Three Common Misconceptions About Advertising That Can Hurt Your Sales

Three Common Misconceptions About Advertising That Can Hurt Your Sales
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The more experience and knowledge marketers acquire, the more they realize that some of the most commonly-held beliefs about what sells and what doesn’t are contrary to fact. The purpose of this post is to expose these misconceptions so they do not negatively impact your business.


The subject of sex in advertising comes up with clients and students all the time. Many believe that sex sells even though there are so many cases when it does not. Why is it such a common belief?

  1. Reptilian Brain. Sexual desire is built into the reptilian brain. Because people’s thoughts come from inside their own heads, they extrapolate their feelings to situations that do not apply.
  2. Heard repeatedly. Similar to many other misconceptions, people often hear that sex sells. As a result, they conclude that it must be correct.
  3. Gets attention. Whether it sells a product or not, many agree that sex will attract attention. The problem is that not all the attention is positive, and in many cases the attention is attracted away from, rather than toward, the product or brand.
  4. Taboo. In many circles where sex is taboo, it generates even more attention. GoogleTrends reported statistics related to this subject.
  5. Used a lot in advertising. Because a lot of well-known companies use sex in advertising, many assume it must sell or advertisers wouldn’t use it. Many Super Bowl 2013 commercials reinforced this idea. If the assumers reviewed the data, they would not make these assumptions.

Sex is usually ineffective at selling the product

Two recent studies reported in Fortune and Advertising Age confirm what previous objective research has shown – in a great many cases, sex does not sell. For products unrelated to sex, using sex to sell them rarely works. It can even backfire. In addition to these studies, a University of Wisconsin study shows that audiences view ads 10% less favorably if they use sex to sell un-sexy products. This study confirms the data David Ogilvy accumulated over his long and storied career in advertising.

There are many reasons why sex is not effective at selling products unrelated to sex. Some of the more important ones are listed below.

  1. Some are offended. Gratuitous sex in advertising has caused a growing chorus of people (especially women and a growing group of men) to be repulsed. Jack in the Box has been running commercials with sexual overtones over the past few years. A commercial for breakfast croissants has even been dubbed the Jack in the Box Viagra commercial. Then there is the Marry Bacon commercial and so many others.
  2. Gimmick. Many believe using sex to sell a product that is unrelated to sex is a gimmick that cheapens both the image of the company and the product.
  3. Distracts attention from product shortcomings. Others believe that the product must not have enough capabilities for the company to employ sex rather than product benefits to sell the product.
  4. People forget the product. Those that are attracted to the ad for reasons unrelated to the product benefits tend to remember what attracted them rather than the product.

When sex can be effective in selling your product

In his book Ogilvy on Advertising, Ogilvy says that sex sells only if it is relevant to the subject being sold. Advertising Professor Jef I. Richards has a famous quote that corroborates Ogilvy’s findings “Sex sells, but only if you’re selling sex.”

MISCONCEPTION 2 • Celebrities Sell

Companies pay celebrities quite a lot to be in their commercials, and they are used in roughly one-fifth of all ads. In fact, you will see a lot of them in numerous Super Bowl commercials. And those Super Bowl ads cost $5 million for 30 seconds of air time on TV and millions more to produce. As with sex, therefore, many assume that celebrities are effective at selling products.

Celebrities usually don’t sell

When you peel back the onion and look at the data, you will find that, in so many cases, celebrities don’t sell the product effectively. In the cases where they are effective, it is not because they are celebrities. It is because they are considered to be “expert” users of the products they are advertising.

Studies on celebrity endorsements

Ace Metrix tracks every nationally televised TV ad and provides syndicated data on its findings. Its study described in Ad Age showed that fewer than 12 percent of ads using celebrities exceeded a 10 percent lift. In fact, 20 percent of celebrity ads had a negative impact on advertising effectiveness. The post goes on to say that...

“The bottom line is that good ads stand on their own, and this study empirically shows that a celebrity has little to no impact on an ad’s effectiveness. In fact, regardless of gender or age, ads without celebrities out-performed ads with them.”

Going back a little further in time, an Ipsos study reported by Media Post’s Center for Media Research had similar results. This study found that celebrity ads had lower ratings for believability than non-celebrity ads. It also found that...

“The message becomes more powerful when the celebrity endorsement carries ‘expert’ authority or relevance for the brand, such as an athlete for sportswear or equipment, a famous chef for a food product, or a racecar driver for tires or motor oil.”

In his book Ogilvy on Advertising, here is what David Ogilvy (founder of Ogilvy Mather and considered to be the model for the Don Draper character in the TV series Mad Men) says about using celebrities in ads...

“Testimonials from celebrities get high recall scores, but I have stopped using them because readers remember the celebrity and forget the product. What’s more, they assume the celebrity has been bought, which is usually the case.”

When celebrity endorsements are effective

Celebrity endorsements can and will work if the celebrity is considered an expert user of the product. Since Michael Jordan is a basketball super star, his name and endorsements have sold a lot of premium-priced shoes for Nike.

Of course, if you can find an expert that is not a celebrity, you can save a lot of money to produce the ad. Ogilvy found that testimonials from experts is persuasive — like having an ex-burglar testify that he had never been able to crack a Chubb safe.

Do you see a pattern here? Celebrities can be effective at selling a product if they are considered expert users of the product. Otherwise, it is most likely a bad investment to use them.

Put them together (celebrities and sex) and what do you get?

If you put non-expert celebrities together with gratuitous sex in ads, such as Paris Hilton in the infamous Carl’s Junior ad, you get the double whammy - the negative multiplier. Even so, you will get many that argue that such ads create viral pyramids and magnified attention from news and social media. And they are right about the attention. However, attracting more attention in a negative way, is not always good for a brand or long term sales and profits. After the Paris Hilton spot appeared, the stock of CKE, the parent company of Carl’s Junior, went down 20 percent. Let’s look at another case - the Go Daddy Super Bowl ad with super model Bar Rafaeli French-kissing a poor guy labeled as a tech nerd. According to Bluefin Labs, Go Daddy’s ad generated the most negative social media attention of any ad with a 34% negative score. USA Today’s ad meter pegged it dead last. More importantly, Go Daddy’s brand image took a huge beating from this commercial adding to past behavior.

The relevant question is what would the effect on sales be if the ad focused on the benefits of Go Daddy rather than the sex/celebrity gimmick to attract attention? More importantly, as Jason Schwartz pointed out in his post on Business Insider. If one were to add up all the pluses and minuses from this commercial, it appears that Go Daddy may have actually lost $7 million.

Relevance is the issue

Too many companies use celebrities and sex without really thinking or understanding the effectiveness they will have in selling products. Hopefully, the data provided above will help you to decide whether or not it is worth the extra money to pay celebrities to endorse your products or use sex in your ads to sell burgers, drain cleaner, or salad dressing. I wouldn’t recommend either (and certainly not both together) unless you are selling products related to sex or using celebrities that are recognized as expert users of the product.

MISCONCEPTION 3 • Short sells better than long

One of the most common misconceptions is that people will not pay attention to ads or communications that have more than a minimal amount of ad copy. When asked, marketers (and the buying public) overwhelmingly believe that short copy sells better than long. Measured results tell a different story.

Why so many believe short copy sells better

The reasons most commonly given to support the notion that short copy sells better include people...

  1. Do not like to read.
  2. Have short attention spans.
  3. Are in the habit of reading short messages in texts.
  4. Are too distracted with multiple media channels.
  5. Have their noses buried in mobile devices.

While these reasons are often true, the conclusion that short copy sells better is not.

Everything is relative

Good marketers know that only members of the target audience can decide what is "too long" and what is "too short." When I saw the movie Titanic, it was over 3 hours long. I thought it was too long. Teenage girls thought it was too short and watched the movie over and over again. Leonardo DiCaprio was not on the screen enough for them.

If people are really interested in something, they want more. If they are not interested, they want less. You cannot have too much of a good thing, but any amount of a bad thing is too much.

One of my favorite T-shirt's of all time, shown below, expresses this concept of relativity pretty well.

Less can be more since we are busy or lazy

Of course, if the content creator can get the essential information into the consumer's head with less copy, that is usually a good thing because it saves the consumer's time - a clear benefit since most of us are either busy or lazy.

However, it is nearly impossible to pick out who in the target audience wants more and who wants less. What is a good marketer to do? The answer is format the information into "bite-sized" pieces using sub-headlines and graphic elements.

For those who want less, they can read the headline, look at the photo, perhaps read the subheads and then skip to where they can buy it. For those who want more, the longer body text can provide that too.

Yes, less can be more, but the way marketers should look at this is well-written long copy is usually a far more concise version of text that would otherwise be a lot longer.

Most importantly, good marketers format it in a way to allow "busy or lazy" consumers to pick out the main benefits without reading, viewing, or listening to the entire content.

What marketing legends say

On the subject of copy length, David Ogilvy says...

"All my experience says that for a great many products, long copy sells more than short ... advertisements with long copy convey the impression that you have something important to say, whether people read the copy or not."

Dr. Charles Edwards, former dean of the Graduate School of Retailing at New York University is quoted as saying...

"The more facts you tell, the more you sell. An advertisement's chance for success invariably increases as the number of pertinent merchandise facts included in the advertisement increases."

In his book, "Tested Advertising Methods," John Caples says...

"Advertisers who can trace the direct sales results from their ads use long copy because it pulls better than short copy... Brief, reminder-style copy consisting of a few words or a slogan does not pull inquiries as well as long copy packed with facts and reader benefits about your product or service."

There are many more quotes from many more experts, I will stop here knowing the power of three.

More recent proof from the fast-paced online world

I know what some of you are thinking. The people I quoted above are "old guys" who are long gone. What they said is no longer relevant in our fast-paced, distracted, short-attention-span world.

While those "in the know" understand that the wisdom of these "old guys" is more powerful today than ever, I need to address this objection head on. The fact is that data shows that long copy typically sells better than short copy online too. Marketing Experiments did a series of tests for clients to show the effect of copy length on Website conversion rates. In their tests, the long copy outperformed the short copy by wide margins.

Need more proof? On the Conversion Rate Experts Web site, they share how they were able to boost Crazy Egg's conversion rate by 363%. Can you guess how they did it? They made the home page 20 times longer!

Why longer copy typically outsells shorter copy

Even though it is counter-intuitive, why does longer copy typically outsell shorter copy? While the list of reasons could be very long, I will limit them to seven. Longer copy enables the advertiser to... Provide more benefits, which in turn, shows more people how the product or company can help them.

  1. Show the product or company is more important since it has more capabilities.
  2. Answer more questions and generate more sales since selling involves answering objections.
  3. Target the customer better so those who respond are more likely to buy.
  4. Give those who want more information the information they need so they will be more comfortable buying your product or doing business with your company.
  5. Give those who are "busy or lazy" and don't want to read a lot the ability to skim the important points without requiring them to read, listen to, or watch it all. This requires good formatting.
  6. Provide more keyword-rich copy to boost organic search engine results.

Hopefully, this post will help you convince the skeptical throngs who still believe that sex and celebrities sell and shorter copy sells better. Since these are counter-intuitive notions, you need proof to support you. Good luck.

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