Many books promise an end to dull, forgettable advertising -- a couple of them deliver

Here's a depressing thought: within the past 24 hours you have been exposed to 1,600 commercial messages. Television. Newspapers. Billboards. It all adds up to one pitch every 54 seconds.

That's sad. But here's something even sadder: you probably can't recall a single one from a small company. And if you can't, how likely is it that your customers will?

We're not just talking regular advertising here; we're talking brochures, catalogs, point-of-purchase materials, and all the other media you use to get your message across. Every company advertises in one way or another. But if your company is like most, your ads are about as memorable as an explanation of the dividend-recapture rule.

The nation's publishers, as it happens, would love to come to your rescue. They have books by the gurus of the ad biz (see "Views from the Top," page 2). They have books that take you inside the wacky, wonderful world of Madison Avenue. And of course they have how-to books, every one guaranteed to make you an advertising whiz. As with any such deluge, the trick is to throw away the dreck, then read selectively from what remains.

Some of the dreck is easy to spot: they're the books that commit the errors they rail against. Consider Great Promo Pieces (John Wiley, 1988), which the publisher says will teach you "how to produce all of your own advertising materials in-house." Author Herman Holtz says that one key to effective advertising is simple, clear writing, carefully edited. Then he gives us sentences like this: "The answer to the question posed, why do some writers choose such ponderous language when it is actually easier to write simply, should now be apparent: writing simply is more often than not rewriting and/or made possible only through thorough planning."

Other books get off to a good start, only to peter out into generalities. Elinor Selame and Joe Selame's The Company Image (John Wiley, 1988), for example, makes a point that growing companies often miss. Every time customers come in contact with you, your employees, your store, and your products, they form an impression. If there are papers in the parking lot -- or if you employ snarling sales clerks -- no amount of money spent on advertising is going to help. The Selames devote lots of space to matters such as the message your company name sends to people, and how your products' packaging affects your image. Their point? If you look as if you don't care, you begin to act as if you don't care.

When it comes to practical tips, however, the authors clam up. How can you use the interior of your store to re- inforce your company's positioning message? What about inexpensive devices like employee uniforms? Sorry -- the Selames repeatedly say you should go to professionals (them, perhaps?) to have your image created. And what will be the price of such help? Shame on you for even thinking about the bill. "The last question should be, 'what will it cost?' "

For our money, the best how-to-advertise books are two appropriately titled volumes: The Advertiser's Manual and How to Advertise. Our suggestion: read them back-to-back. Each is strong where the other is weak, and together they'll give you a pretty good grounding in how to think about advertising.

Let's take The Advertiser's Manual (John Wiley, 1988) first. Author Stephen Baker, the man responsible for the Yellow Pages slogan "Let your fingers do the walking," spells out in textbook form the mysteries of Madison Avenue. Deal with an advertising agency and you'll find yourself bumping into people with such titles as traffic supervisor and creative director. What do they do? Well, traffic supervisors track the blizzard of paperwork created by the countless people who may work to produce an ad. The title of creative director is a little more slippery, like the title of vice-president in a bank. A creative director may be the head honcho -- or just a talented wordsmith who makes too much money to be called a copywriter.

Baker understands not only the workings of agencies but the subtle dynamics of agency-client relationships. If you deal with a large agency, for instance, you should be aware that your $80,000-a-year sales manager may be signing off on ads produced by a $350,000-a-year copywriter. In a "culture that tends to measure personal worth on basis of income," as Baker puts it, that relationship may be fraught with difficulty. On a more tangible level, Baker points out that you should keep experimentation to a minimum. "Don't ask the agency to submit a half-dozen suggestions. Or one campaign after another. . . . The agency may start charging you every time it picks up a pencil, just for spite."

Though Baker understands agencies, he spends precious little time explaining how to create good ads. No matter. Specifics -- 204 of them, to be exact -- are exactly what Kenneth Roman and Jane Maas offer in How to Advertise (St. Martin's, 1976), a 13-year-old book that still provides some of the most useful nuggets of information around. Among them:

* You can't begin to think about your advertising until you position your product. What messages do you want people to remember about what you stand for?

* "Be single-minded" in your ads. "Everything about your product is important -- to you. To consumers, some product characteristics are more important than others. Time spent talking about minor copy points will blur communication of your main consumer benefit."

* "If you can show that your product does something well, or better than [your] competition, show it. And show it in every commercial you run."

* "Build campaigns, not individual commercials." A simple test as to whether an ad can become part of a campaign: imagine yourself writing the next ad in the series.

The list continues: specific recommendations for print advertising, radio, direct mail, and so on. Granted, no 13-year-old book will be up to date on new developments such as cable television and ads placed on shopping carts. But most of How to Advertise still rings true. Best of all, the authors remind us repeatedly that the tips they offer should serve only as starting points. To create good advertising, as Tom McElligott, president of the well-respected Fallon, McElligott agency, pointed out in these pages (July 1986), there really is only one rule. Break the rules.

"If you break the rules, you're going to stand a better chance of breaking through the clutter than if you don't," he says. "If you try to live with the rules, in all likelihood the work will be derivative, it won't be fresh, it won't have the necessary ingredients to disarm the consumer, who increasingly has got his defenses up against all sorts of advertising messages coming his way."

It's hard to write a book telling you how to break the rules. But authors like Roman and Maas at least bring us to the point where we know what rules to break.


Books from our writers

Microsoft Excel, by Inc. columnist Charles W. Kyd, has recently been published by Microsoft Press. The book includes more than 100 practical business applications for the company's spreadsheet software.


Wit and wisdom from Madison Avenue's mandarins

Advertising, like most industries, has its share of cult heroes. But unlike the heroes of (say) the plastic-extruding business, these heroes tend to write books. Among the best: Ogilvy on Advertising (Vintage Books, 1985), From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor (Simon & Schuster, 1970; out of print), and The Trouble with Advertising (Times Books, 1980).

David Ogilvy, founder and former chairman of Ogilvy & Mather, is the industry's éminence grise: he's the one you always see quoted on the back of everyone else's books on advertising. And it is nice to hear from someone who not only created great ads ("At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock") but who has some perspective on what he does. Ogilvy's theme: good advertising depends on good research. "Advertising people who ignore research," Ogilvy says in a chapter devoted to the subject, "are as dangerous as generals who ignore decodes of enemy signals."

From Those Wonderful Folks, by well-known agency head Jerry della Femina, confirms what you always knew: the people who create ads live on a different plane of reality from the rest of us. The title, for example, comes from the headline della Femina wrote for a Panasonic ad. The good news is that the ad never appeared. The bad news is that della Femina showed it to Panasonic. Shortly thereafter the consumer electronics giant switched agencies.

The Trouble with Advertising is by John O'Toole, former chairman of Foote, Cone & Belding, who has just been named head of the industry's trade group. O'Toole takes on advertising's perennial critics; he also tells some entertaining stories. Our favorite is the one about the young adman back in the days when radio was king. Seems this fellow had made the perfect buy for his coffee-company client: a Sunday afternoon program so prestigious eight other sponsors had wanted it. But the client refused, saying nobody would hear the program. And why not? Shades of George Bush. "Because on Sunday afternoon," he replied, "everyone's out playing polo."

Finally, we have to say we were really looking forward to reading Stan Freberg's It Only Hurts When I Laugh (Times Books, 1989). It was Freberg, after all, who gave the world "Today the pits . . . tomorrow the wrinkles," in explaining the wonders of Sunsweet seedless prunes.

Alas, this is an autobiography. Advertising doesn't even get a mention until you are a third of the way in. Freberg had warned us of this in the introduction, promising to devote volume two of his memoirs to advertising. Still, we were disappointed -- until we understood what was going on here. We were dealing with a pro.

Freberg was using a classic marketing strategy called line extension -- taking one name and spreading it over more than one product, like Miller High Life and Miller Lite. In this case, he was line-extending his book. Why write one when you can write (and sell) two?

How smart. In Freberg's case the medium is the message. Would that everybody in advertising were so clever.


Before you advertise, you need a tactic

What's your marketing message -- the single idea that you try to get across in your advertising, your sales campaigns, and so forth? Don't say a superior product or a better service; everyone says that. You need something -- a tactic -- that differentiates your company from the competition.

Examples? "Home delivery in 30 minutes" (Domino's Pizza). "When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight." (Remember when Federal Express's guarantee was new?) Apple Computer's emphasis on desktop publishing.

Find such a tactic, say authors Al Ries and Jack Trout in Bottom-Up Marketing (McGraw-Hill, 1989), and your marketing strategy will define itself as everything that reinforces the tactic. But note well: your tactic dictates not only marketing but operations. (Don't guarantee overnight delivery unless you can do it.) Most advertising campaigns, say the authors, try to change the mind of the marketplace by promising better this or better that. That's exactly backward: what you should be doing is changing your company so that it offers something unique, then telling the customer about it.

Like Ries and Trout's other books ("Guerrilla Marketing," April 1987), Bottom-Up Marketing is both witty and engagingly skeptical. Take the authors' reaction to the popular Joe Isuzu commercials.

The ads? Clever. Undoubtedly "the most admired, most awarded, most respected advertising campaign in recent years."

The effect? Well, Isuzu Motors Ltd. spends $30 million a year on advertising in the United States and still manages to sell fewer than 40,000 cars here -- one-sixth what Hyundai sells, less even than Audi and Yugo. "People remember Joe the liar," say Ries and Trout, "but don't remember why they should buy one of his cars."

Contributor: John Case