Thursday, August 16, 2007

Barry Bonds wouldn't think an Asterisk Makes him Special

I posted IBM's Ad for Pay By Touch a couple weeks ago (, make that undoubtedly, Saatchi & Saatchi can do better...) and I came across an interesting article regarding the IBM "What Makes You Special" campaign for Pay By Touch and I must admit, that I couldn't agree more with the author. Here's the article from Thomas L. Collins who writes for Direct Magazine.

The link is here

I did a makeover of an IBM ad some four years ago in this space. That one featured an out-of-focus photo of a reindeer and a headline in white letters, “Finnair Sees It” (The Makeover Maven, Oct. 15, 2003). I guess the same creative team is still around. And I guess they didn't read my column and decide to mend their ways. So I guess I'll have to tackle them again.

Not that it matters, of course. IBM still has $90 billion in annual revenue and 350,000 employees around the world. So why do they bother to advertise at all? I will forgo my usual sarcastic speculations and leave that to wiser heads.

But it will take a pretty wise head to figure out the thinking, if any, behind this ad for the Pay by Touch technology they've helped develop. Part of the puzzle is that I stumbled on the ad in Working Mother magazine.

OK, so working mothers who shop frequently at the supermarket should enjoy the convenience of simply laying a finger on a sensor pad at the checkout counter instead of having to fumble around for a credit card or a fistful of cash. But do working mothers really want to take time out from their busy day to fight their way through copy about “open architecture that seamlessly integrates the Pay by Touch system with retailers' existing IT infrastructures”?

And when I say “fight their way” through the copy, I'm not kidding. Nobody in my household, including me, could decipher that text in extra-tiny white type on yellow without a magnifying glass, and even then it was tough. I don't mean to seem condescending to working mothers. A certain percentage of the magazine's readers may indeed be working moms who are employed at sophisticated IT jobs.

But how significant a number? In the ad we see a bleed photo of a woman shopping in a supermarket's frozen food aisle. Near her hand that's opening a freezer door is a giant asterisk. The asterisked footnote is a tiny headline in white type: “This finger is legal tender.” Followed by that totally unreadable extra-tiny white text.

So nine-tenths or more of the bleed page is devoted to a striking photo of a shopper in a frozen food aisle. But the ad is not selling frozen foods or frozen food lockers. It's announcing the progress made in a revolutionary new way of paying for purchases. But the ad doesn't convey the excitement of important news.

When I was a copy chief I had some wonderful writers. But I was always on guard against a sloppy word or phrase which merely conveyed approximately what the writer intended.

In this case, “This finger is legal tender” is only approximately true. Sorry to be picky, but a homeless person with no assets would have a hard time trying to buy groceries with no legal tender other than his or her fingerprint.

My larger complaint about the ad, however, is that its purpose is not clear. You can't deliver a message if you don't know who it's intended for. So who is the ad primarily addressing? And what is the message it's trying to deliver?

I finally decided that it was designed to influence not one audience of readers but three, with three different messages. If you're a consumer, the aim is to make you and thousands of other readers want and demand Pay by Touch service at your favorite local retailers.

If you're a store owner or manager, it's to get you to start thinking about or giving more thought to installing Pay by Touch in your store. And if your office job demands wrestling with information technology challenges, it's good to be reminded that IBM is there to help you, just as they did with Pay by Touch. Even if poorly executed, the ad is a kind of IBM case history. And if it brings new business to IBM's client Pay by Touch, that's also good for IBM.

It could be argued that the original ad does deliver these three messages to these three audiences. But it does it so indirectly and unreadably that the intended reader would not be inclined to stop right there and say, “This means me.”

In my makeover, the headline and illustrations convey exciting news to both consumers and retailers, and at the same time fulfill the requirement of Point No. 7 from my Makeover Maven Measuring Stick: “Does the ad build brand recognition and trust?”

The illustrations I chose do what illustrations are supposed to do — illustrate. The pictures of a sensor pad and a fingerprint convey what the ad is talking about far better than a picture of a shopper laying her finger on a frozen-food locker's door handle.

Next I set about rescuing the original ad's text by displaying it in larger, infinitely more readable type — using boldface leadoffs to pull the eye through more easily — starting off with the classic problem/solution copy formulation and keeping in mind all three audiences along the way. So the reader who is only a consumer and who is bored by talk of “open architecture” can skim quickly through the ad and still come away wanting the convenience of Pay by Touch.

If you'd like to compare the original copy with my rewrite, here's what their unreadable fine print says:

Biometrics pays — literally. [Editor's note: To whom? for whom? No “you” in the copy.] Pay by Touch, a leading transactions technology company, [has? — Ed.] developed a point-of-sale service that allows customers to pay just by placing their fingers on a sensor. Easy, right? The challenge: to make it just as easy for retailers to integrate the device into the payment processing systems they've already got up and running. IBM and business partner Silicon Valley Systech Inc. collaborated to create an open architecture that seamlessly integrates the Pay by Touch system with retailers' existing IT infrastructures. Keeping millions of transactions moving smoothly. And as many customers happy. Want innovation for integration? Talk to the innovator's innovator. Call on IBM. To learn more, visit

What makes you special?

I certainly omitted that puzzling last line. To me it seemed almost sarcastic, as in, “What makes you so special, wise guy?”

And I didn't make any special effort to steer business prospects to IBM's Web site because I found it so disappointing. But that's not my department.

THOMAS L. COLLINS ( has been a direct marketing copywriter, admaker, agency creative director and co-author of four books on marketing. He is currently an independent creative and marketing consultant based in Portland, OR.

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