When the producers of Mad Men researched American advertising of the 1960s, they modeled their protagonist Don Draper after the real-world ad exec Rosser Reeves. Reeves, as you may know, was a wildly successful pioneer of TV advertising who created the concept Unique Selling Proposition. The USP, like most buzzwords, has become misunderstood in marketing circles but means three simple things:
1. Your ad must convey a specific benefit.
2. The benefit must be something that competitors cannot match.
3. The benefit has to be strong enough to attract masses of consumers.
USPs are different than brand imagery. They are pointed, often slogans, and can even be annoying. Reeves did a 59-second spot for Anacin that everyone agreed was grating, yet it tripled sales for the headache medicine over 7 years. Reeves died in 1984 but you can still hear his work today with the slogan M&Ms “melt in your mouth, not in your hand.”
So what do old ad theories teach us about new viral campaigns?
Uniqueness. Think of every viral fad of the past decade and what they had in common was a Unique Selling Proposition. Subservient Chicken. Lonelygirl15. Snakes on a Plane. The Facebook Whopper Sacrifice. The problem with most other attempts is they have no USP — and in social networks that originality is just as important to success as with traditional media.
We thought of Reeves last night commenting on Scott Henderson’s blog about cause marketing, a new fad among marketers trying to go viral on social networks. As consumers spend more time networking with each other online, and less receiving traditional ads, marketers are desperately testing new ways to become part of the conversation. Paid posts simply buy in (and we’ve challenged the ethics in BusinessWeek here). Cause marketing is more subtle, using the delivery of food or a donation to try to build buzz about a brand (like Scott Henderson’s own Tyson campaign here).
Problem is, cause marketing is becoming a commodity — and as more marketers jump on this bandwagon, the uniqueness and resonance fade.
Beyond the ethical debates of paid posts or cause promotions, the real question for advertisers squeezing into social media conversations is: will it work? If your missive is not original, something competing messages don’t offer and something strong enough to be passed to masses, it’s not likely. Or as Don Draper said about a cigarette being promoted: “It’s toasted.”