Opinion

Advertising has lost the art of showing, not telling

Dave Trott reminisces about the bygone days of advertising when copywriters vividly brought products to life – and when all ads did not look the same.

In 1863 the world’s first underground railway opened between Paddington and Farringdon. And in 1911 they began using something no one had seen before: a mechanical staircase.

It was at Earl’s Court station, all the stairs were moving non-stop. Passengers had to jump on the moving clanking apparatus and it would carry you up or down, until you got to the end and had to jump off.

When the first one appeared it was terrifying.

Remember, this was in the days of gas lamps and horse drawn carriages. People were terrified, especially the women who wore long skirts down to the ground.

What would happen if their skirt got caught in the moving staircase, would they get eaten by the machinery? Passengers stared at it, too frightened to get on. The people who ran the underground knew they had a problem.

So they put up notices and posters, reassuring people of the escalator’s safety. But people just didn’t believe them.

Then someone had a brilliant idea: proof always works better than a claim. So don’t tell people, show them.

William ‘Bumper’ Harris was an employee who’d lost a leg in an accident. He was told to come to Earls Court station and ride up and down on the escalator.

Just that, ride up and down, nothing else. People at the bottom would see a one-legged man with crutches nonchalantly hop onto the escalator and ride it to the top.

Then he’d turn around, and people at the top would see a one-legged man with crutches nonchalantly hop onto the other escalator and ride it to the bottom. ‘Bumper’ Harris just did that all day.

When frightened passengers saw him do it they were reassured and ashamed. Reassured that if a one-legged man could do it anyone could. And ashamed that they were ever frightened in the first place.

So they stopped worrying and hopped on. After a day of ‘Bumper’ riding up and down, everyone was using the escalator as if it was the most normal thing.

And once that happened, the problem disappeared. Escalators became as accepted as they have been ever since.

The lesson was, it’s better to show people than to tell people.

Putting up posters around the station, saying the escalator was safe, didn’t reassure anyone. But seeing a one-legged man use it was a clear demonstration.

And that’s how the best advertising works.

Demonstration, not empty claims. But we seem to have forgotten that, today we simply repeat what we want the public to believe.

Which is why no one believes advertising.

We haven’t learned ‘show don’t tell’.

A live chick in a tin, boiling in water for two minutes, to show how well the insulation works.

A VW floating in the water to prove it was so well made it was watertight.

An air freshener placed between a blindfolded cat and a fish, to prove how effective it is.

A Volvo with five Volvos on top of it to prove how tough it is.

All these ads knocked the competition out of the park when they ran. All these ads were written in the days when copywriters investigated products.

But copywriters can’t do that anymore.

Now copywriters depend solely on briefs from planners, who can only ever investigate brands. Which is why all ads look like all other ads.

But (in the spirit of show-don’t tell) don’t believe me, take a look around for yourself.

Dave Trott is a consultant, author and former ad agency creative director. This article was first published on his blog

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