Bad advertising is caused by lack of deep insight

You’ve probably heard the famous proverb: in this world, nothing is certain but death and taxes. As correct as that fatalistic and sardonic saying is, in this day and age- it is also incomplete: During the tax filing season, one must add tax preparation ads to the list of inevitable. They are omnipresent. And, sadly, often they are bad advertising.

In this world, nothing is certain but death and taxes (and tax preparation company ads.)

While wandering the streets of Montreal, I stumbled upon an H&R Block advertisement. It reads as follows: There is a secondary message at the bottom of the ad: “Take what belongs to you.” 

“Taxes are like a root canal. With a pro, it hurts less.”

H&R Block

Although I couldn’t put my finger on it at the moment, I felt there was something fundamentally wrong with that message. So, I decided to reflect upon it a bit. Soon, I discovered that the logic of the H&R Block’s ad was flawed. Fatally, flawed! Here is why.

The legendary psychologist James Hillman once said, “The ideas we have -that we don’t know- have us.” He was right, for neuroscientific evidence demonstrates that many processes in our brain occur automatically and without the involvement of our consciousness. 

“The ideas we have -that we don’t know- have us.”

James Hillman

The frustrating thing about unconscious thoughts is that we cannot access them directly. No matter how hard we try, we cannot introspect on them. Nonetheless, there is a way around that problem: The unconscious mind always manifests itself in our language. That’s why by analyzing our words, we can unlock our unconscious thoughts.

At this point, we should talk about metaphors, which is a fundamental mechanism of mind. As humans, we understand, categorize, and create meaning of new experiences by using what we already know about our existing physical and social experiences.

Take success and failure for instance. When somebody succeeds, we say they make it big, hit the big time, they have grown. However, when somebody fails, they are described as small-time, or dwarfed by the competition. That quick analysis shows us that we subliminally think that success is big; failure is small.

Alternatively, imagine how we express our thoughts about time: We buy time, waste time, spend time, gain time, use time wisely, almost out of time because we perceive time as a resource. If we describe it any differently, it would feel fundamentally wrong, which brings us back to the H&R Block’s ad.

There are three metaphors used in that ad. One of them is obvious: tax preparation is root canal treatment. The other two, however, are concealed. The first one is the tax specialist is a doctor. And the second one is -by default- the tax filer is a patient. Unfortunately for H&R Block, those are all problematic -and erroneous- metaphors, which leads to bad advertising.

Taxes is buried treasure

Let’s start with the obvious one: tax preparation is the root canal treatment. Maybe there is a grain of truth in that tax preparation is a painful and dreaded process. However, research shows that -as arduous as it might be- people don’t focus on the process, but the outcome. In other words, when thinking about taxes, tax filers use the resource metaphor -not the journey metaphor. Here is the proof.

When thinking about taxes, tax filers use the resource metaphor -not the journey metaphor.

According to a recent poll, the majority of Canadians see their tax refund as a windfall of unexpected money. More specifically, 63 percent of respondents views the money as a bonus. That is a far cry from root canal treatment! Tax preparation is, actually, a buried treasure.

Maybe in a B2B setting, the root canal metaphor could work. But in that message fails to resonate with individual tax filers because according to the same research, the majority of Canadians expect to get a tax refund. That means tax preparation message should focus on gaining a benefit – not elimination of a threat.

One might point at the secondary message in the ad (take what belongs to you) and argue that H&R Block already addressed that insight. That -too- would be incorrect.

In her research, the renown psychologist Kit Yarrow found that people spend a windfall in different ways than if they believe they had earned that money themselves. She adds, “Emotionally what it can feel like is a gift. And people tend to spend gifts a little bit more frivolously than they do their own money.” That’s why even the take what’s yours message fails to persuade.

Tax filer is pirate

To further our analysis, let’s listen to Jamie Golombek, a tax planning expert: “Canadians love their tax refunds and at this time of year many people are filled with short-term euphoria of getting a tax refund that fades when you realize you’re getting your own money back.” 

Actually, Golombek’s insight taps into an archetypal yearning, which runs deeper than euphoria. Remember the old story when a Chicagoan newspaper misprinted lotto papers? Unfortunately, many people thought they won the lotto. As a consequence, most of them took the money -which they don’t have- to purchase expensive items such as cruise tickets and cars. Some even quit their job!

Instead of thinking to save the money, those people’s first instinct was to spend the money. That’s understandable because in psychological terms, winning the lotto activates our pirate within. A part of us is yearning to find a buried treasure in our lives. That is an archetypal need and tax refund is a form of winning the lotto. That’s why the metaphor to use to describe a tax filer should be the pirate.  

In psychological terms, winning the lotto activates our pirate within – just as tax refund does.

Tax specialist is pain reliever

Finally, let’s discover the metaphor of tax specialist. As we mentioned above, H&R Block’s ad implies that the tax preparation company is a doctor, more specifically a dentist.

The doctor analogy grants some light and shadow attributes to a tax specialist. On the bright side, a doctor is credible, efficient and precise. On the other hand, a doctor is cold, distant, devoid of emotions. That is a problem, for -as we discussed above- tax filers’ experience is filled with powerful emotions. 

H&R Block, though, claims that it is not just any doctor; it is a good, professional one, who would minimize the patient’s pain. Regrettably, that message, too, lacks a persuasive punch.

True: tax preparation is an laborious process. However, we should also be cognizant of the fact that people don’t want their pain to be reduced; they want it to disappear. For that reason, tax specialist is a pain reliever would be a more appropriate metaphor than a good doctor. 

People don’t want their pain to be reduced; they want it to disappear.

Alternatively, we could also entertain that the metaphor of a tax specialist is a map. If the tax return is buried treasure and the tax filer is a pirate, then the tax specialist could play the role of a map or a guide. In that case, the emphasis could be placed on the truth and usefulness as well as the ease of use, simplicity, and intuitiveness of the service provider. 

To conclude, as James Hillman said, “The ideas we have -that we don’t know- have us.” Sadly, for H&R Block, those who manage their brand had the wrong idea. Luckily, it is easy to solve bad advertising. All one needs to do, is to seek deep insights.

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