crash!

I don’t watch much television these days, just football games and the local news.

May 1st, 2007
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by Barry F. Polansky, DMD

I don’t watch much television these days, just football games and the local news. I usually walk by the TV as if it’s not there. But recently I became aware of a commercial that really got my attention. Unless you have been living under a rock, I am sure this ad got your attention as well. There are various versions of it.

The ad starts with two or more people riding along in a car, the passengers engrossed in conversation. The conversation is so captivating that I began to half-listen. Then out of nowhere - in a split second - another car enters the scene and crashes into the vehicle. It’s a shocking scene. For a moment I wondered what happened to the people inside. That’s how realistic it is. Then, after the “fade to black,” we see that the passengers are safe and sound ... because the car is a Volkswagen. What a testament to safety!

At first I was appalled that a company would use such tactics to sell cars. Imagine children viewing this ad. Just what is it that makes it so effective? The term for an ad like this is “sticky.” Those of you who have designed Web sites might be familiar with the term. Online advertisers rate their Internet ads according to “stickiness,” which leads to click-throughs. Actually, the people at Volkswagen copied this ad from an earlier one that was used for a more virtuous purpose.

Click here to enlarge image

The earlier television commercial was for a new Enclave minivan. A family of four was seated inside the van as it pulled away from the curb. The minivan cruised slowly down a suburban street while a woman’s voice-over described the features of the car. As she was saying “It’s the minivan for families on the go,” the van pulled up to an intersection. The camera focused on the little boy in the back seat, staring out the window at the tree-lined streets.

Then it happened - a speeding car barreled into the intersection and broadsided the minivan. Crash! The metal frame buckled and glass flew everywhere. The screen faded to black, and a voice said, “Didn’t see that coming?”

No ... I guess we didn’t!

The screen still black, we then heard a blaring horn as a message came across the screen: “Buckle up ... always.”

A nonprofit group known as the Ad Council created this ad. The group was founded in 1942 and is responsible for some very memorable ad campaigns, such as “Loose Lips Sink Ships” and “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk.” By the way, there is no such thing as an Enclave minivan. It’s totally made up for the sake of the drama to encourage people to drive more safely.

I’m still upset with Volkswagen for scaring me to death for the sake of selling cars, but I certainly can’t argue about the stickiness of the ad. Admit it - you remember these kinds of ads.

These ads were created using the element of unexpectedness. A new book, “Made to Stick,” by Chip and Dan Heath, explains six attributes that make messages sticky. The other attributes are: simple, concrete, credible, emotional, and stories. When used effectively, these attributes can make any message memorable. Unexpectedness plays on our tendency to guess what will happen next.

We have all seen car commercials. You know, the ones with road tests, dummy crashes, and SUVs climbing up mountains. So when the violent crash disturbs our ability to guess what will happen next, we become surprised. According to the Heath brothers, all emotions have biologic purposes. Surprise has the purpose of jolting us to attention. When a minivan commercial ends with a bloodcurdling crash, we stop and wonder, “What’s going on?”

And isn’t attention what every business wants?

Dentists spend lots of time and money trying to figure out how to differentiate themselves from the crowd. As time goes by, we all tend to look the same. We buy the latest piece of technology and then we advertise, only to find that everyone in the neighborhood has speed bleach and crowns in a day.

I made this point in the March issue of Dental Economics® in an article about the VELscope. I found that the best use of it came with a way to educate patients through the philosophy of early detection. Early detection was not enough. By using one of the Heath brothers’ other traits - making the message “concrete” - I made abstract facts about oral cancer more understandable. I told them about my own cancer.

I never use oral cancer statistics to explain the VELScope, because statistics are too abstract for most people; they are rarely meaningful in and of themselves. Statistics should only be used to illustrate a relationship. It’s more important that people remember the relationship than the numbers, such as the relationship between oral cancer and mortality. The fact that I have been treated for cancer wakes up my patients. Cancer could happen to them. Early detection matters!

The Nordstrom department store is an excellent example of a business that uses unexpectedness to make their message sticky. What is Nordstrom’s sticky message? Outstanding customer service. The book “Built to Last,” by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, chronicles numerous, fabled stories of Nordstrom’s unexpected service. I purposely use the word fabled because that’s what they are, fables, and fables stick. Think Aesop.

Here are just a few examples:

  • The Nordie employee who ironed a new shirt for a customer who needed it for a meeting that afternoon ...
  • The Nordie who cheerfully gift-wrapped products a customer bought at Macy’s ...
  • The Nordie who refunded money for a set of tire chains - although Nordstrom doesn’t sell chains ...

The key to all of this unexpectedness is that it does not work if it’s a gimmick. The Heath brothers warn about using the unexpectedness quality as such.

I see so many gimmicks in dentistry these days - the dental office that gives foot massages, the office that gives facials, and dental spas. There are so many things a dentist can do without resorting to gimmicks and without spending any extra money. In this world of one-upmanship and advertising, there are still many things that can differentiate us by augmenting our service from the expected to the unexpected. I like to categorize these things the way Russell Conwell’s “Acres of Diamonds” story describes men leaving home looking for riches when the treasure is actually buried in their backyards.

As part of my preclinical examination, I always inquire about dental history. I ask questions about the patient’s previous dentists. Just about every time patients tell me how much they loved their “old dentist,” it comes down to reasons involving trust, reliability, dependability, and empathy. Occasionally they tell me that he or she told good jokes. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “My old dentist used to call me up after an appointment to see how I was doing.” Many times, they tell me the story of how the dentist came in on a Sunday or during a snowstorm to take care of them, or at night when their child’s front tooth broke, just before they were going to have their graduation photos taken. That sounds a little like Nordstrom, doesn’t it?

If dentists want to differentiate themselves in today’s world, they don’t have to go very far from home. They just need to practice the highest form of service - service that communicates dependability, reliability, assuredness, and empathy, because these are the things that are so uncommon in America today. Do that, and I guarantee the message that you care will stick.

Barry F. Polansky, DMD, practices in Cherry Hill, N.J. Author of the book, The Art of the Examination, and publisher of “Dental Life,” he is on the visiting faculty of the Pankey Institute. E-mail him at info@drbarrypolansky.com.

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