By David H. Martin
Two weeks before Christmas, on a cold winter night, I found myself channel hopping through cableland when my switcher stuck on the Shopping Channel. Instead of the usual product-on-pedestal close-up — or product-in-use demonstration — I was captivated by a mini-documentary on current water problems and fears. Images of polluted streams, smokestacks and agricultural spraying invaded my living room for more than two minutes, before lap-dissolving into the familiar product with superimposed price: $49.95. (While others sold Peace on Earth, they were peddling fear or, perhaps, peace of mind.)
“Don’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle”
The product was a no-name countertop carbon water filter. The commercial did not sell features. I could almost hear the legendary Elmer Wheeler, among the first to popularize the technique of “benefit selling,” expressing his now-famous slogan, “Don’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle.”
What’s the sizzle here? I remembered the machine tool sales manager who pointed out to his salespeople that millions of 1/2″ drills will be sold this year to people who don’t want 1/2″ drills. Of course, after they got over the shock, he pointed out that what the buyers really wanted were 1/2″ holes.
The sizzle is the benefits, not the features. Salespeople who insist on describing only the features of the product, unwittingly invite their prospects to compare those features with those of competitive products. When you stress benefits instead, you get agreements and that, of course, results in sales.
People want to buy Peace Of Mind
People today, more than ever before, want to buy Peace of Mind. That’s why they are buying sophisticated car and home security systems in record numbers.
The challenge for Point-Of-Use (POU) dealers is to sell “peace of mind” without misrepresenting their products’ capabilities and limitations.
Getting back to the context of our extended-length TV commercial for the $49.95 POU device, what is the benefit of showing water-related threats to our common environment? Do “scare tactics” sell?
What’s that, you say? Scare tactics are not necessary to draw upon product benefits. When the benefits are “better tasting water, clear ice cubes and better tasting mixed beverages,” who needs to address contemporary environmental concerns which some would call “scare tactics”?
Should you be afraid to sell “peace of mind”?
But should you be afraid to also sell “peace of mind” in today’s environmentally concerned selling world? That is the sizzling question.
“Peace of mind” sounds suspiciously like a benefit where environmental threats sound downright scary.
Are ads that raise fears, the exclusive domain of small fly-by-night companies selling unworthy products?
Some people in the POU industry would have us believe that only small, unsuccessful companies using non-traditional selling systems would directly address people’s fears.
But unless you live in a cave, you know that just isn’t so. In the last two years, the broad world of TV advertising has seen some ofthe world’s most famous brand names and products, sold on fear through scare tactics. (Or would you prefer, sold on legitimate contemporary concerns through the promise of peace of mind.)
The woman is afraid. She’s in a tough neighborhood by herself at night. All around her are fearsome images of danger and isolation. But this woman in the Prestone commercial is just one of many people with big problems in today’s TV world. Companies like Michelin, Chrysler, American Express, Allstate, Liberty Mutual and Volvo are all part of a growing trend toward advertising that addresses contemporary concerns or common fears.
In one Prestone ad, a young woman driver at night is forced to take an unfamiliar exit off the highway due to vapor billowing from under the hood. She finds herself in a forbidding urban slum, passing desperate men warming their hands around a trash can fire. “Why is this happening to me?,” she asks herself, growing frantic. A stray dog wanders in her car’s wake. Her car is about to break down in an alien neighborhood. The next few hours look unpromising at best. Intones the voiceover announcer, “Don’t push your luck. Guarantee it with Prestone.”
Her problems are less specific than the little hockey player on the side of the road awaiting a ride home in another Prestone TV spot. It’s night, 23 degrees and his dad is stuck somewhere with bad antifreeze. The boy blows on his hands and asks plaintively, “Where are you, Dad?” Dad, too cheap or too stupid to buy the right antifreeze, is also stuck. Because of a bad consumer purchase decision, he’s forcing his innocent son to sit on a street corner and freeze.
Prestone is the number one selling antifreeze from coast to coast. Anxiety ads help contribute to a paranoid world view, as well as sales
NAPA, the leading name in auto parts, has suggested in one TV ad that the improper purchase of auto parts can result in being blasted to the next county by a locomotive. The commercial shows a driver slamming on the brakes to avoid a dog, stalling his pickup on a railroad track. The train bearing down on him compounds his concern. As the voiceover chides viewers who think “auto parts are just auto parts,” the NAPA user’s car starts up and he avoids death.
Another NAPA ad shows a mom driving a station wagon full of preteens. Amid the chaos unleashed when a young boy pulls out a frog in front of two girls, Mom becomes oblivious to a fire engine heading for the intersection that she is also fast approaching. Luckily the car has NAPA parts — the tale goes — or she and the kids would also be on the way to the fire.
Other leading consumer brands sell “fear” or “peace of mind,” depending on how you look at it. Michelin, the world’s number one tire, has been running commercials for years featuring toddlers lolling around on their tires above the tagline, “Because so much is riding on your tires,” which of course implies that buyers of other tires are negligent, risking their children’s lives.