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The Mythical Effectiveness of “Asking for the Order”

This week a post went by on my Linked-In feed suggesting that all good video must “ask for the order” and contain a clear “call to action.” This awful idea was, as far as I can tell, invented by someone in an ad agency. Maybe in the ’80s. The ideas is that your marketing video must “ask for the order”– it has to tell the customer exactly what you want them to do, and then request that they do it.

Thus a TV commercial that included the magic phrase “Buy a Toyota in our showroom tomorrow and save $200!” was presumed to be way more effective than the same commercial without.

While we can’t be sure exactly who started this line of magical thinking, I’d like you to join me in stopping it. Because now, as may also have been true in the ’80s, humans have brains. Starting roughly at age 0, they have their own needs, their own lives, their own goals. Just because you’ve told them to do something doesn’t mean they’ll do it.

If “asking for the order” motivated behavior, all children would sit quietly in restaurants, doctors would see patients lose 10 pounds automatically at age 40, and an award-winning Super Bowl commercial would be 30 seconds of the white letters “Buy Doritos. Now.” on a black screen. Sorry, I’m tearing up. It would be so…beautful!

Since this is not the world we live in, let me offer an alternative model for marketing videos of any kind: Work to entertain and to intrigue your audience. If you intrigue them- pique their interest into thinking more about your product- they will consider your ideas on their own. They’ll decide whether or not your ideas meet their needs.  If they do, they’ll take action on their own to find out more.

“Asking for the order” is like trying to beat the audience into submission. Intrigue is an invitation.If you do a great job of it, they’ll invite you into a dialogue inside their heads.

This idea of intriguing the audience has been around for a long time. An early and influential master of intrigue in marketing, Tony Schwartz, started work in the 1940s. Here’s a classic anti-smoking PSA he did in 1963 (He also created the classic “Daisy” ad for Lyndon Johnson’s presidential campaign in 1964.)

Notice that this video does not ask for the order. It makes you ask yourself.

Fifty five years later, the spot still intrigues. You can see how it pulls you in, makes you want to know what happens next.

Schwartz’s book The Responsive Chord has been re-released in a new edition, and it’s a great read for anyone serious about video marketing. Everything Schwartz wrote in 1973 is still true today. Because even though a lot of our media is new, the brains we’re trying to affect are still the same.

As for magical thinking, “Asking for the order” survives as a concept because it’s easy to understand and self-evident when you’ve done it. As such, it’s perfect cover for bad video.

“I don’t know what happened– we asked them for the order. Look, right here: the announcer says ‘buy cookies today.'” says the marketing department after a failed campaign. Then they all shrug their shoulders, “Audiences, man…” and go about their business.

Intrigue is mysterious.  It takes more thought. It’s harder to see and harder to measure. But once you start watching for it, you know it’s real. And if look very carefully at the next best-selling novel or hit TV show you watch, you’ll realize that a mid-20th Century ad guy had it all right: intrigue is the entertainment currency of the 21st century.

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