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The Puissance of Meta-Communication

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Les Binet and Sarah Carter get a little bit angry about some of the nonsense they hear around them… like the myth that messages matter.

During last year’s UK General Election, there was a new element to campaigning: a series of three “Leaders’ Debates”, billed as an historic opportunity for the British Public to watch the three potential leaders debate policy head-to-head. As a result of this, we were all supposed to have a much clearer idea of the candidates’ messages, and much more policy information on which to base our voting decisions.

So it’s interesting to note how the commentary and analysis about these debates hardly focused on the candidates’ messages or policies at all. Instead, the most “persuasive” bits, the “reasons to believe” in one man rather than another seemed to have much more to do with the way one man addressed members of the audience by their first name, or how another man stood, or how another seemed to make viewers feel they were being addressed personally by the way he talked straight into the camera. In other words, the “soft”, non-verbal communication people were receiving from the candidates seemed to be much more influential in their decision making than the “hard”, verbal messages.

For anyone familiar with the work of Watzlawick (and if you are working in any field of communication, you should be) this should come as no surprise. Watzlawick argued that “meta- communication” (non-verbal things like tone of voice, body language , and facial expressions) are much more influential in relationship-building than “communication” (messages and supporting evidence). In other words, what you say matters much less than how you say it.

The TV debates between Nixon and Kennedy proved the power of meta-communication to politicians fifty years ago. Voters who heard the 1960 debates on radio were sure that Nixon had the best arguments, but those who saw it on TV were more swayed by the contrast between Kennedy’s healthy tan and Nixon’s sweaty pallor. And it was TV that decided the election.

But in the commercial world, we are still in thrall to the message myth. The creative briefs, concept tests, pre-tests and tracking research we work with every day all assume that a message is vital to the task of “persuading” people to buy one brand rather than another. And so we spend vast amounts of time and money testing propositions, and researching message cut-through and recall.

Yet research based on the IPA databank suggests that our obsession with product messages may be completely misguided. Campaigns that contain little or no product message, but that instead work by appealing to our emotions or our herd instincts (the two usually go together) turn out to be twice as effective as conventional “message” advertising. It seems that, in marketing just as in politics, meta-communication is what really matters.

A fascinating example of the power of meta-communication comes from the Philips electric shaver campaign we described in last November’s edition of Admap. Shaver advertising usually focuses on rational product benefits, and Philips’s previous advertising was no exception. But in 2007, Philips started running a TV ad for its Moisturizing Shaving System that was the complete opposite. No voice-over, no product information, no rational message at all. Just a sensual, dreamlike sci-fi fantasy set to really enigmatic music. Unsurprisingly, the ad performed well below norms for “communication” in tracking. But the sales effects were remarkable – market share doubled in just six months. And new evidence from brain scanning research suggests that the key to that success was the powerful emotional response that the ad evoked in young men, which had a bigger effect on long term memory encoding, and hence sales, than any number of “persuasive” product messages could.

So maybe advertisers should pay less attention to the content of their advertising, and more to the “softer” aspects of communication, to the meta-communication, which is often more to do with things like casting, sound-track and choice of director.

Our message? You don’t always need one.

Les BinetEuropean DirectorDDB Matrix

Sarah CarterStrategy DirectorDDB UK

Guest Author DDB Worldwide

Posted December 2, 2011 at 2:43pm

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