How to Open Your (Audience’s) Eyes

Some of the strongest memories people have, their most easily recalled sensations, stem from seasonal and regional smells and tastes. These represent childhood memories, the places we come from. As a result, they are fundamental components of our identities.

You may remember a place that sold sweet corn by the roadside. Those lucky enough to have been brought up in the country may recall the smell of wild cherries, strawberries, and tomatoes in spring and summer and pumpkins and apples in the fall. We New Englanders occasionally drive through the steam of a roadside sugar shack, leaving us with a slightly sticky feeling and a lust for maple candy.

In cities, kids are imprinted with the sound of ice cream trucks, the smell of hot pavement, or, in winter, the aroma of pastries and coffee from donut shops.

Every region has a unique set of sensations. The Massachusetts seacoast is tidal. A molasses smell characteristic of Boston disappears every six hours, as the water recedes to reveal silty, decaying weeds. When I lived in San Francisco, it hardly smelled like a seaport. Little tidal activity and only a bit of clean sand were left after the city filled in its wetlands. The seaports host huge transport ships and few fishy trolling vessels.

People sense place without quite putting a finger on what they identify. They know there’s a difference, but they can seldom articulate what it is. They can be figuratively brought home to a place when an ad — even an online ad — appeals to the sensation. Powerful, rich, warm, and positive memories are unparalleled as persuaders.

This is a level of subtlety at which creative brilliance can be achieved. Appealing to these parts of our memories and identities is a subtle tactic laced with creative impact no direct appeal can match.

A century ago, diets were seasonal. You never had strawberries in November or apples in June. Chicago had no lobster, New York no really fresh salmon.

Today, most everyone eats the same stuff as everyone else, all year ’round. Refrigeration, along with mass media, created the national, single-season market in which we live.

We lose our identities in a monoculture. Creatives especially find this a problem. There is less opportunity to hone in and empathize with a specific group’s badges of identification.

The best TV and print ads try to achieve this. To a degree, they succeed. I remember when I was recruited at Leo Burnett. I was shown a reel of TV spots that alternately made me laugh and cry. That 20 minutes of video left me drained. Most ads reminded me of childhood sensations: school or family life. Because they were national spots, they couldn’t focus on regional identification.

There’s no equivalent interactive media reel yet. Direct response advertising seldom utilizes this kind of creative. Not because it can’t, but because the typical direct response client doesn’t consider campaigns with messages that closely identify with an audience. Financial companies, subscription services, and discount online retailers aren’t looking for close brand identification with individual users. They’re looking for the instantaneous ring of a cash register.

But online media allows creatives to get focused and regional. We can pull the heart strings of our audience with much greater specificity and precision than in any type of TV buy, even in spot markets.

Online media allows easy and flexible changes in creative messages with the seasons. We can do this literally, evoking specific seasonal sensations, or figuratively, customizing creative messages to conform to up-to-the-minute cultural trends and fads. It only takes the will to allow seasons and trends to trump production and media schedules.

Good creatives marvel at sensations. They may strike inspiration while pulling out of a parking lot or find themselves with eyes closed, savoring a smell while mowing the lawn. It’s here, online, where we have the opportunity to translate sensory insight into messages tailored to audiences who can appreciate them.

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Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.