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A Little Subtlety Goes a Long Way

  |  January 16, 2003   |  Comments

Despite the popularity of pop-ups, sometimes in-your-face ads just go in one ear and out the other.

Some forms of advertising are just too obvious to work. You may disagree, saying this theory goes against many of the fundamental principles of marketing. Others might insist the idea could be easily disproved, perhaps by nothing more than some notable success data from the infomercial industry. Although these rejoinders may hold water, I stand by my conviction that, at least where brand awareness and purchase intent are concerned, the subtle placements -- those that really harmonize with media vehicle content -- stand a much better chance of producing lasting results.

Need a specific example to wrap your brain around? Online and off-, the media is full of them. Magazine advertorials, award show sponsorships, and paid search engine results aside, new methods of integrated advertising are popping up every day. The technique is even being taken to new heights on television, backed by some of the biggest advertisers on the block. The WB Network is reportedly working on a show with a working title of "Live From Tomorrow" that will be entirely commercial free, promoting advertisers such as Pepsi and Nokia via product placements alone.

This crafty approach to advertising has been on my mind as of late, ever since our agency was asked to pitch on the redesign of an email newsletter for a retail store client. There was nothing wrong with the existing version; in fact, it was one of the better weekly e-newsletters I've seen. But one of the client's partner companies (and biggest suppliers) wanted its products to have a presence in the content-heavy, but brand-name-free, email. The supplier was willing to foot the bill for the redesign, so in we came, with graphic artists in tow.

The first step was to outline both companies' objectives. Although the retailer was willing to entertain the idea of featuring his supplier's products, he also wanted to maintain the existing quality and overall integrity of the newsletter that had served him so well in the past. Meanwhile, his supplier saw the existing newsletter as a diamond-filled mountain, waiting to be mined. The content-rich email, originally designed to build and maintain customer loyalty and encourage interaction with the retailer's site, didn't promote any specific products. This was an opportunity to obtain a prominent presence in this competition-free space, in front of a targeted audience of potential and existing customers. The retailer wanted discretion; the supplier wanted prestige.

Clearly, we were faced with a dilemma. How does one design a newsletter that highlights a host of products -- many of which don't directly relate to the highly specific featured content -- without plastering the page with logos and slogans? Could the supplier still reap the benefits of having a presence in the newsletter if that presence was subtle instead of blatantly obvious?

In the end, we opted to add only a slight bit of content to the existing layout. Our additions, small but noticeable, combined generic consumer tips with specific product information and useful advice with related new products. The editorial content we created may have promoted the use of specific products, but it was primarily editorial -- valuable to the consumer, useful, and approachable. The product logo use was kept to a minimum, as we opted instead to link relevant sections of the text to corresponding pages on the supplier's product site. Overall, the incorporation of the supplier's promotional content wasn't obvious enough to jar subscribers. It was intended to tiptoe into their minds and reside there... at least until they made their next trip to the retailer's store.

How does this relate to Internet media buying? It reminds us that an in-your-face ad format isn't always the most effective option. Numerous studies have confirmed consumers have a tendency to ignore patent and familiar ad formats, such as banners and pop-ups, a phenomenon dubbed "banner blindness." These days, we media buyers have little choice but to come up with alternatives.

Subtle and integrated advertising isn't just employed for the sake of being clever (although you do have to marvel at the cunning of some of the advertisers in this business). Most people are much more likely to respond favorably to an idea if it's brought up in conversation, rather than scrawled on a poster and pressed to their noses. Isn't it likely that your target online audience will do the same?

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Tessa Wegert

Tessa Wegert is a business reporter and former media strategist specializing in digital. In addition to writing for ClickZ since 2002, she has contributed to such publications as USA Today, Marketing Magazine, Mashable, and The Globe and Mail. Tessa manages marketing and communications for Enlighten, one of the first full-service digital marketing strategy agencies servicing such brands as Bioré, Food Network, illy, and Hunter Douglas. She has been working in online media since 1999.

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