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To Get a Specific Response Deliver a Specific Message

By: John Malmo

John Malmo began an advertising agency on a cardtable above a delicatessen in 1967 and built it into the largest in the mid-south. He also owned a travel agency, a clock shop, and a snack food manufacturing company. He is president of Koenig, Inc., Management Consulting, specializing in marketing, and he writes a weekly business commentary column for The Commercial Appeal. His 45 years of marketing experience encompass, virtually, every business category. Email him at:

You’ve seen ‘em on bumpers a thousand times. Stickers to “Support the Jaycees,” “Support local schools.” Support, support, support.

There is always this compelling urge to jump out of the car at a stoplight, run up and hammer on the window yelling, “How? How? Tell me what to do?”

Non-profits, especially, but even many for-profit companies seem to have a propensity to promote themselves in terms so unspecific that it is impossible to respond specifically. Unless people respond with some specificity no response is worth much.

Enormous waste of money

There are always millions of messages about supporting the arts, the Red Cross, or United Way, your local police, and so on. A reasonable wager is that they are all committee-authored, and they are an enormous waste of money.

Compare “Support the church of your choice,” for instance, with “Go to church,” or even “Honk if you love Jesus.” Compare “Support the SPCA” with “Spay your cat.” Going, honking, and spaying are actions you can take. “Support” ranks right up there with such non-sensible messages such as “We’re a full-service bank,” whatever that means.

The purpose of mass communication for advocacy is that it is a cheaper way to get some action than sending people, i.e. salesmen, to call one-on-one. It is difficult, though, to recall any salesman including a plea for “support.”

A surrogate salesman

Whatever the medium, mass communication is a surrogate salesman. The closer the communication matches the sales content and tone, the more specific will be the response.

“Wellness” is a term in high vogue recently. Many spas promote wellness. What they’re selling is a running track, swimming hole, exercise contraptions, weightlifting machines, and such. They promote wellness, though, because they say all good salesmen promote the benefit.

Well, there is wellness benefit also in running around your house or sticking your feet under the bed and doing sit-ups. And it doesn’t cost a hundred bucks a month.

If you don’t sell all the hardware, you may create the “wellest” town in America without selling one membership.

Papa Bank, Mama Bank & Baby Bank

In a small town nearby there were once three different banks. A Papa Bank, a Mama Bank, and a wee, Baby Bank. The Papa and Mama Banks ran much advertising boasting unspecifically of the best bank service in town.

Instead, the Baby Bank began running ads that said nothing about how good its service was. Rather, it ran ads, themselves, that served. Ads comparing costs of financing a car through the bank vs. the car dealer. Ads that showed all the different ways to finance a college education, including a bank loan.

These were specific ads with helpful information that were read, and with specific results. Soon the Baby Bank became larger than the Mama Bank.

Let ‘em know you got something

Maybe it’s politicans with nothing to say who run advertising that says nothing that has led to a belief that consumers don’t care about anything but promises and style. Yet, specific response requires specific messages calling for specific action.

All of this is not to say that creativity and style in communications is unimportant. It requires the greatest discipline to be specific with creativity and style. Being ignored is no more beneficial than being unspecific.

As Fred Petzel, the 1929 hog calling champion of Iowa, said, “There must be power and appeal in your voice. You gotta let them hogs know you got somethin’ for ‘em.”

© Copyright 2000, John Malmo

Other Articles by John Malmo

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