The Platitude Trap – Don’t Fall Into It

Platitudes & generalities roll off the human understanding like water off a duck’s back. They make no impression whatsoever. No wonder your ads aren’t working…

One time I consulted with an auto repair facility that had taken the concept of innovation to heart and was by FAR the most awesome business of its kind I’ve ever seen. Talk about “Captain Obvious.” They had 63 bays, 11 mechanics who were fully ASE certified in all 8 areas of specialization, and twice as much hi-tech equipment as any dealership, and floors so clean you could eat off of them. They turned out 95% of all jobs in less than 24 hours, and unconditionally guaranteed all repairs. If you ever called in to check the status of your car, they would patch you directly through to the TECHNICIAN working on your car via 900 mhz phone and he’d tell you personally how things were going. They had a waiting room that included a play area for your kids, free drinks and snacks, magazines that were actually current, and bathrooms cleaner than you’ll find in your house. Their customer service people who greeted you at the counters all wore white shirts and ties. The counters were rounded on the edges so they were more comfortable to lean on. He thought of everything.

But they had a big marketing problem: Even though nobody could even come close to performing at their level, their advertising looked virtually identical to all of their less-competent competitors. Their newspaper ads, their brochures, their mailers, their yellow pages ad…they were all virtually indistinguishable from other auto repair facilities. They ended up coming to requesting a free marketing evaluation, an offer I’ll extend to you.

During the consultation, I brought up the idea that their marketing made them look basically identical to all of their competitors. I told them in no uncertain terms that because of their generic ads, as far as the auto repair buying public was concerned, they weren’t any better or any different than anyone else. Apparently, that little comment didn’t sit well with the service manager—he nearly went postal on me: “There’s nobody else that can even touch us. The dealerships bring cars to us that THEY can’t fix. Our mechanics are far and away the best in the state. Nobody…and I mean nobody can say what we say.” I was a little nervous. The guy was all bent out of shape. He was screaming and flailing around; snot was flying out of the guy’s nose he was so mad. It’s about the closest I’ve ever come to getting in a fistfight during a consultation!

So finally, to try to prove the point in a civil way, I told the owner to pull out the Yellow Pages and see what all of his competitors were saying. There it was in black and yellow, the same generalities and platitudes as everybody else: “ASE certified mechanics. Foreign and Domestic Cars Serviced. And then a long laundry list of services performed….ranging from air conditioners to brakes to transmissions…and get this…they accept Visa and MasterCard. Holy smokes. Let’s just say, his jaw hung open for about two minutes….before he pointed at the page and said to the service manager… Look. I know this guy. His shop is terrible. His ad says the exact same thing that ours does. In fact, I think he copied our layout and verbiage… word for word.” He looked at the page and saw that all of the ads were virtually identical to his. There was no way to deny it, not when you’re staring at the evidence. Remember, right now we’re not talking about who can do what you do; who can SAY what you say?

I can sum the problem up in one little word: Platitudes. Yep, platitudes. There’s a good chance they’re murdering your marketing as we speak. When you use words like “highest quality” or “best service” or “largest inventory” those things probably have a deep, rich meaning to you. Your life’s work may have gone into delivering the highest quality or the best service or the largest inventory. But to the advertising-listening public, they’re just empty phrases—they’re platitudes. To understand why, think about it this way: Would you ever expect a company to advertise anything OTHER than they have the lowest prices or best service…or whatever it is that makes them tick? “Hey, we suck!” Of course not! But you know what, if you look at marketing and advertising—including, probably, YOUR marketing and advertising, you’ll see that it’s absolutely LOADED DOWN with platitudes.

Platitudes are a symptom of a bigger problem called “The Curse of Knowledge.” Simply put, you have a high level of familiarity with your business, you know all the ins and outs, and you know what makes your business tick. When you say “high quality service,” that has a deep and rich meaning to you. But the curse of knowledge suggests that you have a hard time imagining what it’s like NOT to possess all that knowledge and experience, and so you tend to communicate in general terms that you assume have the same deep rich meaning to me as they do to you. But they don’t. The words come across as platitudes.

Platitudes, by definition, are words are phrases that are drearily commonplace and predictable that lack power to evoke interest through overuse and repletion, that are nevertheless stated as if they were original and significant. Trust me, you don’t want to fix Marketing Mistake #1 and innovate a killer business, and then turn around and blow it by spewing a bunch of platitudes. Unfortunately, it happens all the time. Like with the auto repair shop. Very innovative—horrible marketing loaded with platitudes. I think early advertising pioneer Claude Hopkins probably summed it up best when he said, “Platitudes and generalities roll off the human understanding like water off a duck’s back. They make no impression whatsoever.”

Think about your marketing. Is it full of platitudes that roll off your prospects understanding like water off a duck’s back? When somebody reads or hears your ad, is their immediate response “Well I would hope so!” We offer superior service, exceptional pricing, and the most experienced technicians. Yea, I would hope so. We have the largest inventory, the most helpful sales people, and the fastest turnaround time. Well I would hope so. Here’s a quick and fun little platitude evaluation: it’s called the scratch out, write in test. Look at your brochure or advertisement or website for that matter. Now scratch your name out and write in your competitor’s name. If the ad is still valid….if there wouldn’t need to be any additional changes, then you’ve failed the test! Now, get your competitor’s ad and scratch out their name and write in yours. I think you’ll find that you run pretty high on the platitude meter. I think you’ll find that even if you’re very innovative, the reader can’t tell.

Look for platitudes when you watch TV or listen to the radio or read the newspaper or a magazine. You’ll see that these platitudes are absolutely RAMPANT…used by every size and kind of company from the corner dry cleaner clear up to Fortune 500s. If I accomplish nothing else in this article series but ruin the way you look at advertising forever, then I succeed! Just take a look at everything that shows up in your mailbox and all the piles of platitudes on every website. It’s all stuffed to the gills with platitudes. It basically screams out, come buy from me for no justifiable rational reason whatsoever other than I’d like to have your money instead of you giving it to somebody else!

The solution to overcoming this platitude problem is called the Marketing Equation. It’s the cornerstone of the Adult B2B Marketing philosophy, and the key to overcoming the curse of knowledge and communicating powerfully. That’s assuming, of course, you’ve innovated and have a worthwhile business model! The Marketing Equation is a formula for SAYING IT WELL, and it consist of four components—Interrupt, Engage, Educate, and Offer.

The key to getting past platitudes lies in the first two components, interrupt and engage. We’ll talk about educate and offer a bit later on this series. Let’s start with the first component of the marketing equation: Interrupt. To effectively “interrupt” a prospect—or in other words, break through the clutter, you’ve first got to understand how “John Smith’s” brain works—and how it filters information and makes decisions. There are three major concepts I need to teach you: Alpha Mode, Beta Mode, and Reticular Activator.

Alpha mode is the brain’s hypnotic state of running patterns that allows you to habitually perform tasks without any conscious thought. You do this all the time. Have you ever driven to work and when you got there you realized that you hadn’t consciously seen a thing along the way? That’s alpha mode. On a conscious level, you can talk on the cell phone, listen to the radio, shave, put on makeup, whatever, but meanwhile your brain can drive you to work with no conscious thought. In marketing terms, when people are reading the paper or listening to the radio or surfing the Internet, they’re NOT looking for ads. In most cases, the brain doesn’t even notice them. And if it DOES see the ads, this is where platitudes absolutely KILL you…the brain fully EXPECTS to see platitudes, so when it detects them, it just ignores them and moves on. Your prospect’s brain doesn’t care how much money you spend on the ad, it ignores your ad.

The flip side of Alpha mode is Beta mode. This is the brain’s state of alertness or active engagement. It’s like when you drive to work in heavy thunderstorm and your hands are firmly gripped at 10 and 2 o’clock and your pupils are as big as dimes. You’re sensitive to everything. You’re in beta mode when you’re watching a movie and the music is building to a crescendo in anticipation of something scary happening. In terms of marketing, obviously, this where you want to get people when it comes to your ad—you want them to pay attention. Or in other words, you want to break through the clutter to get them to pay attention. So how can you accomplish that—getting people from alpha sleep mode to beta alert mode? It’s called the reticular activating system, and it’s where the rubber hits the road.

Have you ever noticed that when you buy a new car, you suddenly start to notice that it seems like everyone and his brother drives the same make, model, and color you just bought? Or have you ever heard a new word for the first time in your life, and then all of a sudden you hear it again over and over again? This happened to me one time when I was conducting interviews to fill a position in Minnesota. The interviews were being held in a business suite at a hotel, and one of the candidates walked in before I had a chance to grab his resume and introduced himself as Yoseph. He had a thick Eastern European accent, so I thought maybe I had misheard him, and asked for clarification. “I’m sorry. Did you say your name was Joseph?” He explained that it was not Joseph, but rather Yoseph, spelled with a Y. Okay, whatever, no big deal. But then, after the interview was over, I went into the lobby of the hotel to wait for the next candidate, sat down and grabbed a copy of the USA Today. The main article on the front page was about two Israeli youth who had been killed in a car bombing. And the first one’s name was…that’s right. Yoseph, with a Y. Wow, that was weird. I had never heard that name in my life, then all of a sudden, here it was, twice in less than an hour. How is that even possible?

The answer has to do with a part of the brain called the Reticular Activating System, or Reticular Activator for short. It’s the part of the brain that switches you from alpha sleep mode to beta alert mode. It acts as a sort of “radar” system, that’s always on the lookout 24 hours a day, 7 days a week—even when you’re asleep—for things that fall into any of these three categories: things that are familiar, things that are unusual, and things that are problematic. Whenever the Reticular Activator detects any of these kinds of things on a subconscious level, it sends a message to the conscious side of the brain and says, “Hey, wake up…there’s something you need to pay attention to here.” Whatever those things are, whatever those familiar, unusual, or problematic things are, we call them “activators.”

When I heard the word “Yoseph” the first time, it was unusual to me. It interrupted me simply because it wasn’t what my brain was expecting to hear. Then it was familiar to me, so my subconscious brain easily picked it out of the newspaper, as if it had been flashing in neon.  I’m sure you’ve had a similar experience before.

Once the brain is activated, once it’s broken out of alpha sleep into beta alert mode, it immediately and subconsciously searches for additional clarifying information. In other words, once interrupted, the brain decides if it should also become engaged. The brain wants to know, “What’s this all about? Do I need to do anything about this?” The brain wants to know “How RELEVANT and important is this to me? Should I allocate any conscious attention to this?!?” So it searches for additional information. If the brain determines that the activator is indeed important and relevant, then we call that activator a HOT BUTTON. Think of it this way… a hot button is simply an “escalated activator;” one that’s also important and relevant. If the brain does not deem the activator to be important and relevant, then the brain immediately switches back to alpha mode—NOT paying attention—we call that a “false beta.” Like when you hear someone shout your name in a crowded room and you turn around only to realize that they were actually calling out to somebody else who apparently has your same first name. You were interrupted by the activator, your name, but not engaged because it turns out it wasn’t important and relevant to you. Again, that’s called a false beta.

Let’s be very clear here for a minute. An activator is something that snaps a person from alpha to beta and it’s based on something that’s familiar, unusual, or problematic. But an activator can only also be classified as a hot button if—and only if—it’s based on something that’s important or relevant. That’s when the person becomes ENGAGED.

Realize, all of this happens instantaneously on a sub-conscious level. No thinking involved. I’m sure this has happened to you too. Here’s a good question for you: Do you think it’s possible to have your AD jump of the page—or out of the radio, or off the computer screen, or out of the mailbox—as obvious as if it were flashing in neon? The answer is, absolutely, IF you know how to talk in terms of hot buttons.

One good way to successfully interrupt your target market is to identify what problems, frustrations, and annoyances your prospects have and then address them in your marketing. Find out where their PAIN is, identify that pain, describe situations and scenarios that exemplify that PAIN, and put that stuff in your marketing in the form of headlines and sub-headlines. Then let the prospect’s reticular activator take over from there. The results are inevitable. Their pain, for all practical purposes are the “HOT BUTTONS.” See, we’re tapping into problems they already have…we’re not trying to manufacture them. We are merely poking those problems or pointing out those problems so their reticular activator notices and brings them up on the active radar screen. This is in essence a reticular activator double-whammy because you’re hitting their problematic button at the same time you’re hitting their familiar button… after all, everybody’s familiar with whatever it is that’s painful & problematic to them!

When it comes to actually writing your marketing, your best bet is to portray the hot buttons in the form of headlines. I want to touch on this topic of headlines briefly right now. Headlines are hugely important to this discussion of effective marketing, because the headline is the first opportunity you have to interrupt and therefore communicate with the prospect. You’ve got about one-half of a split second to interrupt the prospect, so you had better make sure that the headline has activators in it—and that the activators are based on things that are important and relevant—HOT BUTTONS. In print advertising—magazines, newspapers, internet ads, yellow pages, and so forth, the form of the headline is obvious. In radio and television, it’s the first sentence spoken. In brochures and marketing collateral, it’s the first thing they see.

Think about it, what would you be more likely to read, a brochure from a mutual fund company that was titled “Landmark Mutual Funds” or one from the same company that said “Mutual Fund Investment Strategies: Which Ones Actually Work, And Which Ones Are Guaranteed To Drain Your Savings, Jeopardize Your Retirement, And Squash Your Quest For Financial Independence.” Does “Landmark Mutual Funds” contain any Hot Buttons? Does it get you from Alpha To Beta? No, it leaves your eyes glazed over, that’s what it does. 

What about a slogan of some sort on the brochure instead; “Building your Future on Solid Ground.” Well I would hope so! You should know by now that that’s a major PLATITUDE…stated as if it were original and significant. Who else can say that? Does it pass the x out/write in test? Of course not. But it’s the most likely the kind of stuff you’ll find on just about every brochure ever created in the history of mankind. If your brochure has a similar title, you need to change it. What about the other title for a brochure, the one about Draining, Jeopardizing, and Squashing? Any Hot Buttons there? Does it identify any problems or frustrations, and imply a solution? You bet it does.

It is imperative that the tone and words used in the headline mirror the intensity of the emotional level of the prospect. So for instance, when we’re talking about investing, that’s a pretty important topic to the prospects. So I use words in the headline like drain, jeopardize, and squash to mirror the intensity of the feelings that the prospect has about investing—especially after the last couple years! Now, contrast that to how the headline sounds when it uses words that are LESS emotionally intense. I’ll repeat the original headline first, then give you the watered down version. Here’s the original: “Mutual Fund Investment Strategies: Which Ones Actually Work, And Which Ones Are Guaranteed To Drain Your Savings, Jeopardize Your Retirement, And Squash Your Quest For Financial Independence.”

Okay, now here’s the less emotionally intense one: “Mutual Fund Investment Strategies: Which Ones Work, And Which Ones Will Reduce Your Savings, Delay Your Retirement, And Hurt Your Financial Goals.” What do you think? Notice, I eliminated the word Actually from the phrase Which ones actually work. That word actually was important because it implies that many of them don’t…but without saying it directly. When eliminating the word Actually, I reduce the emotional intensity of the headline. Next, I removed the word Guaranteed from the phrase “Which ones are guaranteed to….” And just said “which ones will….” Again, I’ve reduced the emotional value; I haven’t fully tapped a hot button inside them that says “man there are a LOT of crummy investments out there.” Then of course I changed the words which started out as Drain, Jeopardize, and Squash….and neutered them clear down to Reduce, Delay, and Hurt. See the difference? The meaning of the two headlines is exactly the same, but the power, strength, and impact is totally different. It’s easy to see and recognize the difference, but writing those headlines so they are actually loaded with power is a whole different ballgame. This is part of why it’s so difficult for you to actually put this together and execute it yourself. You simply need more exposure to this stuff if you want to master it.

Okay, before you get too excited about this stuff, another word of warning. It’s easy to read all this and say to yourself—okay, I get it. I have to find something that’s familiar, unusual, or problematic and talk about that in my marketing—that’s an activator. Then that activator also has to be important and relevant to my prospects. Then I’ve got to put it into a headline that matches the emotional intensity of John Smith. Easy enough. Well you know what? Actually, it’s not necessarily “easy enough.” This issue of using hot buttons in marketing is so important that we’ve got to dive in a little deeper. Here’s why: Where John Smith is at in the buying cycle might have a profound impact on what he THINKS is important and relevant as it relates to your product. If you don’t understand a principle called the Educational Spectrum, you could end up talking to your prospects about hot buttons that they don’t care about…at least when they see or hear your ad.

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