What’s one way to take your message (no matter what the medium) from merely boilerplate blah to stellar? Entertainment!

True story: my first job out of graduate school nearly 30 years ago was as a copywriter for a local ad agency. The client roster was mostly small banks in our region, but it also included a moving and storage company, a funeral home, and a florist. The owner had just acquired one of the oldest firms in the city, and it seemed as if he was going to make advertising as dull as possible for everyone who was, or would become, a client.

After I had been there a few months I was called into a meeting with a potential client. The guy had a cheap little product that he’d managed to sell to the local bottling company of a major soft drink brand, which then tied it in with a large university. It was called a “spirit pin,” a post-backed little circle with the diameter of a dime and the thickness of two. In the center glowed a tiny red LED powered by a wafer-thin battery. You got a free one when you bought two two-liter bottles of the soft drink. And presuably you wore it at the school’s basketball games.

His idea? Pitch it to a beer company so they’d buy several million and make us all rich. My job? Script a :30 video commercial for a well-known beer for his pitch and work in the spirit pin.

The problem? The damn things were too small to feature visually.

So I wrote a script featuring scenes shot at a large sports bar: wide shot of action with focus on someone in the shot, then CU of the pin on them, individually or in clusters. It was fast-paced and associated the beer and the pin with excitement and good times.

I submitted my draft to the agency owner. He shook his head. “No. This is just nothing but entertainment.”

A month and many frustrating drafts later, the agency owner went outside to another copywriter he knew.  What he came back with was a script that showed a couple going into a bar, the bartender drawing off a beer, and a close up of the bartender’s cuffs with the spirit pins used as cuff links.  There was some banal dialogue between the bartender and the couple.  The client loved it.  

But that was the last we heard of spirit pins.  Ever. 

I’ve always developed materials – user guides, job aids, online help, or e-learning  modules – that entice and instruct.  It was part of the salesmanship/showmanship ingredient I used during my years as a teacher (I’m the grandson of a vaudville performer – what else can you expect?).  There’s no harm if I entertain along the way, as long as the entertainment is tied to the message.  It can work for any message or any medium. 

Except for spirit lights, of course.

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