The ‘Ah’ Factor – Advertising’s secret ingredient

Sitting in on a marketing meeting and being bombarded by phrases like ‘demographic breakdown’, ‘behavioural targeting’ and ‘affirmative disclosure’, you might be forgiven for thinking that advertising is a hard science on a par with nuclear physics.

But the newly released Dulux dog commercial – which incidentally marks the 50th anniversary of this advertising icon – indicates otherwise. Us admen hate to admit it, but the industry’s most potent secret weapon is the ‘ah’ factor – a generous dollop of sentimental mush.

Think of the Dulux dog’s cringe worthy stable mates, the Andrex puppy and the PG Tips chimps, and you’ll see what I mean. They’re all soppy enough to make Bambi seem hard-boiled, but of their branding power there can be no question. In fact, so successful have they become that a weird transference has taken place: Old English Sheepdogs are now universally known as Dulux dogs – even by the Kennel Club – and Labradors are forever festooned in pink toilet tissue.

In some ways this breed of advertising is a bit like acupuncture: a quasi-science that seems to work, but we’re not quite sure why or how. OK, we know it has an emotional appeal, but it’s not exactly reducible to a scientific formula.

Speaking of which brings me to quasi- or pseudo-scientific advertising, which is still flavour of the month in shampoo advertising. Pantene were recently hauled up by the short and curlies when a professional chemist phoned to ask them what they meant by their ‘unique pro-vitamin formula’ and how it worked. Pantene took this as their cue for a quick wash-and-go!

Colgate toothpaste used to be a great one for blinding them with science. Their secret ingredient, you may remember, was ‘activated Gardol’ (whatever that may be), which ‘in university controlled tests was a proven leader in fighting tooth decay’. We admen do love our jargon, don’t we? That one might even qualify as an ‘affirmative disclosure’ (i.e. putting a positive spin on bad news, in this case you’re at risk of tooth decay but we’ve got the answer).

In the same category you might include Colgate’s famous ‘ring of confidence’ (don’t let bad breath ruin your pulling power) and Horlicks’ cure for ‘night starvation’. What a wonderful invention that was, incidentally: a non-existent malady that the advertiser had thoughtfully provided the remedy for! If you haven’t got an obvious product benefit, make one up. Or as Alistair Crompton, a former Saatchi & Saatchi copywriter used to advise: “If you’ve got something to say, say it, but if you’ve got nothing to say, use showmanship”.

You may not realise it, but in the search for something – anything – to say about an otherwise bland product, us copywriters have added immeasurably to our culture and language. No, really. Think of ‘va-va-voom’, ‘being tangoed’, ‘service with a smurf’ and ‘reaching the parts other beers cannot reach’ – all agreeable bits of nonsense worthy of Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear.

Science it may not be. But art it most definitely is

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