Chat-up Line

On your marques!

Tony Philpott

All advertising is a request to its audience to make a purchase. The car ad revealing the vehicle's ability to transcend reality by driving through the space-time continuum to finally park itself sleek, streamlined and shining in a driveway is saying: “I'm nice, buy me.”

Yet, in that 90-second, mega-budget exposure of the vehicle's abilities, the request to buy is never made. The potential consumer has been visually beguiled, yes. He or she has seen the car's attributes amplified and mythologised, but the big ask has not been, well… asked.

Buy me. Isn't this what a marketer wants? But this is a branding ad, the amorphous softening up of the target audience during which the brand never stoops so low as to declare its true desire. Direct response advertising (DRA) on the other hand screams: “Buy me!” Or rather, it screams: “Buy me, now!” It's a beautifully shameless declaration of desire – and it works.

Ok, you're never going to see a DR ad in which “This fabulous Mercedes 500 series is now only €280,000! Call now, delivered tomorrow, all major credit cards accepted!”

Would this be so wrong? At any given time there are consumers considering buying a car, even a high-end marque. While at that point-of-consideration the consumer may well be short-listing: the BMW looks good, I like the Audi too. Could a DR ad prove to be the tipping point between a 5-Series and a Quatro? Perhaps it could.

Might actual sales follow if the ad was executed with energy, urgency, a strong benefit-rationale and a phone number? Maybe. The thing is, an object being offered for sale has no relationship to the methodology of the sales pitch. When the car salesman is face-to-face pitching the car to a potential purchaser, he's saying: “Buy this”.

When the radio VO is pitching, it's exactly the same. The salesman is just another medium for the same message. So, if the preceding thought-exercise is accepted, then why are there no DR car ads? Is the direct route perceived as aggressive, unseemly or ill-mannered?

Perhaps it's not the duty of DRA to convince, perhaps its duty is to provide a mechanism of purchase to those who already want to purchase but who have not yet felt the urge to do so – perhaps it exploits that tipping point of indecision and converts that indecision to action. Maybe it shouldn't be called DRA – but instead Get-Off-The-Fence Advertising.

That's what it does. Gets consumers off the fence and on to the phone or the PC. It does so with calls-to-action that are made without reticence, without elision and with no shame. Direct response advertising un ashamedly says: “You want it, we've got it”.

The creative element lies in igniting a pre-existing desire to want it. But no ad ever created has made anyone buy something they didn't want. DRA is at its best when targeting those consumers who have a nascent desire, an embryonic inkling that what's on offer is something they should have. Sometimes it must be repeated and repeated again.

Therein lies the delicate balance between consumer irritation and consumer activation.

Some DR ads seem to come from the point of view that the call-to-action is in fact a shout-to-action. Others believe that spinning supers bring a visual vitality to their exciting offerings. But restraint is the order of the day. Irritate me and I'm lost to you. Forever. Nurture my nascent need with an ad that makes me smile – and you've got my attention and probably my order. Not for a moment is DR being touted as a replacement for brand advertising.

Brand advertising does its job incrementally, over time; it's that steady drip, drip, drip that pre-conditions the consumer to the acceptance of other sales messages and helps create that most desirable of consumer-emotions, affinity. But making sales, getting orders, and putting products or services into people's hands requires the type of immediacy that only DR brings. What could be more immediate than “Call now!” But if you are going to get me to make the call, you'd better get real. Real benefits, real offers and a real reason to call now. Disclaimers, exclusions, restrictions, the very sight of them virtually nullifies the offer.

Whether they appear at the back of a DM mailer or at the bottom of the TV screen the qualifiers scream “This offer is a trap.” Sales follow with a presentation of the truth. Hype-less, asterisk-less, terms and conditions-less, the only adornments needed in DRA are clarity, brevity and reiteration. If you buy in to this, then call 1550 – 123 76545, that's 1550 123 76545. Now! Operators are standing by.

Tony Philpott ( is a senior writer

Subtle Pitch


Finely-tuned TV commercials like the Ford Focus help the brand image. But unlike some print and radio ads for cars, they are too polite in refraining from urging people to commit themselves to purchase their TV commercials.

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