Bad Advertising Advice From the Wall Street Journal

How assertive should your advertising be?  


Your advertising should be as assertive as a drill sergeant

Photo by Christos Georghiou

According to Alina Dizik of the Wall Street Journal*, not very assertive at all.

Dizik’s recent column* points to a study conducted by three researchers at the University of Central Florida. 

The researchers showed magazine advertisements to a total of more than 1,000 participants in a series of seven studies; 72% of the advertisements used assertive language. Responses measured how much people enjoyed the ads, their opinion of the brand and their spending intentions. The participants included consumers who felt committed to liking particular brands and others who didn’t.

In one experiment, participants were asked how much of a $25 gift card they would spend on a brand in one of the ads. Those who saw an assertive ad chose to allocate $7 of the gift card to the brand on average, compared with $14 for those who saw a nonassertive ad.

The best purchasing results came from ads that were “informative and hint at action” by the consumer, Dr. Zemack-Rugar says.

From these experiments, UCF Assistant Professor Yael Zemack-Rugar concludes that consumers don’t like to be told what to do. She recommends softening assertive language. “Now is a good time to buy,” she says, is likely to work better than “Buy now.”

The problem here is that the research measured what a pre-selected panel in artificial circumstances told the researcher they liked and intended to do — not what consumers actually do in real life. 

People being interviewed often say they want one thing and then buy or do the complete opposite.

Example? Compare the polls before the 2016 Presidential Election to the actual result. 

How does a strong call-to-action affect real-life consumer behavior? 

Google recently tested the results of TV advertising with and without a call-to-action end tag. Working with the manufacturers JBL and Dyson, they ran A/B tests in which some ads gave explicit instructions (such as “search Dyson V6 on Google”) and others had no CTA.


In the TV ads we tested, both Dyson and JBL saw a significant increase in search queries as a direct result of the custom CTAs prompting viewers to search for their products. Twenty-seven percent of all JBL Xtreme queries that happened in the five minutes after the spots aired can be attributed to the custom TV end tag, which generated 1.27x more searches than control ads.

In the case of Dyson, 24% of all queries that occurred in the five minutes following the spots can be attributed to the custom “Search Dyson V6 on Google” messaging, generating 1.4x more searches than control ads. “The 24% lift was much higher than we would have thought given that the only thing we were doing was adding the CTA to the end of the ad. Knowing that as a best practice was surprising and really helpful moving forward,” said Rachel Kaplan, associate marketing manager at Dyson.

Is it possible that an assertive message will offend some consumers? Sure. But there’s a long history of customers complaining about the advertising as they hand money to the merchant. 

Ultimately, you need to decide if you want good feelings or tangible results. As David Ogilvy once said, “Don’t tell me you liked the ad. Tell me you bought the product.”

If you want your customers to take action, tell ’em what to do.

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*A tip of the hat to Brandon Miles of WBKO in Bowling Green for alerting me to this article.


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