Compelling Pitches Need No Algorithm

Editor's Note: This post was previously published in an earlier edition of Content Marketing Insider.

OK, I get it. Programmatic ads are becoming “more human, seamless, efficient, and easy to digest,” as Millward Brown predicted they would. There’s no stopping the algorithms.

But there’s still a lot of life yet in that most effective form of storytelling: the clever product demonstration, which predates W.C. Fields pitching a cure for hoarseness by several millennia.

Take the guy with the thick Yonkers accent handing out samples of Brookside Dark Chocolate Acai & Blueberry Flavors candy from an end-aisle cart at my local Costco.

First, he didn’t just fill a bunch of fluted white baking cups and leave them for a harried shopper to snatch and run. He only started to pluck them from the bag, as if picking ripe berries off a bush, after he'd made eye contact. “Had a guy yesterday,” he immediately said, dropping a couple of morsels into a cup, “who complained that he couldn't taste the blueberries because of all the chocolate.”



Whadyagonna do? Mutter “not interested” and scoot away, cutting off a guy who’s 75 if he’s a day and affects a raffish tilt to the baseball cap covering his hairnet?

“I want you to tell me if that's the case,” he said, dropping in the final two samples and offering it with a plaintive look.

The formula was just right, to my taste. But what if the chocolate did overpower the blueberries? Or the acai, for that matter? (As an aside, I would have loved to hear him pronounce acai.) What kind of chocolate-loving freeloader is going to complain about too much chocolate?

I grabbed a bag from the pile next to him and put it in my cart without doing two things I‘d normally do when purchasing something I’ve never seen before: 1. Look at the price; 2. Scan the barcode to see if the product, for all its trappings of wholesomeness — dark chocolate and fruit! — was at least halfway healthy.

It wasn’t until after I’d delightedly consumed the bag over the next few days, in fact, that I consulted Fooducate to discover it had received a “D+” for its high sugar content and “tiny amount of real fruit.” If he were being totally honest, the barker would have said: “Had a guy yesterday who complained that he couldn't taste the blueberry flavors …”

Sure, “flavors” is right there in big type on the package -- but, like everything else during this transaction, his crafty pitch short-circuited all my normal resistance. It drew me in, got me involved, and made me react emotionally, as effective creative is wont to do, as Alan Schulman pointed out in a Harvard Business Review article titled “Algorithms Don’t Feel, People Do.”

I didn't stick around to observe, but I later imagined that my new friend gave that pitch dozens of times a day, with the only possible variation being the salutation. “Had a gal yesterday,…” he might say. Or not. It's that perfect.

“Consumers today are expecting a story, whether it’s an origins story or an ingredients story,” says Mary Van De Walle, vice president of planning for Chicago agency Upshot. Indeed, Brookside Farms tells us it “began in 1954 in British Columbia's beautiful Fraser Valley.” What I can’t find on its website  — it’s in tiny print on the package — is the fact that it’s now owned by Hershey.

Shoppers increasingly want a “food preparation” story, too — particularly if it’s easy, Van De Walle says. You can get those on the Brookside Farms website, too. Or watch the pros at Costco, Whole Foods or local retailers who “give a little lesson” to eager aisle-grazers before doling out their samples.

“Everybody is becoming a sommelier,” Van De Walle continues. “They want to know that a granola has honey and eucalyptus and this and that. It’s interesting, it’s fun and it’s just part of our food culture now.”

So is whipping out our smartphones to check the veracity of the stories we’re told. But we hear what we want to hear, right? And I’ve no doubt I’ll be buying Brookside products again — perhaps the Dark Chocolate Goji & Raspberry offering, which gets a C- from Fooducate. My purchase will be a clear triumph of the taste buds and the emotional amygdala over the judgmental prefrontal cortex, initiated by a pithy and artfully presented story.

All of which proves Aristotle correct, even in the Age of Algorithm. “Persuasion is clearly a sort of demonstration,” he said in Rhetoric,  “since we are most fully persuaded when we consider a thing to have been demonstrated.”

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