Category Archives: adverse selection

Why marketers avoid religion (a cautionary tale)


A debate on Twitter tonight made us realize that most commercialism skips right over religion — because people may disagree with the message. And that points out a danger in any brand communication.

First, consider the irony: Marketers want to reach the masses. The masses believe in religion. Yet religion is taboo. The longest story ever told is one about God, and most people believe in him (or her). One study shows that only 2.5% of the world’s population count themselves as atheists and 12.7% as “non-religious,” leaving the remaining 6 out of 7 humans to follow a higher power. But advertising messages usually avoid even hints of spirituality.

What gives? You see occasional campaigns like the one above, for the Collegiate Churches of New York, pushing a specific religion. But the varied nuances of belief mean honing in on one message could offend everyone else. Religion is avoided for the same reason marketers don’t talk about politics or taxes. Pick one side and you just can’t win.

The lesson here, of course, is any marketing message is polarizing, and advertising of any sort may be pushing away as many people as it attracts. That’s right — and no one measures this! Marketers miss this because they only focus on responses, not the unknown masses who don’t call in or visit a web site … and who may be deeply alienated by your message. It’s a good thought grenade to put on your ideation table as you play with brand communications: what could backfire among all those who fail to believe? Are they just ignoring us? Or are they rushing to the other side?

Elephants (listening to those who don’t respond)


Saw this brilliant German creative for insurance carrier Allianz with the copy “Less funny, but just as heavy: 20 centimeters of snow on your roof” … and it made us think of the GOP Republicans in the United States who may not feel much like dancing on roofs today.

The blue-red split of the U.S. electoral map is a wake-up call to any marketer who typically focuses on responses and customer acquisitions. In any communication campaign, you have three types of reactions — those who say yes, those who don’t care, and those who say no. Trouble is, most marketers don’t consider the adverse impact of their communications on the people who don’t want to hear their message.

In some channels, such as direct mail, this doesn’t matter much — people will just throw the message away. But in many media consumers are interrupted to hear your message. If you use sex in advertising to stimulate a crowd, do you upset those who find the message offensive? If you pull off a radical PR stunt to build buzz, do you leave half the population thinking the brand you’re touting is silly? Worth a note in your advertising schedule: What is the potential negative impact of our communication message on our audience?

Hat tip for good creative to Atletico International.

Using creative to screen your audience


Every organization has to deal with “bad prospects” — people interested in your services who, as much as you’d like to help, are wildly unprofitable. This sounds unkind for those who don’t work in marketing, but think about it: You can’t invite the world in to eat at your dinner table; you’d run out of food. In any population there are some people who cost too much to serve.

Marketers have two basic tricks to avoid the wrong audience: Target media to avoid them, or use creative to screen them.

Career Junction pulls off a “creative screening” with this clever print graphic. The idea is simple — the future analytical, business-minded Edward Tuftes of the world will find the humor in this chart, slow down, and respond to Career Junction with their resume … while people who aren’t business types will turn the page in boredom.

This use of mild complexity to attract the right eyeballs is brilliant. Hat tip to Nirmal Diwadkar and Abraham Varughese of TBWARAAD Middle East, Dubai, UAE. Feel free to send us your bios 🙂

Via Ads of the World.

Adverse impact: Why Victoria’s Secret is covering up


It’s hard to believe but, yes, Victoria’s Secret had a shy beginning. Back in the 1970s, Stanford grad Roy Raymond went shopping for his wife and got embarrassed by racks of panties, so he borrowed $80,000 and founded a store. Subtle. Wood paneled. Where lacy things hung on the wall in frames. Raymond’s great insight was that men buy a lot of underwear for women, but these same men often cringe when seeing rows of empty bras.

The first VS catalogs even showed both men and women on the cover, usually a guy in a tux and the woman in a flowing robe. Sex tonight? No, hon, just dinner.


And then the 1990s and 2000s gave America bottomless Esquire covers and diamond-encrusted bras. VS pushed far into the red zone, the American Decency Council protested, and suddenly with sales down 6%, last week CEO Sharen Turney relented — VS is going to tone down the sex. Some like Brandflakes point out Victoria’s Secret brand slipped a demo, and is now more popular among college students than affluent homeowners.

We think VS fell into the trap of adverse impact.

Adverse impact is totally logical, but something most marketers fail to think about. It simply means that your marketing message may repulse a certain portion of prospective customers. Stop & Shop recently sent homes in Connecticut a mailer saying “thanks for being one of our best customers”; our first thought when seeing it was, damn, we’re spending too much on groceries. For every marketing action there is an equal and opposite reaction.


VS is a $5 billion business and has cataloging down to a science. Like most marketers, they probably focus on responses and not aversion. They know catalog response rates, that customer lifetime value is about $450 in future sales, that the optimal number of mailers is 7 to get you to react, and that the black lace on the cover with a red star burst drives a 2.8% response vs. the 2.3% last time they used white. (We’re guessing, but we’ll go with black.) But what VS and others fail to measure is the percentage of consumers who throw the catalog in the trash because they don’t like the message. The adverse impact is simple: Some women may be repulsed by overwrought sexuality, and if those women outnumber respondents, VS begins to have troubles.

There are three ways to avoid the adverse impact trap:

1. Anticipate it. This means setting up a qualitative study to monitor your entire prospect base — which typically includes respondents, “apathetics,” and the repulsed. While ideally your respondents grow, and most people fall in the apathetic middle, sometimes the anti-message repulsed folks begin to swell. VS could have seen this coming with the simple aging of Baby Boomers; as more women move further away from size 2, pencil-thin models may lose their relevance and become annoying.

2. Mass customize. If you are big and must appeal to masses — VS sells about half of all lacy things in the United States — then for Pete’s sake, don’t pitch everyone the same way. Victoria’s product line already provides the basis for customization; Pink for teens and 20somethings, Biofit for women in their 40s, thongs for (admit it) young married men. VS should migrate catalogs to a mass customized platform, using variable printing to put the right cover image in front of the right demo target.

3. Do both! Go crazy and ask your prospects how you could improve the message, and then respond with a customized solution. Have you ever asked customers for feedback on your direct mail, print ad, or web site? What about prospects? How cool would it be to launch a survey with every campaign flight asking unknown, non-customers what they think, what might offend them, and how the message could be made better.

Yes, Victoria, this is radical. But when asking people to consider sex, you must be prepared for different reactions.

(Nice profile of VS founder Roy Raymond here.)