Words fail.

Phil Smith

The Artist, an Oscar nominated 2011 film, has a lesson for all of us in advertising. The film tells a story about a silent movie star whose screen fortunes suffer with the demise of silent films, and the awkward rise of a charming young actress whom he helped launch in the first “talkie.”

What’s magical about this one-hour and 40-minute movie is that it’s told with no dialogue.

Imagine entertaining an audience for 100 minutes with no words. Imagine a press release, an ad, a Web page, or a TV spot with no words. Words are our currency, our medium. Or so we assume.

What The Artist illustrates, along with Disney’s Fantasia, the Paranormal Activity series, Apple’s 1984 spot, the Budweiser dalmatian and Clydesdale spots from recent Super Bowls, and the Clio-winning Cadbury Ape spot from ’07, is that words aren’t necessary. Emotions are the true currency of effective communication.

Let them hear you smile.

Think of the bond between humans and pets. Between mother and newborn. Between parent and teen. Need, expectation, urgency, anger and joy are all expressed clearly with no dialog. Your hound – and your teen – can and do pay more attention to your body language, hesitancy, tone, inflection, and facial expression than they do to your words. Subconsciously, we often use words to cushion the truth, not to reveal it, and it’s revealed by our gestures, our posture, our silences.

Gerald Zaltman, author of How Customers Think and a director of Harvard Business School’s Mind of the Market lab, believes 80 percent of our communication is nonverbal.

He points out that man has been on earth walking upright, hunting, gathering and proliferating for 3 million years. But speech just surfaced as a communication tool in the last 50,000 years. This means 98 percent of our time on earth as evolving problem-solving, collaborating creatures was managed without speech. We aren’t hardwired to chat; we’re hardwired to read the bigger picture.

If I promise not to talk, will you promise to listen?

Marketers spend most of their energies conveying information. Compelling facts, we’re sure, will sway prospects. But are we listening?

A quiz: if you drove to work today and listened to the radio, name one sponsor of one ad.

Information forced on us as consumers overwhelms our ability to digest, consider and retain. To survive, we’ve learned to screen out most of the noise. The path to our minds is more successfully navigated if we feel something first. When we are emotionally engaged, our minds tune in. When we are emotionally surprised, we want answers.

Listen to radio commercials next time in your cars. Local marketers pack 70 seconds of copy into every 60-second commercial. It’s almost painful. Imagine how disruptive it would be to face 45 seconds of silence interrupted by 15 seconds of shocking copy.

The emotional path to our brain is faster and more efficient than the rational. It ties back to fight-or-flight survival mechanisms from primitive times. If our forebears had to stop and consider the risks of a charging saber-tooth, we wouldn’t be here today. Consequently, we’re hardwired to feel things and respond before we rationally dissect input. An infant or a puppy dog on a billboard triggers emotions before we’re aware of it.

The Artist has a lesson for all of us in marketing.  It isn’t what we say that matters; it’s what they, our audience, feel.

– Phil Smith, Executive Creative

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One Response to Words fail.

  1. Becky Blades says:

    Love it, Phil! You can tell by the sound of my one hand clapping.

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