Note: This post originally appeared as a NextStage Opinion paper
Listening and seeing. You’d think those would be so obvious you wouldn’t need to learn how to do them. Unfortunately, they’re so obvious and so important that most content providers, marketers, developers, etc., don’t pay much attention to them. It’s kind of like watching the road when you drive a car. Of course you have to watch the road when you drive a car. Well, if that’s so obvious, how come people still have accidents?
First, Learning to Listen. This is something I work at and have mentioned in Design by Groups and Design for the Client. Depending on your discipline learning to listen is called active listening, attentive listening, intentional listening and I’m sure it has other names. In all cases, it involves three core elements:
- Listen, don’t just hear
- Find out what is important to the people doing the talking
- Find out what information the people doing the talking are working with
Learning to see — also known as active observing or intentional observation — exists in the worlds of knowledge strategy development, medical training, anthropology and other disciplines where there’s a difference between recognizing what is seen and simply seeing what is there. Recognizing what is seen indicates a certain amount of training or familiarity with what is being observed. Simply seeing what is there involves bringing an open mind into the equation. One of my favorite sayings is “Each morning be a blank slate that the day might write itself upon you.” Learning to See has three core elements similar to Learning to Listen. Learning to See’s core elements are:
- See, don’t just look
- Find out what is important to the people you’re seeing
- Find out what information the people you’re seeing are working with
Recently I was invited to an informal dinner with several high-level executives. There was more wealth and business acumen seated at this table than is seated at most board meetings and, although often invited to comment, I said that I’d prefer just to listen.
The conversation moved from topic to topic as dinner progressed. They talked of golf, family, business, sports, investments, travel, vacations, … pretty much what you’d expect from any group of people getting together for a night out. I listened not only to what was said but to who was saying it, not only who was saying it but to how it was said, not only to how it was said but to why it was being said, not only to… You get the idea.
At one point the conversation got around to business and how to best capitalize on an opportunity the people around the table were involved in. The conversations were going strong. One of the people at the table, a CEO of two companies and adviser to several others, got everyone’s attention by saying, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. I have a question.” Then he looked directly at me. “What do you think, Joseph?”
Everybody looked at me and laughed. The woman sitting next to me, a Sr.VP, looked down at my napkin and said, “Oh, God. What has he figured out now?”
I’d scribbled some equations down. I tapped the equations with my pen and said, “Well, based on what you’ve all been saying, here’s the market for your new company’s offerings,” I drew a box around my equations, then drew a line dividing the box in half with my equations all in the top half of the box. “These four equations define your ideal clients. Lots of other companies might be interested in what you offer, but any company meeting these four criteria will sign contracts without a moment’s hesitation.”
There was nervous laughter around the table. The CEO hadn’t taken his eyes off me nor had he looked at the equations. He repeated my four “musts”, looked around at everyone else at the table and said, “You know, that’s right.”
What’s interesting about this story is that I don’t have a head for business and everybody at the table knew it. I couldn’t recognize an investment or a good opportunity if I had to. But that wasn’t why I was invited to this dinner. Nobody at the table expected me to proffer sage investment or business advice. What I brought to the table, literally, was my ability to listen and see what is so obvious others often miss it.
Let me give you another example of how listening and seeing beyond what is presented can provide more information than is obvious.
17. 3. 1. 2. 7
No, that’s not a new form of IP address, a PIC or another play on Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code. What it is is a timing sequence. It is a well planned timing sequence and it goes like this…
You’re comfortable. You’re sitting in your favorite chair watching a TV show you like. Maybe there are people around you who’s company you enjoy. Maybe your grade schoolers are playing on the floor between you and the TV and occasionally you have to ask them to quiet down. Maybe your partner’s sitting beside you reading a book or the paper, working on a puzzle. Maybe there are drinks and munchies in front of you and you talk about the day’s events as you watch whatever’s on. Maybe you hear your teenagers playing their music in their rooms. Maybe you have pets and you’re cuddling or petting them, maybe playing with them on the floor yourself.
Whatever your particular situation, you’re comfortable. You’re relaxed. You’re in your own home or the home of a friend and you feel safe, trusted, secure. There are some people on the TV and they’re talking to each other. You’re not really following but their conversation mirrors how you feel; comfortable, safe, secure. They’re conversation is similar to many you’ve had. They kid with each other. They get along well. You can appreciate their comfort with each other. They’re safe with each other. They trust each other. They like each other and are at ease with each other. Because they are comfortable with each other, because they like and trust each other, you’re drawn to them. They’re attractive people. Good looking and prosperous without being too good looking or obviously prosperous. You don’t realize it and you are comfortable with them. You like and trust them. Their conversation is so like conversations you’ve had with friends that you start to pay attention to them. You do what every Hollywood writer, every ad writer, every copy writer wants and craves you to do — you associate yourself with them. You stop being you and you start being them. You do this because you like them, because you’re comfortable with them, because they’re so much like you that you feel you know them, you feel secure with them. You trust them. Because of all these things they have your confidence which means the company who put these likable people on TV has your confidence.
And this has happened in just 17 seconds.
- Very real.
- Very loud.
- Very frightening.
- A painful car crash.
- Not an accident — a crash.
There is nothing subtle about this. Your friends in the car were having a conversation you’ve had and the next thing you know they are screaming and cars are spinning and there’s the sounds of tires screeching and people shrieking and metal crunching and cars crashing.
- The void.
- Those friends who you were watching as they talked are gone. They were going along just fine and then there was this horrific crash and now they’re gone.
- There’s nothing.
You’re still in shock. There’s something on the screen. But the camera’s pulled back so you’re not really sure what it is. Somebody’s saying something.
You’re not sure what it is. You’re not sure what they’re saying. Are they looking at the bodies in the car?
There’s a car on the screen. There’s some text around the car.
- This is a….what?
- This is a car commercial.
- A what?
- What about your friends? What about those people in the car? Was that them you just saw? Were they all right? You don’t know. You were still in shock.
What happened here?
I’m writing about are some recent VW TV commercials. People are driving along, talking, comfortable and engaging, then they’re not. Someone asked me, “Isn’t that a terrorist tactic? You think your safe and secure then BAMM! you could be dead so you better always be on guard?” Therapists working with abuse victims deal with a similar situation; someone you’re suppose to trust is traumatizing you, asking you to continue to trust, retraumatizing you and repeating the cycle. The therapists’ goal is to get you out of the abusive relationship. VW’s goal is to get you to buy a car.
In what follows, let’s keep three things in mind:
- If people can remember your commercial but not what is being sold in the commercial, the commercial’s failed.
- You can tell by looking at an ad who the ad’s promoters think the demographic is for a given media buy.
- Any company actions or marketing which drives consumers away is debranding.
I hadn’t seen these commercials so I went online to find them. As the first people to tell me about them only referenced “car crash commercials”, that’s what I searched on. There were quite a few responses to “car crash commercial”. In fact, the majority of online chatter was about the crash, not the make and model of the car in the crash (#1 was already violated (see http://www.jalopnik.com/cars/ad-watch/ad-watch-vws-ad-campaign-garnering-attention-from-crash-168578.php, http://www.dailyping.com/archive/2006/04/17/ and http://www.blogcritics.org/archives/2006/04/21/162934.php for examples)). Yet from what each person wrote it seemed a good bet they were all writing about the same commercial. I also noticed an interesting consistency in what different people were writing about the commercials. All were very upset and some even claimed to be traumatized.
What happened is that the first seventeen seconds of the commercial were so well done that viewers did associate with the people in the car. For lots of viewers, what are called mirror neurons kicked in. Mirror neurons are active when we perform a task and when we observe someone else perform that same task. In other words, people have a set of mirror neurons that are active when they drive and that same set is active when they watch someone else drive. An excellent presentation on this and related topics was held recently by the New York Academy of Sciences, specifically for this discussion David Freedberg‘s presentation is good viewing.
Viewers’ mirror neurons caused them to associate with the people in the car so much that when the people in the ad had an accident, viewers safe and secure in their homes literally felt the crash. Many viewers, it seems, were so much in shock that they hadn’t regained their senses until well into that last seven second period. The “3.1.2” part was lost because lots of viewers were non-consciously reminding themselves that yes, they were still safe, yes, they were still in their own homes or with friends, yes, their children were still okay, yes, their pets weren’t lying in fragments in some kind of automotive disaster.
Many people wrote that they turn their TV set off, turn to another channel or leave the room when they realize those commercials are on (item C). Repulsing prospective car buyers couldn’t be what the marketing and advertising agencies wanted when they promoted this ad, nor when the car company bought it and paid to have it aired, and I’m sure somewhere along the way an attitude study was conducted to determine how this material would be received.
So maybe the people responding weren’t in VW’s demographic? The theory goes like this; the website and the TV spots are probably targeting the same audience via different media. Very well, then analyze the commercials, the VW website, various comments I found during my online search and talking to people in non-test environments (sports bars, malls, coffee shops) who either had just seen or previously seen the commercials. The goal was to determine if the people responding were in VW’s target demographic.
I needed to answer seven other questions in order to answer the original two:
- Who is the audience for these TV Spots?
- What age group do these appeal to? (Age Appeal)
- Which gender does this appeal to? (Gender Appeal)
- Who can most easily understand these spots? (Understandability)
- Who is most likely to make a purchase based on these spots? (Actionability)
- Are these TV Spots effective?
- Who will most likely act upon these spots? (Purchasing Persona)
- What are the strongest messages to consumers? (Messaging)
- What is the single concept these spots convey to consumers? (High Concept)
Let’s award one (1) point when the responses match VW’s target, no (0) points when they don’t. The results are shown in the following charts.
Both VW’s material and the responses address a large age spread with considerable overlap as shown in the above figure. The VW material, while not having an overwhelming appeal to any specific age group, does target the 25-54 year old spread at just over 50%. This is a prime demographic for the vehicles in the TV spot and website.
The responses do spike, though, and also have a broad appeal that reaches well over 50% of the 15-44 year olds. Remembering that the majority of responses to the commercials were negative, this result translates into better than 50% of 15-54 and a whopping 84% of all 25-34 year olds were put off by the commercials.
But do the target and response samples overlap? Yes, so we award VW +1.
The above figure shows what might be considered a disconnect. VW’s material appeals to men over women by a 2:1 margin but the responses were coming from a mostly female audience. VW might want to sell their cars to males but lots of males like to drive around with women and if women won’t get in the car, males aren’t going to buy the car. Me thinks VW scores 0 on this one.
Understandability (the above figure) measures which age groups will most easily understand whatever message VW’s TV spots and website are getting across. It’s nice to know that promotional material will catch the eye of a specific demographic (which is it’s Appeal) and it’s perhaps more important to know that once it catches someone’s eye they’ll be able to understand what you’re telling them.
VW’s material is a bit sophisticated and might require a few years under one’s belt to truly appreciate the value proposition they’re presenting. This is indicated by the crest at 45-54 year old grouping, and even so the crest is only 50%. Thus less than half of the people from any age group interacting with the VW material will take the time to understand it. However, better than half the people from 15-54 years old reading the comments will get their meaning very quickly. Again, VW scores 0.
After discovering which demographic the material Appeals to, and having determined which demographic will most easily understand the material, the next big question is “Who will most likely act upon this information?” That metric is Actionability.
VW’s material is going to motivate the majority of 25-34 year olds to act, and that’s a desirable demographic. However, responses to the commercials represent the majority of a much larger demographic, about 75% of all 19-54 year olds. It becomes “Do you want 75% of 10 million people or 75% of 200 million people?” Again, VW scores 0.
The commercial/website’s three strongest messages are
- “We’re a leader”
- “We can help you”
- “We can help”
However, the strongest messages according to consumers are
- The inability to help the characters in the car commercial at the time of the crash
- The inability to trust what they were seeing, hence their inability to trust the company promoting the car
- The feeling of helplessness and paralysis during what was perceived to be a trauma
In music there is the concept that what’s between the notes — the silences — is often more important than the notes themselves. In art the concept is “the space between the lines” and in neurosciences the concept is “center surround”.
This category is very much like those concepts. It determines covert messages implied or inferred by the overt messages. A company might not want to come out and say “Hey, we’re the best and you know it” but they certainly want their clients to think it.
That offered, the car company wants consumers to think they’re a leader (of course) and that they can help not only the consumer but everyone in general.
People responding to the commercials, though, were dealing with feelings of helplessness, violation, vulnerability, frustration, anger, … Not a good overlap. VW was saying, “We can help you” and the responses were “No, you can’t!” VW gets 0 points for this one.
This category takes material as a whole and resolves it to a single, tight statement. Romeo and Juliet’s high concept would be “Teenagers from feuding families meet, fall in love and die.”
The commercial/website’s High Concept is “See yourself in this car”. Consumers described the High Concept as “You just had a car crash and you don’t know if you survived”.
VW’s high concept is a reasonable one, but not when combined with the high concept of the responses. Once again, 0 points.
Personae are pretty well acknowledged in the marketing world. Purchasing persona answer the question “If a consumer were going to make a purchasing decision, what would their decision be based on?”
The commercial/website’s Purchasing Persona would be an individual who values experience over much of anything else. Consumers thought of an individual who tends to make decisions
- in the moment
- by evaluating immediately available information
- and only if given given upbeat, positive information
Here the purchasing decisions don’t match. VW isn’t providing purchasing information to the consumer, it’s providing a car crash with an indeterminate outcome because the consumer is too much in shock to realize the outcome when it is presented. Again, 0 points.
The purchasing persona mismatch intrigued me. The commercials provide a massive experience to the viewer. The site’s design appeals to individuals who value experience over much of anything else. There’s a great deal of congruity between the TV spots and the website. Also, the website and TV spots are intended to get a large demographic, but principally a young, upscale, urban demographic to take action (75% of 25-34 year olds). Responses are definitely in that website’s demographic but had a strongly personal, negative response to the commercials.
There is a mismatch between VW’s website and the TV spots that I find fascinating. The VW site’s commercials page has the line “This is the place to see your favorite VW the way it’s meant to be seen: in motion”. This answered one of the questions which was originally brought to me, how come people couldn’t find the car crash commercials on the VW website? VW can’t show you a commercial which shows the car stopped, motionless, crumpled and beaten when their tagline is one of motion.
But Do the Audiences Match?
The results of all the categories in a simple table, one (1) point when the responses match VW’s target, no (0) points when they don’t. The best score would be 7/7.
- Age Appeal +1
- Gender Appeal 0
- Understandability 0
- Actionability 0
- Strongest Messages 0
- High Concept 0
- Purchasing Persona 0
Final Score: 1/7
This doesn’t mean the commercials are ineffective. A USAToday article indicates the TV spots are creating some interest. But the comments in that article are themselves of interest. Art Spinella, an automotive industry analyst with CNW Marketing commented “The vast majority of consumers are going to be turned off by it and they will take VW off their shopping lists.” Angelique Domangue, a marketing specialist in Baton Rouge, purchased because of the ads.
These two responses interest me because NextStage’s analysis showed that Ms. Domangue, who is 33 according to the article, is in the target demographic for both the website and the commercial. Mr. Spinella isn’t. Direct, positive online commentary was primarily done by individuals identifying themselves in the 25-34 year old demographic. Negative commentary came from both in and out of that demographic.
Lots of people remembered their response to the car crash but not the brand, failing premise A, “If people can remember your commercial but not what is being sold in the commercial, the commercial’s failed.” There is a larger demographic responding to the ad than is targeted by the ad, which is premise B, “You can tell by looking at an ad who the ad’s promoters think the demographic is for a given media buy.” Sometimes having a larger audience response than intended is a good thing, sometimes it isn’t. Most responses were negative and that fails premise C, “Any company actions or marketing which drives consumers away is debranding”.
Car crash commercials aren’t new. Many companies have used them effectively. BMW has a similarly themed commercial with a significant difference; guard rails, dumpsters, etc., are crumpling and buckling as a BMW drives past them, never touching them. The driver continues on, safe and secure, while the world is in chaos around her. I don’t own a BMW or a VW. I’m not in VW’s target demographic and am in BMW’s. I’d prefer to believe I’m safe and secure in my car and can go merrily along as the rest of the world is in chaos around me. I don’t want to think of myself going through the trauma of an accident. Are my reactions blind luck or good targeting?
Learning to Listen, Learning to See
The take-aways from this exercise are simple enough; my research indicates a disconnect between campaign and audience. The question becomes “What was the campaign’s goal?” To start some buzz? Probably successful, except most of the chatter was debranding, so then not successful. To get people to the car company’s site? I went looking for the ads and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one, except I couldn’t find them. If my experience was the norm then my expectations weren’t met and I and others left unsatisfied.
These commercials are scheduled to run their course by mid-May 06. Was that part of their strategy? Air them too long and viewers become numb to their effect or perhaps raise a ruckus forcing VW to pull them. But now you focus on any VW commercial you happen upon, wondering if this one has a crash. You watch for it because you never know when it’s coming. Good terrorist strategy.
I’m not privy to VW’s marketing strategy and I hope everyone reading this appreciates that this was just an exercise for the purposes of discussion. The question “Do we trust the message the spots are trying to instill?” isn’t the question that needs to be answered. All that’s really important is that you have the discussion and mention the company’s brands each and every time you have it. The ads gain your trust then traumatize you without warning. But now you’re looking for them. You’re being branded.
That is brilliant, strategic marketing. The end question isn’t about trust. They got you to listen. What did you see?