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John Foust: Incongruence in ad creativity

By John Foust
Raleigh, NC

Congruence is an important characteristic of communication. In order to get a message through, all of the ingredients have to match. Most of the time, congruence comes naturally. Just notice how strange it feels to say the word “yes” and shake your head “no.”

On the other hand, incongruence can generate memorable advertising. Years ago, Volkswagen ran a famous ad which pictured a large photo of their beetle with the simple headline, “Lemon.” The copy explained that the car had been rejected by their inspectors, because a small part – the chrome strip on the glove compartment – was blemished.

The headline didn’t match the photo. How could this shiny new car possibly be a lemon? That’s the power of strategic incongruence.

Unexpected photo-headline combinations are not limited to national advertisers. Consider an ad I once saw for a local title insurance company. Most ads for that industry reflect the somber nature of the profession. Indemnity issues, title defects, and unenforceable mortgage loans are not the most exciting topics in the world.

This was an image ad – a business-to-business ad – which was intended to build name recognition in the legal and real estate markets. When I called the company to get the inside story, I learned that the idea had started with a session to photograph a standard (in other words, boring) pose of the executives of the company sitting at a conference table. At some point, someone told a joke that cracked up the group, and the photographer caught the unscripted moment. A couple of the executives were leaning back in their chairs, grinning from ear to ear. One was rolling her eyes to the ceiling. And another was raising his hands in the air. It looked like they were having the time of their lives.

When the company reviewed the photos, they decided – with lots of encouragement from the photographer – to use the laughing photo. Although it was a complete departure from the original plan, they revamped the copy to fit. With the headline, “Title insurance is serious business,” the ad humanized the company and presented those executives as the kind of people you’d like to know. The message was relevant. It made readers think, “Hey, they’re a team. They’re good enough at what they do to relax and enjoy their work. They won’t bore me to death when I call.”

The title insurance company told me the original headline was supposed to be something like, “We’re here to take care of your title insurance needs.” Pretty weak, huh?

An ad like that would have gotten lost in the blur of countless conference table photos that readers had seen over the years. But thanks to the company’s creative flexibility, they ended up with a memorable message that stood out from their starched competitors.

Incongruence is no laughing matter. With the avalanche of words and images that bombard consumers each day, it’s smart to use a little incongruence every now and then to break away from the crowd.



(c) Copyright 2015 by John Foust. All rights reserved.


John Foust has conducted training programs for thousands of newspaper advertising professionals. Many ad departments are using his training videos to save time and get quick results from in-house training. E-mail for information: [email protected]

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