Advertising – the aspirational mirror




Disclaimer: I am not now, nor have ever been, nor ever will be, an advertising guy or even a marketing guy.

That being said, I’ve developed a simple working rule for judging the marcom efforts of my mentees and it seem to work well, so I thought I would share it.

The idea is simple: your ads should reflect back not the image of your target customer, but an enhanced image, the image that they aspire to project, not who they really are.

This came to me one day while I was watching pro football, which I do a lot. But unless it’s a New England Patriots game, I record the game my Tivo and watch it perhaps an hour or more into the game so I can skip over the ads.

But when I watch the Patriots I watch in real time with my football fan friends. It’s the only time I see TV ads, everything else is Tivo’d. The ad that struck me that day was of a young man with the stylish 3 or 4 day stubble driving a convertible down what looked like Route 101 in California, wherever it was the scenery was breathtakingly beautiful, as was the blond woman sitting in the passenger seat, and the weather. What were they selling? Well the car, of course. But I can’t even remember what make and model car was being advertised. Watching the ad it hit me: the car company was not trying to convince viewers that the car was faster, got better mileage, or was more reliable than its competitors. No, what they were trying to do was reflect the aspirations of the mainly male viewers who watch pro football: to be driving down 101 in a beautiful car, with a beautiful woman, on a beautiful day, whilst most of the viewers were actually sitting on a lumpy couch with their male football friends and if they lived in the midwest or east coast, on a cold, bitter and windy day. Who wouldn’t aspire to be that guy, 30 years younger, handsome and carefree, enjoying driving his convertible? The car the advertising was designed to sell, by association, not on either features or benefits. After watching that ad I started viewing every ad as an aspirational mirror. First you had to figure out the demographic – who the target audience was, then what activity was being shown that they would aspire to. That lens works almost unfailing well, whether it’s cars, beer, or washing machines. Of course, there are the odd humorous ads, designed to cut through the clutter, but for the most part holding up the aspirational mirror to the target audience held true.

So now when I review marcom materials, whether it’s for enterprise security or an app to help you lose weight, I advise the mentee to make sure his ad does two things: present an image of the target customer, solving the problem the product was designed to solve. If your customer doesn’t see him or herself in your marketing materials you’ve lost them right off. But that’s necessary, but not sufficient. You have to show them in a better state than they really are. Instead of being the harried CIO worried to death about data security you show them as the young with it hip technologist totally on top of the problem. The CIO as hero. Because as a vendor that’s your job: make the CIO the hero! One of the best, and simplest ways

Creating successful ads or other marketing collateral requires three things: a very clear definition of the customer, a very clear understanding of the problem they have, and a way to depict them as triumphing over that problem. I used to think that consumer ads for aspirin and other OTC drugs were designed to convince the viewer that they have a problem, then sell them the solution. That’s not totally wrong, and certainly it’s the proven technique for the various nostrums pushed by the pharma companies every since our government decided it was ok to allow drug companies market their drugs directly to the consumer instead of being forced to go through the intermediary, their doctor.

You can play the game by choosing a TV show targeted at your demographic and watching the ads carefully to see how they are designed to reflect not you, but the aspirational you. If you don’t recognize yourself in the ad the advertiser has made a mistake. Likewise if you don’t see yourself not as you are, but as you’d like to be: younger, better looking, wealthier, sexually successful are probably the top four qualities the aspirational mirror is designed to reflect back the advertiser has probably wasted their money.

One of the most effective ways to design aspirational advertising is to show the before (the target customer without your product) and the after (the happy customer using your product.)

You know the old saw, half of all advertising dollars are wasted, you just don’t know which half. As I’ve written in The business driver you can’t afford to ignore, personalization is the business megatrend of the 21st century. Of course, the holy grail of advertising is to get that personalization down to the individual consumer.

The irony of Facebook’s current problems are that it’s achieved that holy grail, and become one of the richest and most powerful companies in the world. It’s problem is that while it was doing so it ignored security in the process.

Here’s a great example of aspirational advertising from the back cover of Rolling Stone:


Here’s an aspirational ad from The Sunday New York Times. Are you cool enough to even know what the ad is selling? Hint: O.J. Simpson was a customer.


Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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