Normally when I’m watching TV with my wife, we DVR the shows we want to watch and fast forward through the commercials. (Alone, I’m more likely to indulge in a few guilty pleasures, like the “We are the champions” Wal-Mart “game day” ad.)

The other day, though, we were skipping the ads when a ShamWow! commercial came on. I rewound it because I wanted her to watch it.

The ShamWow! DRTV ad is a masterpiece of the genre. If someone asked me what direct response TV ads were, I would show them ShamWow! as an example of the best of them.

I could go into the reasons why it’s good:  classic, clean demonstration format; compelling, snappy dialogue; believable offer that really does seem too good to pass up; low production cost; high replay value to support frequency… the list goes on and on.

But here’s how I know it’s good: every time I see it — and I watch it every time it comes my way — I want to pick up the phone and fork over $19.95 for the special offer, not available in stores, of 4 large and 4 mini Sham Wows. (I don’t, mind you… because then I’d have to clean something, and homey don’t play that. Also, there is the teensy-tiny possibility that it doesn’t actually work quite as well as the ad claims.)

I’ve only had this reaction once before in my life — over 20 years ago, the first time I read one of the most famous and compelling ads ever written:  “They laughed when I sat down at the piano. But when I started to play…”

John Caples' seminal 1925 ad, "They Laughed When I Sat Down At the Piano But When I Started to Play!--

John Caples' seminal 1925 ad, "They Laughed When I Sat Down At the Piano But When I Started to Play!--

There I was, a newly-minted direct marketing copywriter at my first job, reading an ad that was written in 1925, and I was trying to figure out how to respond to the ad so I too could learn how to play the piano and impress my friends.

That ad was written by a man named John Caples, and it happened to be one of the first ads that he ever wrote. For those of you who don’t know the name, maybe this will put him into context: the most prestigious direct marketing award in the world is named after him. In 1932 he wrote the book, “Tested Advertising Methods”  that basically laid the groundwork for all direct marketing.  Ad Age named him number 21 of their 100 People of the Century.

Both the ShamWow! ad and the Caples ad have one thing in common: they understand that selling is storytelling.

Good storytelling doesn’t have to be as long as a Caples ad — the classic Volkswagen “Lemon” ad told just as compelling a story in far fewer words. And it doesn’t have to be as pushy as a ShamWow! commercial — Blendtec’s “Will It Blend” videos on YouTube barely sell at all, and yet the powerful story they tell has made the product a superstar.

Too often today good storytelling is overshadowed by shiny new technology and savy media buying, both of which have their place.

But as I watch the ShamWow! commercial, which is basically nothing but a guy, a towel and a puddle, I wonder if we’ve lost sight of what really sells product:  a compelling story, delivered to the right audience, in a cost effective way.

Which brings me to the upcoming Super Bowl. On average, advertisers will pay $3 million for a 30-second spot, according to this article on CNNMoney.com. And despite a tough economy and shrinking ad budgets, NBC is 90% sold out for the game.

How many of those advertisers will spend their 30 seconds telling a compelling story? How many of them will get more value out of those ads than they would out of the same money spent in targeted direct marketing? How many of them will even remember to integrate the ad with a search engine presence — a notorious  missed opportunity repeated annually by most advertisers!

And don’t trot out the old “We’re buying reach” argument. You can buy more reach for less money in plenty of other places.

Can you imagine ShamWow! or John Caples wasting $3 million on a Super Bowl ad?

So can someone please explain to me how anyone can justify spending $3 million dollars on a 30-second commercial these days, when there are so many other tested, trackable, profitable ways to spend their client’s money?

Comments
  1. Bryan says:

    Sham Wow spot is great – I especially love the shadow behind the spokesman (poor lighting – probably using the halogens from one of his house painting buddies) and my favorite line is “I don’t know – it sells itself”. Reminds me of seeing a guy at a home show selling knives and during the demonstration he asks who wants one because he only has 20 to sell – the number of hands that were quickly raised all holding $20’s was really impressive!

    • jlsimons says:

      I know what you mean, Bryan. Seeing great salespeople in person is an experience all its own — and the good ones can make anything sound “must have.” I think of JayZ’s line, “I sell water to a well.” If you think about it, all advertising was meant to do originally was to do in volume and at a distance what a salesperson did in person. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Jen says:

    Vince is a much more captivating salesperson than Billy Mays, I’ll give him that. His annoying self-importance keeps me watching this commercial every time it’s on. I don’t have any plans to buy ShamWow, however, because contrary to Vince’s declaration I do NOT spend $20 a month on paper towels.

    • jlsimons says:

      Two good points, Jen. Billy Mays never got me to want to buy Oxywhatever, and I have exactly the same non-need for each. There’s something about Vince. And how many 4-year-olds would somebody have to have in their household while living nowhere near a big box store to spend $20 on paper towels?

  3. dwb says:

    jeff
    In answer to your question about why buy the super bowl i offer one word and a date: Apple 1984. or you can add GoDaddy. There is simply no other way to put a brand on the map instantaneously than the SB. If I had a big national brand and the budget, I’d still look seriously at the super bowl, because it is figuratively and literally the last mass game in town. You could sell a shit load of sham wows on the super bowl with a demonstration of cleaning up spilled beer, except most people would be too drunk to remember to call.
    dwb

    • jlsimons says:

      As always, David, you go right to the heart of the matter. I wrestled with the GoDaddy issue as I wrote this post. Because after all, 1984 was 24 years ago (OMG!) and there was no such thing as an Internet. But the GoDaddy ads are recent, they are specifically an internet company, and they went to the Super Bowl to do exactly what you say: put themselves on the map, which they did. So I concede. If you’re GoDaddy, or one of the few companies that have the same problem, you might consider a Super Bowl buy. But does Budweiser or Pepsi have that problem? What kind of bump will their $12 million or so buy them? And what would $3 million buy in this hungry-for-ad-dollars world where the NY Times puts a color ad on its front page? Could you negotiate a full buyout of a major website like MySpace or AOL for a whole weekend? And what might that do instead? The idea of the big score, of being relevant to everyone (or at least to everyone who watches the Super Bowl, which is far from everyone) isn’t so achievable anymore.

  4. dwb says:

    jeff
    yes the superbowl is not for evereyone but: it’s not only what bump you get for your $12mm. If the only metric is bump then all advertising ultimately goes away because it never truly paid out. no, what they get is credibility, awareness, brand image, that intangible relationship with the consumer that has built the consumer market in this country and drives the economy. as we move into the internet age, keep in mind that the shamwows of the world may sell a lot of chamois cloths but there will never be a loyal customer of shamwow like there was when coke was forced to reintroduce coke. Based on your model, coke will eventually be selling at at even greater discount than they already do because the only reliable internet metric is sales response and the one proven way to sell more units is to lower price. and over time that will kill the goose that laid the golden egg.

    • jlsimons says:

      David, I’m not suggesting that all advertising be direct marketing, or even judged by those metrics. Branding matters, though I bet we might disagree about about how much. And you are totally right about brand loyalty re: ShamWow! But is Coke gaining a more loyal customer because of a Super Bowl ad? Is it more valuable than, say, a creative product integration into American Idol? Also, I think that many Internet marketers have learned to consider other metrics than sales response important, such as the ever shifting and always different “engagement” which, like beauty, is frequently in the eye of the beholder. What are the umpteen million Blendtec views worth on YouTube? Would a “Will it blend” ad on the Super Bowl at $3 million be worth more than the few hundred dollars spent on any of their videos with +4 million views?

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