This is something mainstream advertisers screw up all the time…

Maybe you’ve had this experience.  You’re watching TV.  You see a commercial.  You’re watching it, trying to figure out what the heck they’re saying.  And then, when they actually pivot and mention the product, your only reaction is…


Many people think of advertising as something where you need to be “creative.”

Heck, at one point in high school — before I ever discovered direct response — I imagined what it would be like to be in advertising.  And all I thought of was Super Bowl ads.  Exorbitantly expensive wastes of money (for the most part) created primarily to win recognition for the ad agency behind them.

That’s the kind of creative that I thought advertising entailed.  The traditional stereotype of creativity.

And maybe in Mad Men wannabe agencies, that’s what you need to succeed.

But when it comes to the kind of advertising where you can spend $1 and have it bring back at least $1 in return, with a new customer in tow…

You need a different inspiration.

And I found it in the strangest of places in a news story this morning.

What Mr. Rogers could teach you about effective advertising…

Today, my kids watch Daniel Tiger.  It’s Mr. Rogers rehashed in animation, with no puppets but many of the same characters (notably lacking the late Mr. Rogers himself).

The intro is still the same dang song, and Daniel Tiger does the same move of coming in, sitting on the bench, and changing his shoes.

The Mr. Rogers formula is still relevant 50 years after the show’s creation.

And it is, I’m certain, in large part due to what I’m going to tell you.

I caught an article from The Atlantic today from the author of an upcoming book on Mr. Rogers.

The author talks about the level of care and detail put into every single element and every single line of the show, by its eponymous creator Fred Rogers.

One of the things that Mr. Rogers obsessed about most was clarity…

For those of you who don’t know, Mr. Rogers the show was created primarily for preschoolers.

And for those of you who don’t have a preschooler (or haven’t been around them in a while), you should know…

They take EVERYTHING literally.

They simply haven’t developed the kind of abstract thought required to, for example, interpret the multiple meanings of words.

And so if you want a preschooler to understand you, you have to find the combination of words that has UNMISTAKABLE meaning.

That is, there has to be only one way to interpret what you’re saying.

Not only that, it has to be presented in a way that’s simple and easy enough to understand that a three-year-old will get it without thinking about it.

Mr. Rogers took this to such great lengths that his writers made fun of him for it…

They called his language “Freddish.”  And they actually created an illustrated pamphlet parodying the process of translating a show’s scenes into the kind of language we’re talking about.

The pamphlet actually detailed nine steps.  I’ll include them here, although I do recommend you read the entire article.

And after the steps, we’ll talk about what this means for your advertising.

  1. “State the idea you wish to express as clearly as possible, and in terms preschoolers can understand.” Example: It is dangerous to play in the street. ??????
  2. “Rephrase in a positive manner,” as in It is good to play where it is safe.
  3. “Rephrase the idea, bearing in mind that preschoolers cannot yet make subtle distinctions and need to be redirected to authorities they trust.” As in, “Ask your parents where it is safe to play.”
  4. “Rephrase your idea to eliminate all elements that could be considered prescriptive, directive, or instructive.” In the example, that’d mean getting rid of “ask”: Your parents will tell you where it is safe to play.
  5. “Rephrase any element that suggests certainty.” That’d be “will”: Your parents can tell you where it is safe to play.
  6. “Rephrase your idea to eliminate any element that may not apply to all children.” Not all children know their parents, so: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play.
  7. “Add a simple motivational idea that gives preschoolers a reason to follow your advice.” Perhaps: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is good to listen to them.
  8. “Rephrase your new statement, repeating the first step.” “Good” represents a value judgment, so: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is important to try to listen to them.
  9. “Rephrase your idea a ?nal time, relating it to some phase of development a preschooler can understand.” Maybe: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is important to try to listen to them, and listening is an important part of growing.

So: what’s the big lesson for advertising?

You may not need to specifically write to a preschooler.

Mark Ford (aka Michael Masterson) teaches that all copy should be written to the 7th-grade level.  Actually a Flesch-Kincaid score of 7.5 or below.  He did an analysis and determined that you actually make more revenue at or below that level than above, even writing about investments and medical topics.

However, you almost can’t be simple enough.  As long as it doesn’t sound like you’re talking down to your audience.

What you write should be crystal-clear.  You should focus on good ideas, expressed clearly.

Write in active language.  Use short sentences and paragraphs.  Given the choice, use unmistakable words.

Your goal should be to make your writing so clear that any member of your market could read it and know what it means.

Beyond that, a couple lessons…

First, think from your audience’s perspective.

Mr. Rogers thought longer and harder than practically anybody else about how preschoolers thought, and how they’d respond to everything he said.

I’m convinced that was one of the secrets to the enduring success of his show, and now the same formula updated for today.

I once noticed in Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood that the kids on the show often break the fourth wall.  That is, they look you, the viewer, in the eye.  And often speak directly to you.  But the grownups in the show don’t.  They only speak to the kids.  I am convinced this is well thought-out and planned.  There’s something about kids relating to the kids in the show more than they relate to the grown ups.  And that is the kind of thing you only land on by putting yourself in the audience’s shoes and really thinking about and paying attention to how they react.

The exact same skill is NECESSARY for effective direct marketing.

Second, pay relentless attention to detail.

Mr. Rogers paid so much attention to language and presentation that his staff made fun of him for it.  No doubt, in a friendly way.  But this is not to be overlooked.

Details matter.  Language matters.  When you have a message to deliver, a few misplaced words can make that message fall flat.

It benefits you to consider how every word you speak or write is contributing to the total message, and to look for any and all opportunities for improvement.

Yours for bigger breakthroughs,

Roy Furr