The secret of great advertising? It’s the things you DON’T say

I wrote down loads of blog ideas, but none of them are really grabbing me right now – so instead I thought I might show you a piece of someone else’s work I think is cool, and I’ll tell you two things you can learn from it.

A few days ago, Volkswagen premiered their new Polo ad on Facebook. And, having 92 seconds to spare, I had a little watch.

From the first shot, and the first chord of the music, I thought “Oh. It’s one of these ads.”

By which I meant, of course, one of those carefully shot, tearjerking family ads that’ll make its soundtrack a hit… Much as John Lewis does every Christmas, really.

And as the seconds ticked by, my mind wandered. And I started to think “I’ve seen this all before”, “God, this is so derivative” and “Come on, show me the CAR.”

Increasingly, this grew into “It’s going to have to be one hell of a punchline if it’s going to sell me the car in the last five seconds.”

And, you know what?

It was.

(That’s the link to it, just there… I’ve taken the video itself off this site, as I think the iFrame might have been used as a back door to hack my blog…)

Here’s the reason the ad works… And what you can learn from it:

The whole 92 second commercial wants to communicate one single idea.

Volkswagen Polos are SAFE.

And that’s it. I now know exactly why I would want to buy a Polo (if I wasn’t already indecently in love with my Mini).

It’s not “it’s safe and it’s fuel economy is great”.

And it’s certainly not “it’s surprisingly affordable, you get loads of free spec, it’s reliable, has excellent residual values…. Oh, and it’s safe.”

Those things might all be true, for all I know. But VW have worked out the one argument they want to use to sell their car. The one thing they will use to define its place in the market. The one thing they need you to understand.

And they’ve spent an entire, triple-length commercial telling you that one thing, loud and clear.

Volkswagen Polos are SAFE.

And haven’t they communicated it well?

Think about the ad. What do you remember? A montage of father-daughter scenes as the young lady grows up, right?

Watch again. More closely.

What is the Dad doing each time?

Using his coat to shield his baby from the rain. Placing her carefully in a high chair. Pulling a drawer out of the way as she comes rampaging through the dining room (that’s my favourite: it’s subtle). Blowing up water wings. Bike helmet. Sun cream. Hiding her eyes from the scary bit. Lending her his jumper. Sizing up her boyfriend. And so on.

Get it yet?

At each point of their story, the Dad is protecting his daughter.

So, by that fantastic hug at the end (with the chorus “I’ll watch over you” perfectly timed) – and without even having to think about it – you absolutely, implicitly, emotionally understand. She is his most prized, his most precious, and he would go to any length to keep her from harm.

He hasn’t just bought her the Polo. He has entrusted her to it.

Why? I guess Volkswagen Polos are SAFE.

Believe me, it takes guts to spend an entire ad making just one point. Because you’re paying a lot of money for the airtime, or the quarter page, or whatever.  it’s only natural to want to get as much for your budget as you possibly can.

Especially if you love your product and can think of all the good reasons why people might want to buy one. All those great features and benefits you won’t tell them about.

And you’re going to do the whole thing on an emotional level, without a single factual point to make (I actually had to check back to confirm there’s not even a subtitle mentioning the Polo’s Euro NCAP safety rating – even more amazing as it’s actually very good)…

And you can multiply all of that by ten if you have to convince a client to spend their cash on your creative lunacy. So hats off to you, DDB London, for having the stomach to even make that pitch.

Because it works, doesn’t it? Rather than saying ten things, and you forgetting all of them, they make one. And you understand it, and remember. It shapes the way you think, even feel, about the car.

Except, of course…

That isn’t quite the whole story.

You see, although this ad is saying one thing – its safety message – loud, clear and very effectively, this isn’t all it’s communicating.

(Music while you read the next part, I think…)

The second lesson to learn from this ad is from just how much is unsaid.

Whether you’re working on a huge TV campaign or a small classified ad in a trade magazine, understand this:

Every decision you make about your ad says something about the thing you’re advertising.

Let’s look at the ad again.

Nice family. Clearly well-to-do. Medium-posh (possibly gentrified urban) neighbourhood. Dad has creative-looking glasses. Daughter’s obviously going to university (hence packing books). Hell, they own books.

To be frank, they look like they have a bit of money to spend. Not on luxuries, but on quality. They’re not a Tesco or Asda family. They’re Waitrose; Sainsbury’s at a push. Bet you a tenner they read the Guardian and listen to Radio 4.

And, of course, the ad itself. Not cheap-looking, is it? Even the way the ad is paced, the use of music and a single, silent message at the end instead of a voiceover. Tasteful.

All of this says something about the position of the car in the market. You understand, just by watching, what they probably couldn’t ever say out loud:

Nice people drive these. You might be interested if you’re the kind of person that’s happy to pay a bit more for quality.”

You might even go so far as to say…

“This is a brilliant car for modern, middle class people.”

If you were especially cynical, you might extend this argument in a couple of other areas, but let’s move swiftly past that to the main point…

Everything about your ad – the look, the language, the production values… even (in fact, especially) where you choose to place it will communicate something to your audience.

That’s a scary thought. If you get it wrong, your ad can do more harm than good.

But, once you understand it, it’s also incredibly freeing, and full of potential. Because, if you’re smart, those two or three important points you sacrificed to focus on saying the one main thing… or even the things you’d like to say but daren’t… you can communicate them anyway.

You just don’t say them.


11 thoughts on “The secret of great advertising? It’s the things you DON’T say

  1. The cycling bit happens on Albert Bridge Road next to Battersea Park. I used to live another 100m further down. Lots of posh totty always walking past the window in the park… 🙂

  2. Smart analysis, and you’re right. That’s going to work. Two things about that ad stand out for me. First, they’re still using the ‘small but tough’ tagline, that’s been going at least ten years. Remember the Lupo with the terrifying small but tough baby (that ran through walls). Consistency pays off.

    The other thing is that it’s all about emotion. I’ve been reading up on that lately, after meeting the folks at Brainjuicer and reading their excellent paper – which you should take a look at there

    Probably the best thing I’ve read all year.

      • It’s between that and the book I’m reading at the moment (Thinking Fast and Slow), but since I’m only a quarter done with that I can’t recommend it just yet.

  3. Hey David, great post, and great ad. I especially like the bit where he covers her eyes (relate to that, and I only have a son). Other thing I like about your post is that it is l o n g. I don’t feel so bad about the length of some of my own posts now!

  4. Hey Dave,
    Just read your blog.
    Brought a tear to my eye; just like the advert did.
    I had just done the same thing for my daughter; bought her a new car to keep her safe when I couldn’t be there; Rotherham is a little far from Cornwall.

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