Nevertheless, it bears the stamp of its ancient origins. In one paragraph are four instances of “we” and one of “our.”

Now ask yourself: What’s your favorite topic?

If you answered “politics;” “fashion,” “cars,” “sports,” “hip-hop,” or “electromagnetic resonance,” think again. These might be favorite topics of conversation, but I’ll bet my eye teeth your favorite topic of all time is You. Sure, other topics can grab and hold your attention, but only for so long. Your first love is that sweetheart in the mirror.

Playing to the balcony.
So, what’s wrong with Progresso’s approach? For starters, if “we” take pride in our soup that says nothing about how it tastes to “you.” The net result of such Us-centric patter is a message only tangentially related to our everyday experience. Like an ancient Roman theatrical mask, phrases like: “the highest quality ingredients” appear before us as ritualized stand-ins for emotional connection.

When brands favor You-centric messaging, the impact is more immediate—even if the copy isn’t original, witty, or hip. Here’s what I found at Campbells.com:

Serve up satisfaction.
Campbell’s® Chunky soup has the stuff you’ll love,
like big pieces of meat and hearty vegetables. It’s a
filling stand-alone soup, or can make a great dinner
when poured over mashed potatoes or rice.

Award-winning prose? No. It has the dutiful flow of language enslaved to a pixel-perfect design matrix. But the impact of You-oriented messaging lies in its intent. Campbell’s strategy is to address consumers in a human voice.

This copy doesn’t discuss Campbell’s wish to serve “your busy lifestyle”—or recite any other duh-infested observations from Advertising’s sacred Book of Wry. Yes, you hear the voice of a merchant. But at least that merchant is talking about you—and that’s the crucial difference. In fact, this dichotomy between “Us-ers” and “You-ers” is played out across digital space. I’ll leave it to you to compare the approaches taken by Amy’s and Stouffer’s.

One being, indivisible.
The debate between appealing to reason (Us) and appealing to emotion (You) is rooted in American culture. We tend to envision ourselves as having a rational side and an emotional side. And as evidenced by the either/or way brands choose to address their audiences, it’s clear there’s also a split between those who believe we’re persuaded by logic and those who believe we’re persuaded by emotion.

As I see it, the idea that the human brain is divided into “sides” is merely a comfortable delusion. As the recent discovery of a “secondary brain” in our guts suggests, we’re one entity, in which rational, emotional and somatic impulses intertwine in an unfathomably dynamic dance. Appeal to a consumer’s rational side? Good luck finding it. For all you know, it could reside in his or her belly, right next to yesterday’s lunch. In which case, you better hope your target ate something sensible for a change.

Armed with the realization that traditional models of audience engagement are flawed, we desperately need a new voice, the “new way of walking” that the ’60s promised but never quite delivered. We’ll find it the moment we tear down the platitude-encrusted walls of promotional lingo that separate brand and audience. In 2011, if you want to sell me something, your logic will be suffused with emotion, your feelings will well up from a commitment to rational principles—and your subtext will be “You.”


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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