What Good Are the Words to a Song Without the Music?

Despite Trend Toward Verbal Pitches, Visual Hammers Still Rule

By Published on . 8

In a song, what's more important, the words or the music?

I think most people would agree that the music is more important.

This ad doesn't hammer the words 'an Accord is a compromise' into a reader's mind.
This ad doesn't hammer the words 'an Accord is a compromise' into a reader's mind.
Take "Moon River," first sung by Audrey Hepburn in the movie "Breakfast at Tiffany's." The song itself won an Academy Award for composers Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer, one of four won by Mercer.

Later, Andy Williams adopted "Moon River" as his theme song. Here is the first verse.

Moon river, wider than a mile
I'm crossin' you in style some day
Old dream maker, you heartbreaker
Wherever you're goin', I'm goin' your way
Johnny Mercer, in my opinion, was the best lyricist of the 20th century, but I'm sure those words on a piece of paper, even repeated millions of times, would not have made "Moon River" famous.

It was the music that made the words "Moon River" famous.

Advertising needs visuals in the same way that lyrics need music, if you want to drive your words into the minds of your prospects.

Without a visual hammer, an advertising campaign is almost certain to fail.

Years ago, we were making a new-business presentation, and I could see it wasn't going over very well. Wherever we were going, the prospect wasn't going our way.

Finally he said, "Your advertising is all visually oriented, and today the trend is towards verbally oriented advertising."

He was right. The number of advertisers today that are totally focused on a verbal approach is staggering.

Even a visual medium like TV is often used primarily in a verbal way. Take a recent Ford F-150 commercial. Here is what was used for both the voice-over and, unbelievably, the text on screen:

"ALL RIGHT, SO YOU'RE DRIVING DOWN THE FREEWAY DOING ABOUT 60 WHEN YOU NOTICE THE GUY NEXT TO YOU IS STEERING WITH HIS KNEES, EATING A CHEESEBURGER AND TALKING ON THE PHONE, AND THAT IS EXACTLY WHY THE ALL-NEW '09 F-150 IS THE SAFEST TRUCK IN AMERICA. IT'S GOT HIGH-STRENGTH STEEL SAFETY CAGE, SIDE-IMPACT AIR BAGS, SAFETY CANOPY, 5-STAR CRASH RATING AND ROLL STABILITY CONTROL. BECAUSE IT'S NOT JUST CRAZY OUT THERE, IT'S CERTIFIABLY INSANE. OK IT'S NOT JUST ANY TRUCK, IT'S THE 2009 MOTOR TREND TRUCK OF THE YEAR."

My guess is that this verbal diarrhea turns off more truck buyers than it turns on. But who am I to complain? If the advertising is so bad, why is the Ford F-Series the largest-selling vehicle in the U.S.? Momentum. Ford's F-Series has been the best-selling vehicle of any kind in the United States for 33 consecutive years.

But just because an advertisement has a visual doesn't turn that visual into a hammer. Most visuals are what we call a "rebus," a picture that stands for a word.

Take a Chevrolet Malibu ad with the headline: "By definition an Accord is a compromise." The picture is a rebus which stands for "Chevrolet Malibu." It doesn't hammer the words "an Accord is a compromise" into a reader's mind.

When developing a marketing strategy, verbally oriented left-brainers spend most of their time trying to find the best words to describe the brand's position. "Honda's Accord is the chief competitor for our Chevy Malibu," goes the thinking, "so let's nail them with the compromise idea."

But those words don't translate into a visual hammer, so they are virtually useless as an advertising concept. Look at the difference between the Malibu ad and what Verizon has been doing recently.

For years, No. 1 Verizon and No. 2 AT&T have been blasting each other with massive amounts of advertising. A typical Verizon slogan: "Switch to America's largest and most reliable 3G network."

For most consumers this slogan was just "we're-the-biggest-and-the-best" advertising puffery. Nor did the slogan lend itself to a visual hammer.

Then last October Verizon launched its "There's a map for that" campaign. Its commercials showed two U.S. maps, one marked "Verizon Wireless," the other marked "AT&T." The caption: "5X more 3G coverage."

Verizon's coverage is almost solid red on a white map. AT&T's coverage is very spotty blue areas on a white map. In other words, with Verizon you get five times as much 3G coverage. That's what I mean by a powerful visual hammer.

You know the campaign is working because of what AT&T is doing in response. Soon after the Verizon campaign was launched, AT&T struck back with "When you compare, there's no comparison" and a new website, TruthAbout3G.com. Unfortunately, the ads are all words:

"Nation's fastest 3G network."

"Talk and surf the web at the same time."

"Most popular smartphones." (Translation: We've got the iPhone. They don't.)

"Access to over 100,000 apps." (The iPhone again.)

Now who do you suppose is winning the wireless war? My bet would be on Verizon. A visual campaign will always be more persuasive than a verbal campaign.

Tested 72 hours after exposure, people remember only about 10% of information presented orally, according to one study, but 65% of information presented visually.

There's a paradox here. The objective of a marketing campaign is to own a word in the mind. "Driving" in the case of BMW. "Safety" in the case of Volvo. "Change" in the case of Barack Obama. Logical left-brainers are quick to assume that the best way to do that is jump on the word verbally and then to lay out the verbal reasons why -- much like a lawyer's brief.

Hence the AT&T campaign: "When you compare, there's no comparison."

Do words like these mean much to consumers? I think not.

The assumption is that you can say anything, but a picture is proof.

Hence the Verizon campaign: "There's a map for that."

Verizon's coverage maps are powerful visual hammers.
Verizon's coverage maps are powerful visual hammers.
Nothing is as powerful in marketing as a combination of a simple verbal nail ("the real thing") and a powerful visual hammer (the contours of the Coke bottle). You have probably noticed how Coca-Cola is making extensive use of its unique visual in packaging and marketing even though very few contour bottles of Coke are now being sold.

It's not just advertising that is so verbally oriented. What is striking to me is how verbally oriented many company presentations are. It's not uncommon for a corporate executive to stand behind a podium reading a speech on a teleprompter while the same words appear on a huge screen with absolutely no visuals.

I recently saw a 50-slide presentation by a world-renowned management consulting firm on an issue of international importance. The slides contained nothing but words -- some 2,000 words, according to my rough calculations.

Compare that with a presentation by Steve Jobs, everyone's choice as the world's most effective communicator. In June of 2008, Steve Jobs announced the introduction of the iPhone 3G. He used 11 slides to do so, but only one slide contained words. The other 10 slides were photographs.

Look at PowerPoint, the presentation program of choice for most executives. My daughter Laura and I use the program because we think we have no other choice, but the slide masters are totally useless because they are all verbally oriented and our slides are almost all visually oriented, with very few words.

Wherever you're goin', you'll go faster and farther with a visual hammer. What good are the words without the music?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Al Ries is chairman of Ries & Ries, an Atlanta-based marketing strategy firm he runs with his daughter and partner Laura.
In this article:

Read These Next

Comments (8)