The evils of borrowed interest

Borrowed interest is the lazy adman’s crutch. It’s the ultimate creative shortcut – a way to appear creative without actually having to come up with a genuine creative idea. I hate borrowed interest.

BTW, I’m always challenging people who use the word “hate” casually, but in this case, the term fits. If you’re ever summoned before the High Court of Advertising Appropriateness, I hope your file is devoid of borrowed interest examples. (There is a statute of limitations on borrowed interest, so if you accidentally did some of these ads early in your career, after ten years those don’t count against your record any more.)

Because business-to-business advertising is the toughest area of our industry, it has more than it’s share of borrowed interest ads. I’ve been calling attention to these atrocities and ridiculing them for more than thirty years to no avail. They just keep popping up everywhere you look. The same lame concepts over and over again.

In the oil and gas industry where I spend most of my time, you can currently spot race car pit crews (teamwork), track runners clearing hurdles (performance), magnifying glasses (seeing things differently) and mountain climbers (pushing the limits). Transocean, recently famous for its Deepwater Horizon debacle, is using a chess board analogy to ensure that you “make the right move.” I’m pretty sure that means not working with BP anytime soon.

But borrowed interest is not limited to oil and gas by any means. In every issue of every business and trade magazine you can find worthy examples of creative corner cutting. One recent issue of FORTUNE magazine featured a leading consulting firm with an inflated sheep to connote getting more out of existing resources, and a stack of light bulbs for another firm wishing to convince you they have better ideas.

Borrowed interest afflicts advertisers of all shapes and sizes. We have dart boards for hitting the target, jigsaw puzzles for putting all the pieces together, and no list of borrowed interest topics would be complete without globes to show globalness.

The sad thing is that in almost every case, if you study these ads carefully, you can find something worthy of a benefit-driven headline and visual. It’s usually buried about halfway down in the body copy.

For example, in a packaging industry magazine I once spotted a Hitachi printer ad with a photo of a huge diamond followed by the headline, “The quality gem you’ve been searching for.” Several inches down, however, is the revelation that Hitachi PXR Series printers offer the lowest operating costs of any inkjet printer. Isn’t that more significant than searching for gems?

The bottom line is that good b-to-b advertising requires you to get far below the surface barriers of jargon and technology. You can’t have a truly creative idea until you understand the message, and that takes some work.

One problem is that technical experts, when given the opportunity to help produce an ad tend to become amateur creative directors. Instead of helping you search for that salient point of difference, they leap frog into creative concepts that are usually just clichés. Amazingly, these individuals sometimes get upset if you don’t feed back to them their half-baked ideas.

The trick is to thank them generously for giving you a running head start on developing some distinctive concepts that will emphasize and support the primary advantages of your product or service – but not lead them to believe their starter ideas will necessarily be part of the final presentation.

I tell clients that we go through hundreds of raw ideas and idea fragments just to get to a half dozen or so worthy of presentation. Usually the final concepts are blended from several starter ideas, so if you need to stroke your over-eager client, point out how their embryonic idea led to the one you’re about to present.

They will love it. Guaranteed.

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