We’re in the 21st Century, and experience is still the best teacher. That’s quite a streak.
The reason is simple: the mind boggles. The left-brain/right-brain theory is officially last-season now, and apparently even fancy brain training apps don’t improve cognition: it seems we only get better at the training tasks. Clearly we’re still struggling to understand how we learn, so it’s really hard to teach.
Somehow though, advertising is doing pretty good. People listen to us. They eat what we tell them to — and when it makes them sick, they take what we tell them to. Especially with the Data Revolution, advertising has muscled its way into the realm of science. We talk of ‘deliverables’ with a confidence that is often backed by experience.
Probably an ad will always have more kick than a school syllabus. Still there is no reason why our childhood memories should be crowded by commercials, with only a handful of pleasant learning experiences. Full-time educators probably know these things, but older siblings and babysitters and new parents may find them useful.
Tip 1: They don’t know. That’s why you are telling them.
Children can be pathetically dense. It takes them months to learn how to locate their nostril with a finger. It may take a decade to learn not to do this in public. But we grow in time, quickly forgetting how we flashed our undergarments with glee. This disconnect between adults and children is at the root of all our problems. By the time we start teaching, our lessons have sunk into our systems, so the relations between objects and cognitive symbols seem obvious. When the kid skips count from ‘four’ to ‘eleven’, we clench our teeth because our memories have made precisely that jump, age-wise.
But advertisers don’t blame the consumer when brand recall is low. We are trained to lay things out, as many times in a day as we can. We break down the steps; we cue reactions with colour; we often resort to toddler-friendly rhymes. We don’t plan cognitive leaps, because we don’t expect them — we assume that reception is passive. Perhaps it helps that we don’t get to blame the audience when we fail.
Tip 2: Learning can’t be boring.
Boredom shows there’s something wrong. Story problems have an advantage over abstract lessons because they simulate the environment, making it easier to remember the application. Learning is largely an associative process. Unfortunately our formal systems are designed to stuff the student with words and figures, hoping something will stick. This system often fails and we see people failing at life after acing the tests.
In commercials, we create the need before we introduce the product. Good headlines never ask the consumer to do something new; they tie into something old — a fear, or a drive, or a common memory. The idea is to create pockets for lessons to lock into, like the mountaineer with his pick. Don’t just soldier on when you see blank stares, unless you want to establish a firm link between your lesson and face-melting boredom. Jump on a table. Make a funny face. It’s not silly if it works.
Tip 3: What you say doesn’t matter — it’s what they hear.
“How can you get it wrong? I just told you!” It didn’t get through. Try again. Feedback always mirrors the input, but the problem is that the input includes environmental and psychological interference: passing vehicles, fear of being singled out, what we had for breakfast. All of this before the information even reaches the murky depths of the thing we call ‘understanding’, where existing knowledge gives it a prison-yard welcome. If you get frustrated and don’t repeat the lesson, the information won’t magically reconstruct itself in the student’s head. Kids just gamble to avoid punishment.
But with ads, you can’t broadcast and dust off your hands; your audience won’t do your work for you. There’s some science to our strategy, but mostly we just catch them where it suits us (can’t sell lottery tickets in a hospital) or we catch them everywhere. (Remember when promotional t‑shirts were cool? Good times.) It takes empathy, and commitment. Feed it to them. Repeat it. If it looks hopeless, change tack. They haven’t got it until they can hand it back.
Tip 4: It’s an honest-to-goodness superpower.
In your hand lays a human being, a person who may very well be president in thirty years. (Or a celebrity, if that’s still worth anything by then.) And they are going to make the extremely important decision to press a big button marked ‘Launch’ — or ‘Post’ — and alter the very fabric of civilization, whatever that means to those leotard-wearing people. Or they may not, if you handle this right. They may cure AIDS or dedicate an Oscar to you instead. You may fail to convince one fledgling felon that the world isn’t really made up of chumps, but you’ll probably bring several others to the Chump Side, bless your heart. You are altering reality for a human being. And there’s no corn syrup or credit card debt involved!