Is an Ad About Nothing a Waste of Money?

January 1, 2011

Jerry Seinfeld made millions by crafting “a show about nothing.” However, when it comes to marketing, is it really a good idea to have “an ad about nothing?” New research from YCCI Fellows and Yale SOM Professors Dina Mayzlin and Jiwoong Shin suggests that if you have a high-quality product, an “uninformative” ad may actually be the best way to connect with consumers.

American Express’s “My Life. My Card.” campaign provides numerous examples of the type of uninformative ads Mayzlin and Shin explored. One TV ad (pictured above) featured Robert DeNiro’s “love letter” to New York City. The ad did not highlight any of the benefits of owning an American Express card, and seemed to be more of a commercial for New York than for a credit card. In fact, the brand’s only mention comes in DeNiro’s closing line: “My life happens here. My card is American Express.”

Why would American Express pass on the chance to tell potential customers about their product’s positive attributes? After all, a competing card issuer, Capital One, took a different approach, using its “What’s in Your Wallet?” campaign to tout the absence of annual fees, easy to claim rewards, and lack of blackout dates for rewards offered by its cards.

Mayzlin and Shin suggest that the rationale for American Express’s vague ads may have been the short timeframe that commercials offer marketers to communicate to viewers. Brands that have only a few positive products attributes to promote may be able to squeeze all their benefits into 30 or 60 seconds. In contrast, high-quality brands, with many more positive attributes, would not be able to convey their full value proposition in such a short time. If these brands chose just a few good features of their product to highlight, they take a risk. Consumers might think that the commercial lists all of product’s good features, as it does for the medium-quality products. After all, both ads would look roughly the same—listing just a couple of good qualities.

When confronted with this dilemma, marketers advertising a superior product may create purposefully vague ads in the hopes of driving consumers to seek additional information about their product. As Mayzlin and Shin note, “a firm with the most to say may not make any ‘hard’ claims at all.” The Robert DeNiro Amex ad, for example, cannot be seen as providing any information that would allow consumers to make a decision about whether the card is the right choice for them, but may pique their interest enough to prompt them to do additional research by talking to friends or going online. Certainly no one will walk away from this ad convinced that an American Express card is equivalent to a Capital One card.

As Mayzlin and Shin point out, this vagueness is only a good strategy when you are certain that the product is high quality. In other words, you need to know that if you push consumers to search, then they will like what they discover. If your product is strong on only a couple of dimensions, you are better off with an ad that touts those attributes and doesn’t push consumers to seek out additional information, which might show your product in a bad light. A brand with a terrible product, and nothing to lose, might take the risk of uninformative advertising, since it has no good qualities to highlight and may hope some people mistake it for a high-quality brand. However, a brand with a middling product needs to share enough attributes to show that it is not in the “low-quality” category and be concrete enough to avoid pushing consumers to do an in-depth investigation.

What do you think?

Are “ads about nothing” a good strategy?

What “uninformative” ads have you seen succeed/fail?