Buttons First, Then the Message
Updated: Jan 24
Years ago, and I mean many years ago, my family had a game we would play during long vacation rides in a hot car. We referred to it as “The Commercial Game,” and since it required no batteries, moving pieces, cards or dice, it was the perfect portable time killer and the best way to keep us from bailing out of a moving vehicle on the interstate. The rules were simple: recite a line or hum part of a jingle without mentioning the name of the product or the company. The first one to fill in the blank or shout out the product or the brand won the point, and then would gain the next turn. If people were in the right frame of mind, this contest would consume a good 45 minutes of time and keep young siblings from kicking each other or shoving their pillows over back seat neutral zones and declaring war on each other for the rest of the trip.
Now the funny part of this game was when people would go blank on the product or the company. Oh, they had the tune down cold and could see the three old ladies at the counter of the fast food joint staring down at the hamburger in front of them. About 30% of the time, there was that painful brain freeze when all recall went dark and time would run out on the clock much to the joy of the presenter who would maintain his turn for another round.
What happened then is an example of a great ad or promo that failed to make any attempt to factor in the correct use of buttons and messages, and it’s imperative to have these understood by anyone you have deputized as your marketing manager. The first thing that must be understood and accepted is these two terms are not the same thing at all. A message is the communication, the thought, the significance an advertiser wants to convey to his target audience. A button is merely the thing that is used to get the audience’s agreement to hear or read the message. The term originated in an early 20th century expression “press the button,” which means to perform an action that automatically brings about the required state of affairs. In marketing communications, which includes public relations, the required state of affairs we are looking to reach is agreement and cooperation with one’s actions. In other words, read the darn ad, or open the email. Graphics, images, headlines are used to push that button.
The message on the other hand is the real essence of any promotional piece. It is the idea, copy or narration that tells dear viewers and readers what fun they will experience once they’ve slipped behind the wheel of a new SUV. You’ll drive over rocky streambeds. Camp out in the woods with your dog. Fit every stuffed sports bag and its kid in one shot without a single bit of mud and be on your way with everyone beaming away. Those concepts and ideas are using buttons to draw your attention and agreement, yet the message is the second part of the equation, and it speaks promissory words of quality of life, the comfort of a smooth ride with lane change warning indicators and other bells and whistles that make the new SUV the must-have vehicle for you and your family.
That’s how good marketing is done. It determines what the buttons are for any given audience and builds from there. It often uses some of the very same words, phrases or images uttered by your prospects.