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The Power of Lo-Fi

  |  March 29, 2010   |  Comments

Should we all start putting out "crappy" ads?

So there I was, minding my own business, when this hits my desk along with a bunch of other mail that'd come in that day. As you can see from the envelope, it doesn't look like your typical direct mail piece. In fact, if it wasn't for a return address that included "The Future" in it, I think I would have just taken it for a résumé or some piece of personal correspondence.

The return address cued me in to the fact that something was up, but I couldn't tell what. The contents were faintly visible through the cheap, thin envelope and seemed to hint at some sort of drawing. I tore into the envelope and out fell what you can see at the bottom of the picture - a crude, childish drawing of a dinosaur and a URL. I had to know what it pointed to. So I typed in the URL. Click it and see for yourself.

In case you're too lazy to click the link, it leads you to the promo site for the Tomorrow Awards, which plays a personalized video clip that even pulls in work from (I assume) the portfolio section of your agency's Web site. The video itself is a very low budget shot of a person in a "dinosaur from the future" costume (the "future" part is obvious from the tinfoil), who warns the viewer that they have to stop the "dinosaurs" from taking over the industry in the future by participating in the Tomorrow Awards.

Is it effective? Well, I can tell you that as someone who receives a hell of a lot of direct mail, I've never, ever dropped everything I was doing to run around my office showing off a direct mail piece before. This made me do just that. Very, very cool.

But is there a larger lesson to learn from this campaign? I think so, and it's what I like to call "the power of lo-fi."

Why did I notice the piece? Because it deliberately didn't look like a highly-produced direct mail piece. In a stack of beautifully designed envelopes and glossy postcards it stood out like the proverbial sore thumb. The return address clued me in to the fact that it probably was some sort of commercial solicitation, but that didn't matter to me: I had to know what was in that hand-written (seemingly...it was actually a well-done handwriting font) envelope.

This campaign stuck out because it bucked the convention that everyone else adheres to, the idea that to be effective "glossier," "artier," or "more highly produced" ads generate response and get noticed. We all seem to believe that (and often fight tooth and nail with clients in defense of that belief). But ask yourself this: in a world where digital technology gives everyone access to production qualities unheard of a decade ago, doesn't it make sense that ads with lower production values actually stand out more?

Yes, this sounds like heresy, I know. But next time you're sitting at home fast-forwarding past commercials with your DVR (and you know you do), pay attention to the ads that show up in the fast-forward stream. Out of everything, I bet the ones that really pop out are the "crappy," locally-produced spots for car dealers, lawyers, and flea markets, or, alternately, "infomercial-y" direct response ads (i.e., The Slanket).

"Oh, no...not me!" you may be saying. No. Of course not. You're a sophist-i-mi-cated person who scoffs at lo-fi TV spots, right? What about online? Don't high-priced, rich media, behaviorally-targeted ads get the best responses? If you just listened to the industry, you'd think so. But in reality, it turns out those ubiquitous "LowerMyBills" ads really pull in the clicks, according to The New York Times. Even if you've never clicked on one of those dancing ads (now featuring pictures of odd humans, it seems), I figure you've read them more than once. However, you'd be hard-pressed to name more than one or two high-priced video ads or rich media units you've been exposed to in the past couple of weeks...unless, of course, it's an ad that you made!

As advertising professionals, we all probably have the same love/hate reaction to crappy ads. On the one hand, the low-production values and cheesiness go against everything we've learned over our careers. On the other hand, it's tough to argue with the fact that the Flea Market Montgomery ad I pointed to earlier has enjoyed almost 6 million views on YouTube and generated enough popularity to get a cameo on Family Guy, Reno 911, and an appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

How'd your last "viral" video do?

Why does lo-fi advertising grab our attention like it does? As I found out with the StopTheDinosaurs campaign, one reason is because it stands out simply because it goes against convention. But there are deeper reasons, reasons that all of us can learn from when creating our next campaign.

"Authenticity" - that hard-to-define quality that indicates whether or not something's "real" - plays a big part. Lo-fi ads appear more authentic, and a lot of current research shows that "authentic" ads and brand experiences are what consumers crave. It should come as no surprise that consumers don't trust most advertising, but as this report shows, they seem to trust online advertising less, in particular, online video and online banner ads. What they do trust is authenticity; not surprisingly, it's other people (even people they don't know) that they trust the most, according to this recent report from Nielsen. Trust "is a personal phenomenon."

In the absence of any other cues, all of us rely on our sense of "authenticity" to judge whether or not we trust a piece of communication. Long ago, we trusted "the media" to give us the straight story, but trust in the press has been declining precipitously for years. The Web has further blurred the picture by creating a relatively level playing field for communicators, where scammers can appear just as well-produced as legitimate companies. At one time, bloggers seemed to offer a more "authentic" take on things. But revelations such as the iPhone app-review "payola" scandal (recently uncovered by Wired) and ham-fisted attempts by advertisers to pull the wool over our eyes with fake "real customer" blogs have made us unsure who to believe.

In this kind of atmosphere, it's not surprising that lo-fi ads stand out and grab our attention. They're not "hip," (though they can be in that impossible-to-define "so unhip it's hip" way), they're not slick, and they're definitely not "high brow." But they work in the same way that so many vintage TV spots work (there's a great archive here), by being direct, memorable, and honest(-ish). And, perhaps most importantly, they work because they often feel like they're getting down to our "level," connecting with us in a way that flashy ads can't.

It's this connection that may be what makes lo-fi ads ultimately so powerful. There's a lot of brain-based research that shows that adding a personal touch (such as a real hand-written note, for example) generates response by triggering a "reciprocity" response, compelling us to respond because we believe someone put some personal effort into reaching us. It may also be because many of these ads are simple, another factor that seems to work on us at a visceral level. Or it may just be that they don't try to be more than they are, eschewing high-concept brand advertising for something that's a lot closer to what we all experience in our day to day lives.

Whatever the reason, they seem to work. Try to think about "why" next time you start planning a campaign.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sean Carton

Sean Carton has recently been appointed to develop the Center for Digital Communication, Commerce, and Culture at the University of Baltimore and is chief creative officer at idfive in Baltimore. He was formerly the dean of Philadelphia University's School of Design + Media and chief experience officer at Carton Donofrio Partners, Inc.

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