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Honest and True

Posted on May 8, 2013 and read 4,803 times

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clive Honest and TrueClive Pickering
Head of Copy
BETC London

In swinging 1960s London, scanning the property pages of the Evening News for a new pad, you might have come across descriptions like this:

“Do not be misled by the trim exterior of this modest period res with its dirty broken windows; all is not well with the inside. The decor of the nine rooms, some of which hangs inelegantly from the walls, is revolting. Not entirely devoid of plumbing, there is a pathetic kitchen and one cold tap. No bathroom, of course, but Chelsea has excellent public baths.”


“Although it reeks of damp or worse, the plaster is coming off the walls and daylight peeps through a hole in the roof, it is still habitable judging by the bed of rags, fag ends and empty bottles in one corner.”


“Nature has fought back in the garden and won.”

Enough to put anyone off, you might think. But no. Embarrassingly for Roy Brooks, the ‘red-under-the-bed’ estate agent who penned them, these ads were hugely successful at selling homes, putting a fortune in the tight pockets of his and his clients’ flared velvet split-knee loon pants.

There’s a lesson to be learnt here. Not that slagging off what you’re selling is necessarily a good way of getting it off your hands [although it worked well for Roy's customers], but that honesty can help make it more attractive.

21st century examples of this can be seen on e-bay or Gumtree. A description that refers to a “Fender Telecaster, 1968, post CBS but decent action and great tone. Slight damage to the headstock from the time I let a ciggy burn down on the tag end of the E string during a long solo” is likely to command a far bigger response, and ultimately higher price, than one saying simply “Fender Telecaster. Good condition.”

You might point out that these are examples of second hand items, where a bit of honesty about slight damage to the product only adds to its perceived character. But it works equally well for new products and brands.

In the ’90s, Marmite did it by admitting that you either ‘love it or you hate it’ on ads that featured people actively spitting the brown goo out in disgust.

In the ’80s there was Citroen with their 2CV ads proclaiming ‘No wonder it’s so reliable, there’s nothing to go wrong’ above a list of all the features the car lacked.

And way back in the ’60s, while Roy was flogging rundown flats and houses in London, there was the famous Avis ‘We try harder’ campaign. Not to mention the daddy of them all, Bernbach’s Volkswagen Beatle campaign – this in the U.S., the birthplace of the hard sell.

So should we, like Dudley Moore’s character in the film Crazy People, be writing lines dripping with untamed honesty like “Jaguar — For men who’d like hand-jobs from beautiful women they hardly know”?

No – because that is still a boast, albeit a rather dubious one. The whole point of Marmite etc is that they are charmingly candid – they are based on an admission of a truth that isn’t necessarily to the brand’s advantage. They expose a weakness and, in doing so, seduce us.

By being open and truthful about the product or brand, these campaigns deflect any natural cynicism about advertising. Among a pack of braying, boasting, loud-mouthed city boys of ads their modest, truthful, gentle tones shine out. And they make us feel warm and welcoming to the brand’s message. No one likes being shouted at, everyone likes a bit of charming humility.

Perhaps, like the Holsten Pils/First Direct/Cadbury’s trick of simply showing something entertaining and then putting the product name at the end, it can only be successful for one brand per decade.

But the principle goes much further and can inform almost everything we do. Ditch the preachy, shouty “we’re the best thing since sliced bread” tones and adopt a more humble, honest approach and you will become easier to love. People will listen to what you have to say. You might even sell a bit more stuff.

We should all develop an awareness of the true importance of our product and our advertising in people’s lives – which is little to nothing at all. Only by recognising this and showing some humility will we work hard enough to entertain and connect with the people on whom we ultimate depend – our customers.

Of course to buy such straightforwardness takes a brave and visionary client. Immersed, as they are, in the world of their product, their sales and their marketing they find it hard to recognise that the world out there is pretty well uninterested.

But the rewards for those who do have the courage to be humble and make a real connection with their customers are immense.

VW Lemon Honest and True

  • Freelance Copywriter

    “Charming humility”. Nailed it.

  • Vineet Raheja

    Nice one mate.




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