Products and ads often fail for the same reason—failure to pre-empt resistance.

Expect resistance unless your products and your campaigns “fit with” something that is already in peoples' minds. Let me illustrate with a story.

A school principal was getting a lot of stick from the cleaner of the school's washrooms because of the persistent lipstick on the mirrors. The girls had taken to pressing their lips to the mirror each day. Urging them to refrain didn't work. So the principal gathered the girls in the washroom and explained how difficult it was for the cleaner to remove the lipstick. He then asked the cleaner to demonstrate what was involved.

The cleaner took a wide paintbrush and dipped it liberally in the toilet bowl and then proceeded to “paint” the mirror with the moistened brush.

The school had no further problems with lipstick!

Avoid confrontation

Avoid a head-on confrontation with the target market's pre-existing attitudes and behavior. To do this, you have to tap into the psychology of what is already in their minds. Look for ways to make your product as well as your communication of it consistent with what is already there, rather than conflict with it.

Why do dishwashing detergents have suds? Because when dishwashing detergent was first invented, manufacturers had to put suds in to get around a confrontation with pre-existing attitudes. There were no suds in the original product, and they are not needed for it to work; they are cosmetic.

In the era that preceded detergent, dishes were washed in soapy water in the sink, and it was the lack of suds on the top of the water that told us when things were not working and when it needed more soap. “No foam” meant “not working.” So “not foaming” for detergents clashed with what was mentally established, and the detergent manufacturers had to put the suds back in.

Of course, you can always adopt the alternative, direct-combative approach… and it is possible that it may be effective—eventually. But it is likely to be prohibitively expensive. It will face a long, hard and very costly battle over many years before it eventually breaks down the resistance.

Who can afford that?

When detergent manufacturers added suds, they walked around such confrontation, enabling them to formulate an effective product and communication strategy. The rest is history.

Re-jig your communications

Several ways to re-jig your communications can make them less combative and minimize the likelihood of resistance. One way is to address your own customers rather than the people you want as your customers. Instead of communicating directly to the people you want as your customers—the ones who are most likely to resist—consider the alternative of having them see/hear the communication as “bystanders.”

It has been shown that when people hear something as a bystander, it does not invite the same degree of resistance and therefore can be more effective (see, for example, E. Walster & Leon Festinger, “The effectiveness of ‘overheard' persuasive communications,” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, V65, 1962, pp 395-402).

Basically, this boils down to a strategy of who you are seen to be talking to in your ads.

There are many examples, but a remarkable one was a campaign by Toyota trucks some years back. It featured vignettes of actual Toyota truck owners describing, on screen, exactly where they were and what they were doing when their Toyota truck clocked up 100, 200 or 300 thousand miles.

It invited you, the Toyota truck owner, to phone a toll free number and “tell us where you were and what you were doing when your Toyota truck turned 100, 200 or 300 thousand miles.”

Naturally it reminded Toyota owners of the durability of their truck and helped them appreciate the huge number of miles it had endured, thereby reinforcing repeat buying. But, just as importantly, it got the message across to the many so-called bystanders, those who had never bought a Toyota truck, that these Toyotas must be very, very durable machines indeed.

A margarine brand in Australia used a somewhat similar strategy and became the long-standing market leader. It did not use overt persuasion, but communicated by advertising to its existing customers while at the same time non-users “overheard” these communications as bystanders.

From day one, its ad campaigns addressed its own buyers in a cute jingle: “You oughta be congratulated.” It showed the family enjoying the brand (Meadow Lea) and the household provider puffing up with pride at the family's enjoyment.

The point is, Tell people they have done the right thing, and they agree. Tell them they need to change, and they are likely to resist. So this verbal “pat on the back” to your own customers is a strategy that can do double duty. It reinforces those who use the brand and communicates in bystander mode with those who don't.

It also lets you avoid making naïve promises to prospective buyers that they are likely to deride. If the margarine brand promised that you will be congratulated if you switch to Meadow Lea, its ads would probably have been laughed at. The subtle difference is that existing buyers are usually happy to hear that they have done the right thing. While at the same time “bystanders” are less likely to challenge what they hear when the communication is not overtly directed to them.

Taking a non-combative approach doesn't mean giving up on trying to persuade. Just realize that the more overt and combative the persuasion attempt, the more it tends to invite mental resistance. On the other hand, the more subtle it is, the less likely it is to invite resistance.

So, to avoid product and ad campaign failures, pre-empt resistance. Explore ways around it rather than wasting advertising resources trying to combat it—just as the clever school principal did.

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Dr. Max Sutherland is a marketing psychologist who works as an independent marketing consultant in Australia and the United States. He is the author of Advertising and the Mind of the Consumer and an adjunct professor at Bond University in Australia. You can reach him at