The missing ingredient from most advertising: fill in the blanks

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Switch on FM radio in any Indian city (any city for that matter) and you are likely to be bombarded with almost the same kind of advertising. Ads which lack any kind of creativity, follow a template and virtually spell it all out for the consumer. What the advertiser wanted to say about the brand including all its features (not just the most important, relevant one) and call to action. On television too, most ads are dull, straightforward and plain ‘ad-dy’ if there is such a word.

The common factor in such ads: they leave nothing unsaid. Marketers will naturally wonder why they should leave anything unsaid – after all, they are paying for precious production costs and air time. They see it as extracting poor value for money if they don’t mention everything that is great about the brand. Even if they are savvy enough to limit the marketing message to just one thing, many are risk averse about the manner in which it is said. The most preferred way is the direct, straight forward way with no room for interpretation or ‘leaving anything to chance’.

Remember the slogan ‘Surf washes whitest’? That would perhaps represent the say it as it is, don’t leave anything to chance’ era of advertising. The same brand has transitioned to ‘Dirt is good’ as the key message today. The UK site of the brand (Persil over there) says:

We believe dirt is good for kids because without dirt there would be no experience. Dirt is the mark of adventure. It’s a sign that we’re getting stuck in and learning from life. Children don’t only learn by being taught. They learn by doing. Hands-on experience, discovery, and trial and error are vital to every child’s healthy happy development. Laundry might not be fun, but don’t worry – Persil will take care of even the toughest stains, so you can concentrate on the important stuff. Dirt is essential experience for life.

So while the idea rooted in the product and its efficacy everything is not spoon-fed to the consumer. The brand respects the consumer’s intelligence to make the concoct between ‘Dirt is good’ and the brand.

So why don’t more brands take this approach? It is puzzling because such ‘unsaid but understood’ way of speaking is all around us. We all have grown up being familiar with proverbs and what they mean. Nobody needs to spell out what ‘a stitch in time saves nine’, ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch’ or ‘squeaky wheel gets the grease’ mean – the implied meaning is understood. Even in colloquial language such oblique references abound. In Chennai, when crossing a busy road you are likely to witness an auto-driver zip past yelling in Tamil, ‘Yenna, sollitu vandhuttiya?‘ which literally means ‘What, have you told and come?’. By itself it means nothing. The unsaid bit: ‘have you told in your household that you won’t be getting back home today?’ implying that crossing the road in such a manner is likely to lead to an accident. All this captured succinctly in three words. The reason why these work is that the messages are processed at the receiving end and dots connected – that’s why they are powerful.

Similarly with ads – the ones which allow for a little bit unsaid so that the consumer makes the connection in her mind are usually more memorable. In the book Power Branding, Steve McKee puts it very well:

The most effective branding merely starts a thought allowing the audience to finish it.

It is not rocket science but just how we grew up. There is a special joy in completing the ‘connect the dots’ exercise – especially when the final picture is about to be revealed.

People are more likely to remember a picture they helped complete

However, some ads are too subtle and failed to make the connect. Another quote from the same book captures it very well:

The gap adjustment can be fairly critical. A narrow gap may give too small and weak a spark to effectively ignite the fuel-air mixture while a gap that is too wide might prevent a spark from firing at all.

Above all, leaving a little bit unsaid for the consumer to fill in the blanks in her head is most important because of this simple reason:

Nobody wants to be told what to think.

photo credit: massdistraction via photopin cc

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  1. Today’s busy life hardly leaves any room for consumers to think and complete the picture. In my view, most consumers today belong to ‘dont-make-me-think’ school and its best to get your message loud and clear rather than hoping for customers to complete the picture.

    • Thanks for the comment. I disagree though – I think consumers need to be engaged even more so now. The message loud and clear approach is an expensive way to get the message across as it requires repetition to register (chances of it are slim anyway)

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