Hyperbole in an Ad Makes an Impression, but Does It Work?

Consumers Remember the Pitch, but May Not Necessarily Buy

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I've laughed out loud at the Direct TV commercials in which the alleged shortcomings of its cable competition are illustrated with outlandish examples. The "It's more annoying" spots introduce things like a car blowing up, people getting attacked by turtles or clowns, and a pedestrian molested by an inflatable balloon. All this hilarity has got me wondering whether hyperbole actually helps sell anything.

It sure has featured prominently in sales since selling began. Promises have always been overstated or otherwise illustrated with extreme examples, which is why I think people are somewhat suspicious of sales pitches. Regulations and culture have restrained advertising from the wildest claims, but allowed it hyperbolic latitude to make a point. It's assumed that consumers know that Ma Bell and Betty Crocker aren't real people, and Esso gas never put an actual tiger in your tank. When Hai Karate cologne ran commercials in the 1970s featuring a geeky guy fighting off bombshell babes, it wasn't a promise of functional benefit as much as good creative fun.

That's the rub. I was a dumb 15-year-old at the time, and I bought the stuff . . . only to discover that it didn't work as advertised.

I should have recognized hyperbole for what it was, yet I wonder if a part of us still believes a part of it, or at least wishes to, and that's how it "works." Aspirational themes in marketing are often idealized impossibilities of beauty, success or love, and brands use them to serve as easy communications shorthand to make their content stand out from that of the competition. We're supposed to know better, but human beings tend to want to believe impossible things, whether miracle hair tonics, no-risk investments or TV service that is more pleasing than pleasure itself. But then, does a product's promise to correct our genetic imperfections contribute to perceptions of dishonesty in advertising when we inevitably come to our senses (or, in my cologne experience, suffer utter embarrassment)?

There's surprisingly little research on the topic, especially considering how prominently hyperbole still features in advertising. It seems that consumers tend to like ads with hyperbole more so than those without, and then report fonder recollections about brands mentioned therein. But they also reveal a level of disbelief and misunderstanding greater than that experienced with ads that are more utilitarian. I can't find data on whether liking ads themselves translates into more sales, or if it contributes to building long-term loyal customer relationships.

These questions are particularly relevant, considering that much of what gets exported to the social web is hyperbole detached from any overt sales message. Social content is often purely entertaining, as if the value of the resulting engagement has been established. It was nutty fun watching a guy do karate, shoot hoops, and jam with a band in Heineken's movie a few years ago ("The Entrance"), and TNT's staging of a cop caper in a real town square last year was super cool ("Push to Add Drama"), but the clips gleefully told us nothing that could be substantiated.

At least traditional ads have to ground wacky examples in reality, and even then consumers can be happily misinformed by hyperbole, or distrustful of the brands behind it. I wonder if some or much of that hyperbolic social content represents empty calories of marketing communication. The very premise that a commercial brand would be my "friend," or I a friend of it, is itself hyperbole.

Perhaps it isn't a surprise that corporate reputations are at historic lows (one recent survey found that only 18% of consumers worldwide believed that they tell the truth), and evermore declining numbers of people believe ads. Some of the companies with the most robust and celebrated social-media operations deliver horrible business results, despite high levels of consumer engagement (Kodak and Dell come to mind). It's more than possible that hyperbole is a useful tool for communicating the "what" of brand promises, but it's really bad at substantiating the "why" necessary for credibility and subsequent purchase, whether used in traditional ads or set free on the Internet.

Fortunately, I'm a current Direct TV customer, so I'm not at risk of repeating my Hai Karate mistake. I can see through the hyperbole in its ads and say with absolute certainty that its competition isn't as horrible, nor are its services as perfect as the hilarious examples portray. I still love laughing with the spots, however. I certainly remembered them, and I shared my feelings with you.

But I didn't believe them, so I'm not sure they worked.

JONATHAN SALEM BASKIN is the author of "A Thousand Words: Why We Must Fight The Tyranny of Brief, Vague & Incomplete," and the president of Baskin Associates, a marketing consultancy. You can follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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