I was skeptical about Radio Shack’s Super Bowl commercial. And then I watched it…

Radio Shack is pretty bland… and it has been for as long as I remember.

I suppose there could have been a time when their business model was cutting-edge-meets-convenience: They could have been the go-to place for consumer technology with convenient locations in the mall. But if that was the case, it was decades ago… before I was old enough to pay attention to those kinds of things. By the time I was a teen, and shopping for my own electronics, Radio Shack was the place you went when you didn’t have a lot of money or choice or discernment.

They’re the place you buy extra cables because you just happen to be in the mall anyway. They’re quickly bypassed and even more quickly forgotten. I haven’t seen them advertise on TV in… well, ever.

So when I saw that Radio Shack was putting a commercial in the Super Bowl, I was surprised and skeptical.

And then I watched it.

Wow.

Frankly, it’s awesome. Watch it for yourself and then read why I think it’s awesome.

The commercial comes right out of the gate as both funny and self-effacing. “The 80’s called. They want their store back.” It’s funny because it’s not just a saying — the phone actually rang — turning a cliched insult in something even funnier. Plus the clerk’s perfect delivery of his line. Plus it instantly positions the commercial as self-effacing.

The fun really begins as the 80’s pour through the door. This is extended punchline of the commercial, where things really get good. An onslaught of stuff from the 1980’s bombards the commercial: Hulk Hogan, Alf, John Ratzenberger’s Cliff Claven, Mary Lou Retton, Eric Estrada, Chucky, Jason, the DeLorean from Back to the Future… and I could go on and on. Even the music and the animation (Awesome references to Q-Bert AND Ghostbusters AND the California Raisins!) contributed.

Here’s why the commercial is so remarkable:

  • Radio Shack was honest about their shortcomings and that seems to be nearly impossible for any company to do. I’m sure that many companies have great self-effacing commercials that were killed by the legal department or at the executive level because no one wants to admit that there is something catastrophically wrong with the company. Conversely, Dominoes is a company that recently won a lot of respect for its apologetically honest portrayal of its shortcomings, and this is a good lesson for any company that is famously flawed to use honesty in its marketing.
  • They were self-effacing. Poking fun at yourself is hard. If you don’t get it exactly right, you come across less than genuine, or you come across too harsh (which isn’t funny). It’s hard to do in person and it’s even harder to do in marketing. There is a hard-to-find sweet-spot and Radio Shack found it and executed perfectly.
  • One of the things that makes this commercial great is that it’s not just a couple of 1980’s visuals but A LOT of them. If they only had guest appearances by two or three 1980’s icons, the commercial would have fallen short. It would have been just another cheezy cameo. But it wasn’t. They stuffed the commercial to overflowing with 1980’s icons, and that made all the difference. Bonus: Because there are so many 1980’s references in the commercial, you have to watch it a couple of times to spot them all. I’ve seen the commercial more than half a dozen times and each time I see something new.
  • They played to a combination of nostalgia and anticipation. Their intended audience would remember how bland Radio Shack has been in the past. But they would also remember all of those great icons with heartfelt nostalgia. And then, they vanished from the commercial and the message (of cleaner, brighter, more modern stores) finished the commercial.

Here’s what Radio Shack has to do next:

Okay, they’ve made a great commercial. But that’s just the beginning. Now they have to deliver on their promise. They have to create stores that are modern.

But I think they may have to do something else, as well. It’s okay for them to occupy the lower-end of the consumer technology spectrum, if that’s where they want to be, because there’s a market for it and because their store locations are perfectly located to reach that audience. But they can’t just sell the same stuff in more modern-looking stores. They have to do more. They have to offer better stuff while still working within the budgetary confines of their target market. They might even need to cut back on the variety of inventory in their stores.

Alternatively, we could see them move their company in a different direction and aim for a place a little higher up in the consumer technology spectrum. We’ve seen other companies leverage clever commercials to revive their flagging images (Please refer to any Old Spice that stars Isaiah Mustafa).

I’m looking forward to the changes at Radio Shack. If they deliver on what the commercial promises, we could see a very compelling turnaround for the company.

Aaron Hoos’ weekly reading list: ‘Referrals, ineffective advertising, and encouragement’ edition

Aaron Hoos: Weekly reading list

Here are some things I read this week — applicable to all the audiences I write for (entrepreneurs, financial professionals, and real estate professionals)…

  • 5 proven ways to drive more word of mouth referrals. It’s well known that word of mouth referrals are among the best and most profitable type of “marketing” there is. But it also seems like you can’t control it. But in this excellent article, the writer describes some ways that you can empower others to spread the word about your business. A must-read for everyone!
  • Free exchange: Ad scientists. In this article at The Economist, the writer talks about online ads and how an increase in ad results and sales may not necessarily meant that the ads are working. (The sound you hear is your whole world shattering). I’m spending a lot of time thinking about data, econometrics, statistics, and analytics in advertising and this was a really good (but alarming) read.
  • The dipper and the bucket: A leadership principle. In this article at Realtor.org, Scott Lalli describes how we all have a bucket and we all have a dipper. The bucket (which seems to be shorthand for our psychological/emotional well-being) can be full, which leads to contentment, or can be empty, which leads to dissatisaction. But it’s the dipper that makes all the difference, he says. Lalli says that the dipper can be used to fill our own bucket or to take away from others. It’s a good way to think about how our interactions can impact the people we connect with.

Why Taco Bell’s ‘Viva Young’ commercial is surprisingly effective

I almost never watch live television — everything gets PVR’d so I can fast forward through the commercials. But sometimes a commercial will come on that make me watch it. Taco Bell’s ‘Viva Young’ commercial (which first aired during the SuperBowl) is that commercial.

This commercial is surprisingly effective. The commercial is quirky, so it captures your attention by putting elderly people in unlikely places and doing unlikely things. It tells a great story of one crazy night in the life of some party-loving retirees. And because it tells a story, it becomes more memorable and shareable with others.

Even though viewers (and Taco Bell’s target audience in general) might not relate to the age of the characters, the emotion generated in the commercial is enough to resonate with viewers anyway. When I was in my late teen years, I did exactly this stuff! I went out with friends, hit the clubs, ate at Taco Bell, and got home when the sun was coming up. Those were good times! This commercial does a great job of reminding me of those times, which creates a very effective sense of nostalgia while also being somewhat prescriptive (to suggest that you’re never too old to have that kind of fun). In my opinion, what really wraps this commercial all up in a bow is the end scene, when everyone is walking back to the retirement home as the sun is coming up. That last scene takes the commercial from “a-bunch-of-old-people-doing-young-people-activities” to a complete, compelling story with a very satisfying ending.

And, Taco Bell effectively places itself as one of several “must-do” events in a typical all-night party. I can tell you from experience that I never ever eat at Tall Bell… unless I was first out partying with friends. (Sorry for the confession, Taco Bell).

Itch marketing: How to get more people to buy from you

Have you ever had an itch you can’t scratch? It’s awful.

When I was a kid, I would get a bad sunburn every summer and my skin would feel like bugs were crawling all over it for days on end — it was brutal because there was nothing I could do to alleviate it. My entire back, shoulders, and neck would be insanely itchy and no amount of scratching would alleviate the problem. And in my late teens, I walked through poison ivy and couldn’t scratch my itchy ankles for fear of tearing the skin or spreading the poison ivy elsewhere.

Although I’ve never had a cast on a broken limb, I know of several people who have and each one complained of a similar problem: Of having an itch under their cast that they couldn’t scratch.

Just try NOT scratching an itch. It’s nearly impossible and you’ll drive yourself mad trying to avoid scratching. Whether it’s psychological or physiological or you’ve just walked through a cobweb, that slight tickle just under your skin is an itch that MUST be scratched and nothing provides a greater sense of relief than running your nails over the itchy spot.

Itches need to be scratched.

Your marketing should create an itch that demands to be scratched.

Regardless of who your customers are for and what you sell and how you market your products or services, your marketing should do just one thing: Create an itch. And every time your prospective customers encounter your marketing, they should feel itchier and itchier until finally they scratch the itch by handing over their money and getting the product or service you offer.

So how do you generate that itch?

One of the best ways is to spend more of your time on the problem rather than the solution you have to offer.

Unfortunately, very little marketing actually does this. All too often, a company’s marketing is focused on the product or the service or the offer. All too often, marketing is about a clever promotion or a sale price. It’s focusing too much on the scratch and not enough on the itch.

A small itch can be ignored. But a big, prolonged, repeated itch cannot. By focusing your marketing on the itch, you create a “must scratch” sensation for your potential customers. I believe most marketing should spend most of the time (as much as 75% or 80% of the time or the page or the design or the copy) focused on the problem. Yes, you can tease that there is a solution but you need to build up that itch sensation over and over and over and over again.

Here are a few itch-generators to get you thinking:

  • Talk about the cost of the problem. (Not necessarily in dollars but the cost of lost relationships or lost time or lost happiness… whatever)
  • Don’t just stop at a single mention of a cost. Name them all and revisit them over and over. You might phrase something in one way that resonates with one buyer and you might phrase the same problem in a different way that resonates with a different buyer.
  • Talk about how frequent the problem is experienced.
  • Don’t just mention that the problem is frequent… hammer home just how bad it is that problem is so frequent!
  • Talk about how long the problem is experienced each time.
  • Don’t just talk about how prolonged the problem is, put it into perspective: A problem felt once for 10 minutes isn’t a big deal but if it is felt once a week for 10 minutes each time, that’s 520 minutes — more than 8 hours — of discomfort or inconvenience or frustration or whatever.
  • Talk about how important the problem is. (Even if it’s not important in the big scheme of things, it is important to the person who is experiencing the problem at the time).
  • Discuss how many other people have the same problem.
  • Focus on how the main problem — and all of the subordinate challenges that result — make the prospective buyer feel.
  • Talk about the impact that this problem has on those around the prospect.

I hope you’re starting to see some of the possibilities. Marketing isn’t about putting celver content out there for the world to see and for some people to maybe act on. Marketing is about finding the right people and making them feel itchy. And then, at the very last minute, showing them how they can scratch the itch with your product or service. But the itchier you make them feel ahead of time, the more likely they will be to scratch.

Copywriting as storytelling: A reinterpretation of a TED video

One of the biggest challenges in copywriting is capturing the attention of your prospective buyer.

And once you have that attention, the next biggest challenge in copywriting is keeping that attention. (Hint: After keeping their attention, the last biggest challenge in copywriting is getting them to act!)

How do you do those things? In the past few years, I’ve been increasingly fascinated with story as an element of copywriting because I believe story-telling is one of the best ways that we can grab and hold attention and compel someone to act.

In my sales letters and other copywriting, I’ve been experimenting with various types of stories and I’m seeing stories — overt and subtle, and in many different forms — evident in all kinds of marketing.

So when I found this TED video, I couldn’t help but watch it through more than once and take many notes. In this video, Andrew Stanton (of Pixar Animation Studios) talks about the power of story. He breaks down why stories are so powerful and he briefly touches on some of the elements that draw us in.

To be honest, I almost didn’t post this because we tend to think that stories are sacred and it seems almost sacrilegious to suggest that we can co-opt stories for copywriting and ultimately for monetary gain.

But stories are powerful and we use them all the time so I’m posting this video to inspire your marketing efforts

Here are some highlights from his talk that storytellers AND COPYWRITERS should adopt:

  • “Make me care” — that’s what audiences (and prospects) demand. Good copywriters deliver it in their copy and, in doing so, they rivet attention from the beginning through to the offer.
  • Promise something. Make a promise that you will fulfill through your story. I don’t just mean that you should promise something and deliver it in the product (that’s important but not what I’m talking about). Rather, you should make a promise and then deliver it in the story that makes up your copy. Then, for the reader to have the same promise fulfilled in their life, they can buy the product.
  • You don’t have to close all the gaps. “We’re born to deduce“, Stanton says. People want to complete the sentence. This goes along with what Derek Halpern of Social Triggers suggested in a webinar in which he recommends setting up an information gap that your audience will feel compelled to close, and they will be willing to click a link or take some other kind of action in order to close the information gap.
  • To help connect with your audience, Stanton suggests that you use what you know. “Express values you personally feel, deep down to your core.” This is ultimately the reason that I don’t mind equating copywriting with storytelling because ethical copywriters will sell ethically through story.
  • The best way to capture and hold your audience’s attention in story — and copywriting — is to invoke wonder. “To hold them still for just a brief moment in their day and have them surrender to wonder… The best stories infuse wonder,” Stanton said.

Great stuff for copywriters, marketers, advertisers who want to level up their effectiveness.