Branding Business Directed Advertising Integrated Marketing Marketing

Admit it — you love the ShamWow! commercial

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 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?