“Don’t touch that dial!”
“Don’t go anywhere, we’ll be right back!”
Television programming used to convincingly guide viewers through a show, and viewers would watch the commercials. But there’s no dial anymore, and when a commercial comes on, you’re already in 15 other places in your browser or on your phone.
Because of that, commercials should have died off with our ability to stream on demand. Instead, they rose to the challenge by providing content that’s almost as entertaining and addictive as the shows they interrupt. They do this by sticking to the fundamentals of good sales and good storytelling.
For that reason, commercials are like free mentorship for anyone in sales. Don’t skip the ads: They will teach you how to make people laugh, cry and, most importantly, how to hold their attention. A person’s attention is the most precious currency in the digital age.
Here are a few important takeaways from commercials both on- and off-line, including the cult favourite: late-night infomercials.
In an infomercial, life is hard. Drinks are impossible to pour, towels keep slipping, pasta strainers are awkward, and forget about being able to open a jar.
Most infomercials feature a “doing it wrong” segment, usually in black and white, showing someone struggling with an everyday problem that the product promises to solve. These segments have become so ubiquitous that one YouTube account made a hilarious compilation.
This may seem over the top, but it’s the foundation of any sales pitch. Your customer wouldn’t be in the market if they didn’t have a problem. Your job, as a salesperson, is to help them understand the seriousness and urgency of that problem.
In 1984 we all had a problem: Our computing options were limited and boring. In a 60-second commercial, then-named Apple Computer agitated that problem to crisis proportions:
We are all drones, like something out of the novel 1984.
A woman, the only colourful figure in the ad, runs into a room and throws a sledgehammer at a screen that’s broadcasting a speech by the leader of the drones. The drones wake up from their trance-like state.
A voice-over declares, “On January 24th, Apple Computers will introduce Macintosh, and you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.”
The problem? Computers are boring.
The problem agitated: Computers are so boring they’re stealing our individuality.
The simple solution: The Macintosh computer
There’s no description of the product or how it will solve the problem. There is a solution. That’s all that matters in this commercial.
Learn from this commercial: Don’t oversell. Don’t overthink. If your solution really is simple, it should be easier for the customer to buy it than to live with the problem.
There is no product so good that people will sit through a bad commercial just to have it pitched to them. Your audience’s attention is spread thin, and if you fail to make an honest connection, you’ll lose them.
You don’t have to be a dancing monkey. If you want meaningful attention, it helps to be meaningful. In 2016, two ads executed this flawlessly. One, for Under Armor, shows the grueling training that led to Michael Phelps’ Olympic victories. When Phelps screened the finished spot, he got emotional.
The second ad is from Amazon. It first aired in the U.K., but was syndicated globally after going viral. It features a priest and an Imam finding common ground and becoming friends.
This kind of advertising isn’t new: Coke did it in the 1970s with “I’d like to buy the world a Coke,” and in 2014, Sainsbury’s recreated the 1914 Christmas Truce for British TV.
These ads find customers where they spend much of their time—in their own heads. Amazon knows we’re thinking about current events. Coke shared our hope for peace during the Vietnam War. Under Armor believes you have a challenge to overcome that’s just as real as Phelps’.
When done well, this strategy is remarkable (as in, worthy of remarks), but it risks coming across as manipulative and offensive. Being genuine is a good thing. Appearing genuine is not. Your sales tactics certainly don’t have to address world peace, but take time to consider all of your customer’s emotional concerns, not just the ones that pertain to your product.
Jeff Shore reminds us, “You’re not selling a product, you’re selling a better life.”
Nike has commercials with athletes doing extraordinary things, all while wearing Nike. They have other ads with everyday people doing the best they can, all while wearing Nike. The one thing these ads do not do is talk about Nike.
This is the golden rule of advertising. People don’t buy a product for what it does or its features; they buy it because of what it does for them (its benefits).
In the early days of the QVC, a well-known infomercial channel, their job interview for on-air salespeople included talking about a pencil for 10 minutes. A successful salesperson will emphasize the benefits of the product.
Feature: “It’s a nice bright yellow.” So what?
Benefit: “It’s bright yellow, so you can find it easily on your desk.”
Demonstrate how your product will improve your customer’s life.
The average viewer has consumed thousands of commercials that interrupt countless hours of visual storytelling. We’re smart cookies. We know every cliché.
We’ve seen the sleazy car salesman, the post-mouthwash kiss over the sink, that couple who is way too excited about box springs, and the stereotypical nerd with sunblock on his nose who gets the attention of beautiful women the moment he pulls the tab on his beer.
Your audience is jaded. Let them know you’re on the same page. Dos Equis knew we were sick of beach bodies selling us beer, so they gave us “The Most Interesting Man in the World.”
Old Spice’s “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” is a parody of the tired promise that men’s deodorant will make you manly.
These ads demonstrate a key skill for anyone in sales: empathy. They laugh with you.
The reason cat videos, pictures of baby animals, and commercials featuring animals do so much better on social media than seemingly more important stuff is because they provoke an instant emotional response. And this is powerful from a sales point of view because, as discussed, many people buy based on emotions—in every industry and at every price point.
In sales, just like in commercials, you are not a persuader, though you need to be persuasive. You are not an explainer, even though you must explain benefits. You are, first and foremost, a communicator and an entertainer. Your customers appreciate you more—and pay attention—when you appeal to them just like a good commercial would.
Learn more tips for improving your sales in our eBook, “7 Tips for Accelerating Sales Performance.”