In that specific world where only closers get coffee and WKRP’s Herb Tarlek is spoken of in reverent tones despite being 30 years past his pop culture sell-by date, there exists a special something known as “The Ask.”
It most often occurs after a salesperson has given their spiel, answered questions, deflected objections and has still managed to keep either the proverbial or literal door from being slammed in his or her face. They ask for the sale. They ask what can be done to get you into that car today. Or that new wireless plan. Or even if you want fries with that. Done correctly, “The Ask” can push a potential customer over the edge. Done poorly, it can do the same thing—just not in a good way.
As advertising is at best one-and-a-half Kevin Bacon acquaintances away from sales, “The Ask” has become a staple of everything from TV spots to direct mail postcards to lettering on the side of plumbers’ vans. Only it goes by a different name, one you probably already know—“the call to action.” “Act now, supplies are limited.” “Julie your Time Life operator is standing by to take your order.” “Call or click to like us on Facebook.” “Follow us on Twitter.”
Here’s the thing. In most cases, the “Call to Action” is superfluous, a waste of space, unnecessary and, wait for it, redundant. Why? Thanks for asking. Because the call to action isn’t just contained within the ad, it is the ad. People know what ads are. People know why brands advertise. No one is ever confused by the motivation behind an ad. People understand what you want them to do after they’ve seen your ad. You want them to buy your stuff.
But is it really so wrong to go for “The Ask?” What harm can it do? Well, as with most things in advertising, it depends. If your brand voice would generally be considered of the Crazy Eddie variety—loud, obnoxious, in-your-face, and stuffed to the margins with as many hucksterish clichés as possible—then a sweet, gradient-filled starburst imploring people to “CALL NOW! TUESDAY IS TOO LATE!” makes perverse sense. If you’d rather keep your brand on the path to glory, it does not.
Because your brand should be the strong call to action.
Think about it. If the totality of your brand—the products or services it offers, the way it treats customers, the personality it has adopted, the experience it delivers from start to finish—isn’t enough to suffice as the foundation of an interesting piece of marketing, do you honestly believe a cry of desperation is going to get them moving in your direction? It is enough (and difficult enough) to entertain and inform without adding instructions to the mix that will duly be ignored. “The Ask” weakens. It distracts. It diminishes your brand. “But what if people haven’t heard of my company?” Then your advertising must be compelling enough to inspire them to seek more information. Not merely ask them to join your Google+ circle.
“But what if what I’m selling is a limited-time offer?” By all means, tell people there’s an expiration date on your supply of seasonal, eggnog-flavored beef jerky. That knowledge, combined with your target’s existing impressions of your brand and their rather eclectic taste in reconstituted meat snacks, acts as the call to action. Telling them to “Swing by the Jerky Joint today!” does not.
“So I shouldn’t include my phone number or website address?” Of course you should. But it’s when you tell people what to do with that information that you start rubbing them the wrong way (Again, people know what to do with a phone number. If someone can’t operate their phone, they probably can’t use your product).
So sell softly and carry a big brand. After all, any ad can have a call to action. But a great ad for a great brand is a call to arms.
Jason Fox is the Executive Creative Director at Webster, and the chin behind