Sometimes, when it comes to copywriting, one word can be the difference between a marketing home run and a dribbling bunt.
Use a boring, expected word, and you’ll get boring results. Introduce incongruity into the word choice, and you’ll hit it out of the park.
Here’s an example:
I was doing a campaign for a commercial real estate concern, and the client was completely fixated on one word in a headline: “Precious.”
“I don’t like it. Babies are precious, not parking places,” she argued.
“Yes, that’s precisely why it works,” I countered. “The inconguity of it. Besides, diamonds are also precious. And what’s more valuable than diamonds?”
By using that one word I exaggerated the value of “free parking” and elevated a mundane product feature to an entirely different realm.
It was an effective use of incongruity in advertising copy, and she just couldn’t get her head around it.
So I showed her some alternative adjectives that I knew would not work…
“Popular parking places” just didn’t have the same effect.
“Convenient” didn’t have the alliteration I was looking for.
“Valuable” just sucks.
The more options I showed her, the better the word “precious” seemed. The incongruity of it was perfect for that context and purpose. Eventually the client relented, and the ad ran, quite successfully.
Incongruity in advertising is a mismatch between an element in the ad and an existing frame of reference. (Elements being product photo, brand name, endorser, music selection, word choice, etc.)
Academic research on the subject has shown that “incongruity causes disturbances in one’s cognitive system”…
That’s precisely what advertising people are going for: a disturbance in your thinking that causes you to pause, consider or reflect on the brand. That’s what good copywriting is all about. That’s what iconic brands are built on.
“Empirical evidence suggests that individuals presented with INcongruity are more likely to engage in detailed processing than they are with congruity, and may even respond positively to the incongruity.”
On the other hand, ads, tweets, presentations and websites that contain nothing new or different will not be processed at all.
Here’s an example of bad copywriting from a Bed & Breakfast website:
“Welcome to our home! We invite you to look around our website and consider a stay with us on your next visit to or through Lexington. When we open our door to you, we consider you as welcome guests, but want you to feel as comfortable here as you do in your own home. Our mission is to provide you with lodging, rest and meals that are memorably special, to do so with the kind of Southern hospitality you expect and deserve, in tasteful household surroundings that carry the tradition of Old South charm. You will find something “extra” everywhere you turn during your stay, from the bedding, room amenities, complimentary toiletries, and more…Each area has its own entertainment system, open WiFi access, and, for each room, individual climate controls. We believe you will enjoy your stay with us so much that you will regret having to leave, but depart looking forward to another visit. We hope to see you soon.
No one’s going to stick with this copy beyond the first four words. And “Complimentary toiletries”… Really? I sure hope so.
Copy like that is, what I’d call, boringly congruent. It’s so expected and chock full of cliche’s no one’s going to hear it. Our brains are wired to weed out the mundane, like a triple speed fast-forward button on the TV remote.
In marketing, the opposite of incongruity is not congruity. It’s invisibility.
When all the elements line up in the same, old, expected way the message becomes completely invisible. Without some degree of incongruity, the copywriting fails.
But effective incongruity hinges on proper, relevant context.
Example: I recently used some nonsensical words in a campaign directed toward restaurant owners.
They know what babaganoush is. And Paninis.
The context made the incongruity of the words effective. If the target had been the general public, it’d be a different story.
If an element is totally out of context AND incongruent, it seldom works.
I recently saw a TV spot for a local realtor that was so wildly out of context and incongruent, it didn’t work at all. All you see are tattooed arms putting a puzzle together while the voice-over talks about “the real estate market is tearing families apart.”
If you’re a client who purchases advertising, try to embrace incongruity in the right context. It could be one word in a headline that seems not quite right, or one image or graphic.
Chances are, if it seems just a little outta place it’s going to work well. It’ll stop people in their tracks and engage the creative side of their brain.
So next time you’re working on an email campaign, a powerpoint presentation, or anything… take time to throw in at least one unexpected word that will break through all the “babaganoushit.”
It makes all the difference.
For more on making your advertising messages more memorable, try THIS post.