The Best Ads Follow the ‘Man Overboard’ Rule

man overboard in waves wearing a shirt

The Best Ads Follow the ‘Man Overboard’ Rule

Many advertisements try to tell you the world but you can only say one thing

Main image source: Created with assistance from Dall.E 2

This once drove me crazy.

Every time I took my moleskin to the big table in the middle of the office, I would take a deep breath. I knew I would soon start drowning.

A manager would open their mouth. A gush would pour out. They’d be interrupted by another manager. The two managers would jockey for position at the hydrant. The deluge would be underway.

I’d be drowning in benefits. Drowning in the force-feeding of reasons.

I was the in-house advertising copywriter taking my creative brief.

 Instead of one concrete benefit for the print ad, I’d be force-fed seven of them. Seven beefed-up, white-bread, pedestrian little benefits.

It was like death by a thousand paper cuts.

Once there were fifteen. It was like a bidding war that raced itself to the bottom of the garbage can.

Fifteen good reasons to throw this flyer in the bin.

People think having lots of reasons makes an offer more compelling.

In truth, it makes an offer confusing.

And confusion is death. That means it is too much work to understand and within a nanosecond, the human brain has dismissed it.

“Which is the main benefit?” I would ask.

“All of them,” would be the answer.

What is the ‘man overboard rule’?

The wind is howling. Rain is drumming on the roof of the ferry. Forks of lightning dance in the sky.

And a man has fallen over the side.

The analogy paints a picture of advertising communication.

We have the ad, which is the message. There are symbols to convey meaning, but there is ‘noise’, which interrupts the signal.

Other people on the boat are also yelling things at the person in the water. Everyone has something different to yell.

These people represent other advertising messages.

The person has been exposed to 5,000 advertising messages that day.

Waves are crashing on the man’s head. He might not hear the message. The transmission may get distorted.

So it has to be short and sharp. You only have a second until the next dumper lands on his head.

You can only say one thing.

The drowning is about being specific and clear about what you need to say.

I thank and acknowledge Samcart’s Moran brothers for the ‘man overboard’ analogy.

What matters most is a single idea

Of course, we are stepping into strategy territory here.

The product message will depend on the product’s positioning. And positioning is competitive. A quick sketch of the positioning diamond at the big tale will help your boss.

Positioning Diamond

the positioning diamond with sides for What, Who (your target), Against whom (competition) and Why (reason to use)
The Positioning Diamond from Jean-Noel Kapferer, created by the Author.

What are selling? Who is it for? Who is it against (competitvely)? And why?

Positioning can also be targeted to one very specific segment of the market who would have its own persona, a fictional representation with a name, likes, dislikes, pain points, and living circumstances.

What is the main benefit to your target persona.

It could be brand as a form of self-expression, or a functional, emotional, or transformational benefit.

Choose the most important reason.

What pain do you solve? 

What is the end result for your customer of relieving that pain?

Show it in a creative way. Give it a funny tagline, or a fancy photo.

Give it a visual or audio element that unites all the multiple executions across different media. Print, email, brochure, web, radio.

To write better ads, try this

Focus on one main benefit.

If there is a complex offer, distill it into its essence.

Even in long-copy ads, a single idea is communicated.

One ad, one message.

You can use visual elements to help transmit the idea. In the example below from Volkswagon in 1960, the small car image sits in the vastness of white space.

I can hear my old boss arguing that the car should be magnified. It should take up the whole page. No.

It should be small. The message is that it is small.

The image and text work together to reinforce the message.

small black Volkswagon beatle car in top left of blank fill page ad with text in 3 columns at the very bottom. Text reads Think small.
Volkswagen ad from 1960. Source: Qprint

Make a whole campaign sharing this one key benefit in multiple executions This is called a campaignable idea.

Make it simple for a 10-year-old kid to understand.

Don’t be clever. Be clear.

Give them white space.

Make it feel like it is easy to do business with you.

Repeat the brand name three times if you can.

That connects the simplicity of your idea to your brand.

Helmut Krone wrote the copy for the beetle ad. It was successful because it was contrary to what everyone was doing at the time.

And it was clear.

He could have said twenty reasons why the beetle was a great car. But he said one.

Keeping everyone happy

Go for a win-win and listen to everyone. If need be, map out three single ideas and trial them in a Google test ads.

See what sticks. If you are right, and people are clicking and converting, you can refine your offer and use it as evidence to support your thinking.

Consolidate all the reasons onto a website landing page for the ads. Group them into as few categories as possible, I’d suggest three to five.

Keep the copy crisp. You can spring out into longer descriptions in an FAQ page or whatever best suits the product or service.

Allow readers to discover the extra benefits.

Add a weblink or QR code to the print piece.

Create a calculator so people can personalise their own cost savings. This works well for lending products like cars and home loans, pharmaceuticals, or technology.

Often, I would tell a real case story where a selected user describes how they get value or benefits from the product.

That works well and is credible if there are all different ways it can be used.

Sometimes you can get accused of being too simple.

In that case, propose a campaign.

Too simple? Create a campaign

The best campaigns all have one reason as the umbrella. The umbrella idea covers all the different creative executions.

Ever seen Apple’s iPhone ‘Shot on iPhone’ series? The beauty is the simplicity of the concept. Even though every execution is unique, it is a campaign built on one idea.

Geico? A full page with the same tagline in every issue of the New Yorker, I can never forget (even though its insurance isn’t available in Australia).

A campaignable keeps the idea alive over an 8-week print run.

It keeps the phones ringing after each letterbox drop.

Save the drowning man

When we create ads for products and services, we are trying to rescue a drowning man.

Our information should be short and clear. It should make their life better.

Send a crisp message!

If we need to provide instructions about how to stay on without slipping, there are other opportunities.

The drowning man is an analogy for getting specific and clear about what you need to say.

At the eight-week mark, when you think the drowning man is sick to death of your message, he might be just starting to get it.

He might even go ahead and…“Grab the liferope!”