Don’t Make This Mistake: Always Get Feedback First

Have you ever walked past a poster, or heard a radio ad, and thought “What on Earth are they talking about?”

If a tagline is confusing, or if your media buries its message then your target audience won’t take time to understand your message. They’ll just walk away. The average media consumer will only spare a couple of seconds to hear your message, so you have to make sure that it’s punchy, on-point, and speaks to your intended audience.

Clarity, salience and precision in your messaging are paramount, but don’t lose sight of the target audience in your pursuit of a simple, punchy tagline. Acknowledge that your readers have their own cultural milieu, and recognize that they can more quickly and easily receive messaging that “speaks their language”. Balancing those aspects when you write ad copy is an art.

Consider the following poster, which appeared on busses, trolleys and transit shelters in the Portland area over the last few months:

Trimet’s campaign bringing attention to the dangers of teen distraction around busses and trains.

When I saw this ad at the bus stop near my house, at first I couldn’t figure out what was going on.

Then, I laughed.

And I went on with my day.

It’s a memorable, punchy tagline, but it’s ridiculous. It completely lacks authenticity; curiously familiar yet completely alien at the same time. Mashable sarcastically called the campaign “very relatable“. The Oregonian newspaper asked “Why do they read as if they were written by a creepy 45-year-old high school counselor who wants to be 16 again?

Here’s another:

The lesson from all this is: don’t lose sight of your audience. Whether you use the formal structure of a survey, or a focus group, or even asking people on the street: get plenty of feedback before you go live with your campaign. You don’t have to agree with all the feedback, but if your test audience responds with overwhelming confusion then you’ll still have time to course-correct. Because once it’s at the printer, it’ll be too late to revise.

As for Trimet, they’ve been quietly replacing their “Distraction” posters with a new “Stay Alert, Stay Alive” campaign that still has a punchy tagline, but isn’t trying too hard to fit in. We hope. Decide for yourself:

Stay Alert, Stay Alive



3 thoughts on “Don’t Make This Mistake: Always Get Feedback First

  1. Excellent example of how piloting and feedback can be an important part of the media communications process. Reminds me of an article about mistranslated advertisements. The one that stuck out to me was an advertisement for a pen. “[That]… won’t leak in your pocket and embarrass you” but instead read “It won’t leak in your pocket and impregnate you”? The mistake was in the one word: embrazar (to impregnate); the company thought this meant ‘embarrass’, but boy were they wrong. Here’s the full article if you’d like to check it out:

    • Interesting thanks for sharing here! Engaging users at the onset and looking to create feedback loops that improve the design of a communications campaign is spot on. I think the tricky part is communicating this approach upfront to donors or decision makers so they are aware of the process.

  2. Hey Laurence! Great post. It is important to prototype and pilot messages with target audiences, especially since media campaigns can cost a pretty penny. Your comment about the “punchy taglines” made me think about hashtags. I have to admit, up until about a year ago, I had no idea what hashtags meant and how to use them. Now, I understand it i This Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Fallon skit pretty much sums up how confusing hashtags have become:

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