Should Advertising Claims be Bold or Modest?

April 23rd, 2007 by Bob Bly

The school of thought that says advertising claims should be bold agreed with Samuel Johnson, who said “Promise, big promise, is the soul of an advertisement.”

But there’s an opposing school of thought that believes advertising claims should be more modest, because then, they will be more credible.

For instance, I am writing a book to explain basic chemistry concepts to high school students and parents who want to be able to help them with their homework.

Possible titles include:

A. How to make sure your child passes chemistry.
B. Make sure you child doesn’t fail chemistry!
C. Help your child get an A in chemistry.

“C” is the biggest and most positive claim. So you think it’d be best.

But at least one teacher pointed out to me: “These kids aren’t looking for an A. They are close to failing now, and if they get a C or B they will be thrilled. ”

So which title is better — A, B, or C?

Or can you help me write an even better title?

And which school of copywriting do you belong to — big promise or small but more believable claims?

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32 responses about “Should Advertising Claims be Bold or Modest?”

  1. Suzanne Ryan said:

    Bob–it sounds like part of the dilemma here is that you are marketing to two audiences: kids who are struggling to pass chemistry, and their parents.

    The teacher explained the kids’ viewpoint. But I would think choice C would appeal more to parents.

    Maybe you need a title and subtitle. A combo of B and C, perhaps: Make Sure Your Child Doesn’t Fail Chemistry
    (And Achieves the A They Never Thought They Could!)

  2. Suzanne Ryan said:

    As for my own preferences on writing big promises or modest ones, I like to get people worked up….so probably lean towards big. But I play it by ear.

  3. Chris Lake said:

    What about this:

    How to Develop Chemistry Confidence: A Guide for Students (and the Parents Who Help Them)

    Appeals to both audiences and implies the ability to earn the best grades possible without promising an A.

    I might say “Struggling Students” because it sounds better, but it might turn off those who consider themselves “too smart for that.”

    Big promises or modest? I am definitely for dialing things back toward reality, but I think I/we are more aware of the hype factor as marketing writers. As long as the audience for our ads goes for the Big Kahuna, well, I guess we will keep delivering it….

  4. Michael A. Stelzner said:

    Hey Bob;

    I thought you were done writing books.

    I saw your new book on the hot dog and now this.

    It seems you are coming out of retirement from writing book?

    Mike

  5. Jay Ehret said:

    Roy Williams, The Wizard of Ads, says that the world of preconception should match the customer experience. Make your advertising claims true. Do not promise what you cannot deliver.

  6. Mina Menon said:

    I don’t agree with terribly long titles or those that need subtitles. Anything that needs a subtitle is saying too much – that’s what the blurb is there for.

    You have a clear proposition and your titles are clearly talking to the parents. Starting from there:

    A & B are talking directly to an insight: if you’re the parent of a child struggling with chemistry, all you want is for him or her to pass. I think C demands too much ambition of such a parent and child, adding further stress to an already stressful situation.

    Another suggestion in the style of A & B:

    Chemistry: It’s Just Another Test

    Maybe you could turn it into a “help your children help themselves” series, and the franchise could be called “Banish the Monster”, with book one being:

    Banish the Monster: Chemistry

    I say believable claims over any other kind. Some big claims are also very real, just as some small ones are not credible.

  7. Bob Bly said:

    Mina: What about: “How to Pass a Chemistry Test”? Michael: The hot dog book was written long before my “retirement.” The chemistry book is an idea that just popped into my head and I am really in the stage of just toying with it. But yes, I will write a few more books before fully leaving the field to others….

  8. Kyle Whitford said:

    Bob- If the target audience is passive I would use a bold headline to ease them out of their trance. Help your student “Slam Dunk High School Chemistry.”

    If I have the attention of the target audience, a modest headline with a bold sub title:

    “How to Pass High School Chemistry”
    and cut study time in half, guaranteed!

    Kyle Whitford

  9. Dianna Huff said:

    Bob,

    Personally, I like Chris Lake’s title.

    Have you thought about why kids aren’t doing well in chemistry? Perhaps it is the way things are taught now in our ruled-by-the-standardized-tests schools? Have you talked to some of those tutoring services? I bet they could give you in the trenches insight.

    In my day, chemistry was FUN. I can still hear my chem teacher and his bromides: “Electrons are like chemistry students — they always seek the lowest energy levels, hahahahahaha.”

    That man could compute things faster on his slide rule than we could on our newly minted Texas Instrument calculators.

  10. Katie Cummings said:

    Great point! I think you should use something like this:

    Help Your Child Pass Chemistry and Maybe even get an A!

    Combine the two approaches and cover your bases. It’s the bold approach that gets the reader into the copy, but the modest approach that keeps them.

  11. Mina Menon said:

    Bob, the one with star quality is Kyle’s “Slam Dunk High School Chemistry”. You can practically see the cover!

    I’m not sure of the cover-all-bases school of thought. It’s too close to “unfocused” for comfort.

  12. Jodi Kaplan said:

    There were two things that got me through chemistry:

    1) old Star Trek episodes (no, really)

    2) a self-study guide that I bought before the Regents exam (state-wide annual tests in New York on various subjects) and used to teach myself enough chemistry to pass the test.

    My chemistry teacher was a very affable man, and, like Dianna’s, full of bromides, but he wasn’t a very good teacher!
    Personally, I would have liked a book called “Chemistry for English Majors.”

  13. Chris Gregory said:

    I think Katie’s closest to cracking the conundrum.

    It’s similar to those classic opportunity-style headlines: ‘How to make 25%, 78% — even 115% more income this year’.

    Make a believable promise… and open the ‘door of possibilities’ to an even more desirable outcome. Dare to dream.

  14. Emilio said:

    Why not “We all need a little chemistry”?

  15. Ron Mickelson said:

    “How To” sells. Look at how many books have sold with “How to” and variations of “How To”

    Who is your target market? Have you asked them what title would get their attention?

    Send a questionaire to chemistry students and ask them what they expect from your book. Those who respond with positive answers get a copy to critique.

    That should give you the clue what title to use.

  16. Frank Catalano said:

    I think Dianna is right on in her observation.

    Why? Because she’s focused on a pain point. Right now, it’s the fear parents have that their kids won’t pass the annual NCLB-mandated tests. (Getting an A is not as big of a deal as it used to be, because of grade inflation, and — in part — because no matter how well a student does on his or her report card, it’s how the child does on the state test that really counts in the current education environment.)

    What this indicates is that what worked in the past for a headline needs to be adjusted for current desires and fears.

    So I wouldn’t pick your A, B, or C. I might try a variation on C: “How to make sure your child aces the new chemistry tests.”

    Of course, this is just my own humble opinion.

  17. Mike Jezek said:

    I think the issue of whether advertising claims should be bold or modest depends upon your particular market. If you’re in a market where the target audience has sort of “seen it all” then you probably do NOT want to be to bold. A good example of that would probably be a portion of the baby boomer market that’s seen most of the ads for pain-relief products. Odds are these people have bought so many of these products and were disappointed, plus they’re getting differing opinions from their physicians. On the otherhand, if you’re in a consumer market that’s very dynamic such as business opportunities, you need to play up the sizzle if you want any action. So it depends on the particular market you’re writing to.

  18. Richard Armstrong said:

    The bigger the promise the better … but the bigger the promise, the more PROOF you need. So I’d like to get the fact that you’re a chemical engineer yourself in there somewhere, as in HIGH SCHOOL CHEMISTRY MADE SIMPLE (AND FUN!) BY A CHEMICAL ENGINEER. That’s not quite it, but you can see what I’m getting at. Big promise must be accompanied by unquestionable proof. Come to think of it, might make a nice series of books … tutoring in high-school math by a professional mathematician, tutoring in high-school physics by a physicist, etc.

  19. Richard Armstrong said:

    Or here’s a better one … “A CHEMICAL ENGINEER’S SIMPLE SECRETS FOR ACING HIGH SCHOOL CHEMISTRY” … or “A CHEMICAL ENGINEER’S ‘CRIB SHEET’ SECRETS FOR ACING HIGH SCHOOL CHEMISTRY.”

  20. Bob Bly said:

    Or: How to Get Straight A’s in High School Chemistry … by Someone Who Did.”

  21. Frank Catalano said:

    I have to disagree. The focus on grades is not what worries parents the most these days. It’s passing the state-required tests. A copywriter does the client a disservice by not being up on what really motivates the target audience. In this particular case, focusing on the letter grade (which the state-required tests don’t have) can hurt response rates.

    It’s important to have a subject-matter expert who’s current in an area in which copy is being written who is able to review headlines and copy to make sure they are speaking to the present, not the past.

  22. Bob Bly said:

    Frank: let’s agree to disagree. I have two sons, 17 and 14, and the focus is on the grades, which the students have much more control over. Colleges look at SATs, grades, and activities.

  23. Frank Catalano said:

    Bob: I’m happy to agree to disagree. Although this does raise another good (copy) point — that the approach needs to be based on the desired outcome. If it’s a parent, such as you, who wants a good transcript for college, then focusing on the letter grade is great. But if it’s a parent who is worried that a child may not be promoted to the next grade based on how the child does on the new proficiency tests, that may require a different approach. Depends on the target customer’s desired outcome.

  24. Pam Kock said:

    Maybe it’s because my kids are still too young to be sweating for quantified test results – I realize a lot rests upon those numbers – but my concerns would be different. More than grades, I’d want my kids to really absorb the material, develop a passion for the subject, and remember what they learned in years to come.

    But maybe that is not your focus. Is your focus truly on simply getting the grades or high NCLB test numbers? Are you teaching memory tricks or actual chemistry? Are you selling a shortcut to that A or tips to ignite the child’s interest in the subject?

    Unfortunately, the shortcut would probably sell much better.

  25. David Leland said:

    Boy, am I behind the curve here…it’s already May 10.

    The obvious answer is How to Help Your Child Pass Chemistry…

    That may mean something different to each parent and student. But the bottom line is that they will pass…

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  27. Sheri Cyprus said:

    I know I’m way behind on the date here, but I have to comment that David Leland’s direct headline is the best, in my humble opinion. :) I’m a fairly new copywriter, but I’ve actually beaten the controls of a fairly famous copywriter with nearly 30 years experience (it’s not anyone here!!!!) by using direct, carefully worded headlines like David’s. “How to Help Your Child Pass Chemistry” has the ‘power words’ “how to”, “help” and “your” and it backs up the research (teacher’s comment) that the kids are looking to pass chemistry, not get A’s etc. Doesn’t this heaadline communicate the desired message in the best possible way to the target audience?

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