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“God is in the details,” said the German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Or was it the French novelist Gustave Flaubert? Or Michelangelo? Historians aren’t quite sure, but what is certain is that this idea has become deeply ingrained in the American psyche.
In the field of late, I have dealt with no less than three different marketers who wholeheartedly agree with this axiom. In the first instance, a client asked me to change a single word in one of my commercial scripts and submit a new draft for review. I did and, upon further deliberation, they asked me to change another single word. In the second instance, a client insisted on executing six edits of a commercial before he (reluctantly) agreed to test it on TV for the first time. In yet a third instance, it was deciding on the proper magnitude of a single claim that became a daily focus for more than two weeks.
In the Army, we were trained to be “detail oriented,” since overlooking the smallest of things could conceivably get you or your buddies killed. I remember well the time I forgot a single piece of my rifle cleaning kit when packing for a mission. I was a newbie private at the time, and my sergeant made me write a mock letter of apology to his mother explaining how my rifle had jammed (for lack of a proper cleaning) and cost him his life. They were that serious about the details.
The sergeant’s lesson is actually a variation of the original saying that came about later: “The devil is in the details.” The case for that kind of thinking is much clearer. In DR, you may not get killed if you miss an important small thing, but you can certainly get cheated in a deal, incur a costly fine, and so on. As it turns out, though, none of the marketers I mentioned above worried about the ‘Detail Devil.’ Even the client focusing on the magnitude of his claim wasn’t concerned that a regulator would come knocking. (He had the proper substantiation.) What he wanted was to maximize his competitive advantage. He wanted to have God on his side.
Here’s the problem, though: Consumers are not in the details. That is, they seldom pay attention to the minutiae of your product, packaging, or commercial. It would be easy at this point to cite one absurd example after another to drive this point home. I’ve had clients complain about the tie worn by one of the actors in a commercial. Another delayed the development of a product, resulting in cost overruns, because he didn’t like the color of the power cord. Few DR practitioners, however, are this absurd that often. Most descents into the details start out sounding quite reasonable at first. The closer you get to a project, though, the more you can’t help but fixate. A classic example from my personal archives is the story of “The People Who Were Too Old.”
More than a decade ago, we were marketing one of the many sound amplifiers that became a hit at that time because the manufacturer disguised them as something else. Like the TeleBrands hit that started it all, Whisper 2000, we had disguised our sound amplifier as a music player. Our CPO was quite good, but we thought perhaps we could make it better. We began theorizing about why consumers liked these devices, and we reached the conclusion that it appealed to Baby Boomers who weren’t quite ready for a hearing aid. Our covert device allowed them to avoid the potential embarrassment of being seen wearing a senior citizen’s device. Sounds perfectly reasonable, right?
This thinking, in turn, led us to turn a critical eye toward one particular detail of our commercial: the age of the actors. We then zeroed in on a single scene featuring two seniors in church. Surely God was in this detail! The couple was too old, we concluded, and they did not resonate with our Boomer customer. We felt this was so important, we decided to change the commercial immediately, reshooting that exact scene with a couple in their 50s.
Even back then, I had an inkling that God might not be in this sort of detail. Thankfully, in DR we use a scientific method (A/B testing) that prevents harebrained ideas from doing serious damage to a campaign. As it turned out, it was the Devil in this detail. The version with the younger churchgoers (B) tested worse than our control (A), and we continued on with the original commercial.
Although much less costly than it could have been, this lesson still proved expensive. These days, we have much cheaper methods at our disposal. For instance, I’m a big proponent of “screening surveys,” which is what I call online surveys where consumers watch a DRTV commercial and answer questions. As part of this process, I ask clients what details they think are critically important and turn them into survey questions. The idea is to see what 100 strangers think about that specific thing.
With apologies to van der Rohe (or Flaubert or Michelangelo), what dozens of these surveys have demonstrated is that God is seldom in the DR details.
Photo by bulldogza/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Jordan Pine is a consultant specializing in short-form DRTV and the author of The SciMark Report (scimark.blogspot.com), a popular industry blog. His field reports are based on actual conversations with top executives from our industry, many of whom are his clients, partners, or vendors.