‘Better Call Saul’
About Direct Response Advertising
In case you missed it, a beautiful example of the clash between direct response advertising and traditional methods aired in Episode 3 of the second season of the Breaking Bad spinoff TV series – Better Call Saul.
Though he changes his name at some point to Saul Goodman (for reasons we don’t yet know), right now the title character is known as Jimmy McGill, an ambitious new lawyer with a knack for “showmanship” and… let’s call it a ‘flexible conscience.’
The Story – Attracting Litigants by Direct Response
Jimmy’s been hired at a prestigious law firm known as Davis and Main, and he’s helping recruit clients as part of a class action lawsuit against Sand Piper, an assisted living behemoth with facilities for the elderly in all the Western states.
Jimmy’s got a problem – no one is signing up to be part of the lawsuit. Davis and Main has sent out hundreds of direct mail pieces to compel Sand Piper residents to join the lawsuit, but they’re getting zero response. Jimmy suspects Sand Piper is trashing them to prevent the residents from seeing them.
What to do? Try a different media.
Direct response advertising is not beholden to only one form of media. Any media that will reach a specific target audience and get measurable results is worth considering.
So Jimmy hits on a different strategy – a TV commercial.
Targeting His Audience
He looks up the schedules at the Sand Piper facilities. They’ve got set activities in the mornings and early afternoons. But all the residents are free from 3-4pm. Why? To watch Murder, She Wrote.
Jimmy narrows his target audience to an ultra-specific sliver:
- Elderly residents of the Sand Piper facility in Colorado Springs
- The majority of them watch the same TV show from 3-4 pm (they flock to it “like moths to a bug zapper”)
- They’ve had money problems they don’t understand
- They’re afraid they might have to leave their homes, and don’t know where to go or what will happen
Jimmy plans to air a commercial during the first commercial break of Murder, She Wrote, only on the Colorado Springs local station that airs the show, and only once, at 3:20 pm.
By hiring a couple slacker film students, he’s able to do the entire thing for just $700. Once finished, he gets 103 calls the first day, and over 200 within a week. And that’s just from one facility in one town.
Better Call Saul’s First Lesson– know your audience, and find out how to reach them where they live (literally, in this case).
But, what was on the commercial? What makes Jimmy’s ad so effective?
Before we get to that, here’s what Jimmy did first. He learns about an ad Davis and Main ran for a different class action suit a few years ago about mesothelioma patients. An assistant shows it to him. It starts off like this:
“If you or a family member have been diagnosed with mesothelioma or related conditions, you may be entitled to monetary damages.”
These words are sprawled across the screen, and spoken as a voiceover at the same time. Several more text-filled screens go by, with information about the disease, how you get it, and tons more information. All this plays in front of a background image of dark blue wavy lines swirling against black.
The assistant tells Jimmy how “they worked really hard to get that just right.”
Jimmy squirms in his chair, confused, and asks, “Get what right?”
“The swirl. They wanted kind of nebulous, but not too nebulous. Then there was the issue of the speed. The partners were very happy with it.”
He’s talking about the blue lines. Lots of time was invested in getting the lines to move “just right.” How much was invested in the actual message? Well, this is a fictional TV show, so we’ll leave that alone.
What’s the problem with the Davis and Main ad?
There are several:
1. It’s BORING.
People don’t watch television to read. Film is visual. And wavy blue lines don’t arouse a single emotion. Being talked at by a voiceover is also inherently dry, and that was the entire commercial.
And I’ve seen real commercials that do this. Perhaps they do get some response, because at least it identifies its target in the first sentence.
2. It focuses on the wrong thing.
An overemphasis on design leads to a muddled message, a lack of emotion, a confused consumer, and lots of giddy designers high-fiving each other about creativity.
An overemphasis on copywriting can lead to black and white 8.5 X 11 sheets of paper, and websites where every page looks the same.
I would argue that if we’re going to err, then we err toward the copywriting, because the best headline and the most energized and relevant copy will engage a target audience member, even if there’s no design. But the most amazing design without a clear message accomplishes nothing.
That said, there is usually (but not always!) an ideal center where design and copy merge to create optimal engagement. Here’s where emotions are aroused not just from words, but from images, colors, fonts, layouts, link placement, buttons, and all the other design elements we have at our disposal today, whether online or print.
The flaw in the Davis and Main mesothelioma advertisement is that they devoted tons of time to a graphic that has no value or meaning, and neglected the most vital component of direct response advertising – emotion. They focused on the wrong thing.
3. It doesn’t touch what the audience really cares about.
It’s not “just the facts, ma’am,” when it comes to effective direct response advertising. The facts are boring. The facts are logical.
We want emotion, and we want to connect with the deepest part of the person’s being. The Davis and Main ad fails miserably in this area. This is what prompts Jimmy’s reaction where he exclaims, “What ever happened to showmanship?”
Writing factual words on a screen and reading them with a voiceover removes all the emotion from the presentation. It’s the equivalent of reading a pamphlet in the waiting room at the doctor’s office.
How is a person’s life really affected by mesothelioma? Remind them about the real life ways they are suffering, and then you’ll touch something deeper than just their brains.
Advertising isn’t a term paper.
Jimmy’s Commercial – Direct Response Advertising Perfected
Jimmy shows his new commercial to a friend, and his introduction to it shows how deeply he understands his target audience:
“You’re 86 years old you just finished your afternoon snack, lime jello. You’re in the day room, and your favorite show is coming on. Once again Jessica Fletcher has to put aside her novel to help local law enforcement.”
Then, just when the story is picking up speed, the first commercial comes on at 3:20.
It’s an elderly woman.
Shivering in a tattered shawl.
Rocking in her chair.
It’s black and white.
The woman speaks in a voiceover while we see her pained expression of hopelessness, fear, and confusion.
“We scrimped and saved for many years. We did our best to build a nest egg so we wouldn’t be a burden on our family. After my husband passed we moved to an assisted living facility, a nice place. They told me they’d take care of everything. But then one day they told me the money was all gone. How can that be? Where did it all go?”
How does this connect with the viewer?
- The visual identifies with them perfectly.
- It uses words that elderly people relate to, like “scrimped and saved,” not wanting to “be a burden.”
- It identifies the problem – “they told us” they would take care of all our needs. “They” are the problem. But now our whole livelihood is at risk.
- There’s uncertainty – a powerful emotion – where will we live? What happened to all the money I saved?
The powerful visual connects with the relatable story, and it hits the target audience right in the gut. They end up with over 200 calls from a $700 expense.
The Higher-Ups’ Response
Now, Jimmy’s got his own flaws, and one of them is fear of rejection. So he didn’t tell his bosses he produced (and aired!) this commercial. Needless to say, they weren’t happy about that.
But the interesting thing is, even after hearing about the results, they still aren’t happy, because they’re worried this kind of commercial might affect their reputation with other clients.
And this is the clash between direct response advertising that works and the mass advertising philosophies so many still rely on. They’ve run an ad before, and it was terrible, but they liked it. Here, they have a super-effective ad, but they don’t like it. They are more concerned with how people will perceive the firm than whether or not the ad works.
Now, I’m certainly not advocating going behind your client’s back. But this story shows us one very powerful example of the kinds of attitudes that can oppose direct response marketing principles in favor of things that don’t work.
And it also shows us many of the core elements of direct response advertising that do work:
- Engage emotion – touch on the deep needs and fears of the prospect
- Target your audience – find the people who need what you’re selling, and speak their language. Ignore everyone else.
- Generate leads at lower costs – save your money so you can invest it in people who want what you’re selling
- Use visuals and copy in tandem, and maximize the benefits of both
- Measure your results and know how well it worked, and adjust accordingly
A couple episodes later, Jimmy turns on late night TV, and sees an ad from Davis and Main. It’s about Sand Piper, but it’s the same blue and black meaningless background as the mesothelioma ad. And it’s airing past midnight, apparently all over the area. No targeting. No emotion. Terrible time slot.
But those wavy blue things are moving just right.