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2 Learning from Mad Men: Old-school advice on choosing the right message for your ads.

Life in an advertising agency makes for great TV drama. And sometimes the powerful men of those fictitious agencies can even teach us a thing or two.

Donald Draper in Mad Men

Donald Draper in Mad Men

Take Donald Draper of Mad Men. That character is based on a real-life ad man of the 50’s — Rosser Reeves. As chairman of the Ted Bates Agency, Reeves produced some of the most memorable slogans of all time, like “M&M’s… Melts in your mouth, not in your hands.”

Creatively, Reeves’ TV ads were formulaic and boring. He had a blatant contempt for public intelligence and many of his spots were banal and insulting by today’s standards. But by God, they worked.

If you ever find yourself staring at a blank screen wondering what to say in your next ad, Reeves and/or Draper are not a bad source of inspiration. See, even though the media landscape’s changing faster than you can say “Twitter,” the fundamentals of good message development still hold true — 50 years after Reeves coined the phrase “Unique Selling Proposition.”

He defined the USP as “The quality by which a given product is demonstrably different than all others.” He could look at a product, size up the research, and extrapolate a USP that no client had ever considered. He was an expert at positioning, 30 years before the term was ever invented. Strategically, his work was brilliant.

Here are the rules that Reeves lived by:

• Stick to one idea only. Reeves was adamant about adhering to one simple sales message the viewer could easily absorb. The U.S.P.

Back then, his unique selling propositions really were unique. For Colgate Reeves devised the claim “Cleans your breath as it cleans your teeth.” In reality, every toothpaste does that, but Colgate was the first to make the claim. Reeves hammered that idea home over and over and over again on network television. He never deviated from that message, and it worked.

Takeaway For Today: When it comes to a USP, less is more. Your pitch needs to be honed down to seven words or less. Like you’re doing a billboard… You can’t have two or three ideas on a billboard.

images-1• Leverage the drama of television. Back in the 50’s product demonstrations were a required element of almost all television advertising. Reeves understood that, and he used Television quite effectively.

The whole idea of a USP was to be demonstrably different. If it couldn’t be demonstrated for the world to see, it wasn’t a USP.

Takeaway For Today: Don’t just tell people about your product, show them. Take a lesson from Reeves and demonstrate something! Find the drama in your business, and feature that in your ads, on YouTube, or wherever you have an audience.

• Be Relentlessly Repetitive. Back in the Mad Men days, ad agencies got paid on commission. More frequency translated to more revenues, so their media budgets were generous to say the least. They never abandoned a campaign that was working.

Takeaway For Today: With today’s fragmented media environment, it’s harder than ever to get your message across consistently. So its even more important to define your core brand message and stick with it. If you have your value proposition (USP) nailed down, and a campaign that’s working, don’t quit. Milk it for all it’s worth.

• Make your ads sound good. The human ear is an amazing thing. The latest brain research proves what Reeves knew intuitively… that audio mnemonic devices aid recall. He used sound cues and catchy jingles to help people remember the product. His slogans would repeat certain sounds or words, to great effect. Like this: “Only Viceroy gives you 20,000 filter traps in every filter tip to filter, filter, filter your smoke while the rich, rich flavor comes through.” (Bad example, but you get the point.)

Takeaway For Today: Pay close attention to how your spots sound. On TV or on the radio, every syllable should be scripted for its sound quality. Is there anything in that 30 seconds that’s memorable, or does it sound like everything else out there?

• Credibility. At the Ted Bates agency most TV spots featured official looking men in white lab coats demonstrating products and proving product claims. It was authoritative salesmanship. It was science. During that period in American history, it worked.

Takeaway For Today: Credibility is still tremendously important, but now it’s about transparency. People want honest, user-generated reviews and third-party testimonials. Not pseudo-scientists or celebrity spokesmen.

Reeves focused exclusively on product-oriented USPs, like all those filter traps in the Viceroy cigarettes. But these days, we usually have to dig a little deeper to find a pitch that resonates with people.

Case in point… When Goodby, Silverstein started working on the California Milk account, they learned that the health benefits of milk didn’t resonate with anyone. Just because healthiness is a benefit of milk, doesn’t mean it’s THE benefit to put in your ads. “Milk. It does a body good” simply wasn’t doing much good for milk sales.

Instead of focusing on what happens when you drink milk, the account planners at Goodby decided to take the opposite approach and focus on what life would be like without milk. Much more provocative.

This insight was based on two universal truths revealed in the research. One, that milk is hardly ever consumed on it’s own. It’s always milk and cookies, or milk and something. And two, that everyone has opened the fridge at least once only to find the milk carton empty. So the idea was this: Stay stocked up on milk, or else!

No other organization was taking this approach, and the creative teams at Goodby did a superb job of executing the seemingly negative idea in fun, memorable ways. “Got Milk” will certainly go down in advertising history as one of the all time great campaigns.

Takeaway For Today: When it comes to your advertising messages, don’t settle for the obvious. You can’t just take your sales presentation and put it in a 30-second radio spot. You have to dig deeper than that. You have to step out of the bottle and approach it from an entirely different perspective. You have to take time to sift through all the trivial little details that come up in focus groups and sales meetings and hone in on one resonant truth.

One main benefit. One compelling message. One thing you can — and should — hang your hat on. The Donald Draper, Rosser Reeves USP.

Once that’s done you have to find a way to communicate the USP more creatively than Reeves ever could.