Mightier Than the Sword

Jun 01, 2008


David Kweskin
In advertising, words are as important as images. Every word chosen represents a major decision on the part of the creative team. What may seem like nitpicking is actually an intrinsic part of the process of creating an unforgettable message. Sometimes even subtle differences in language can translate to major differences in how a message motivates people.

To delve into the issue of how messaging influences consumer attitudes and behaviors, TNS Healthcare tested 77 DTC messages in the oral contraceptives category among 533 women between the ages of 18 and 45. The research, conducted in March 2008, looked at how well messages motivated women to speak with their physicians, visit the product's Web site or, call an 800 number.

The findings show how even small changes in wording can greatly impact message effectiveness. For example, the following message for YAZ was highly effective in motivating women to talk to their doctors:

"It's the first and only contraceptive proven to treat emotional and physical pre-menstrual symptoms severe enough to impact your life, a condition doctors call PMDD."

Testing found that the same message without that final phrase—"a condition doctors call PMDD"—was significantly less motivating. Why would those five words make such a difference in results? Researchers hypothesize that naming a condition—such as PMDD, ED (erectile dysfunction) or OAB (overactive bladder)— makes it a "real" ailment in the minds of consumers. As a result, people feel comfortable going to their doctors for treatment.

Likewise, messages can have the same theme yet very different levels of effectiveness depending on how they are presented. Consider these two messages:

"Lybrel is intended for women who are interested in putting their periods on hold."

"[With Seasonique] You should experience four scheduled periods a year, instead of the usual 13."

The first message, for Lybrel, was not very effective in motivating women to speak with their doctors. The second, for Seasonique, was among the most effective. Researchers' theory is that the term "on hold" has negative connotations—such as being put "on hold" during a phone call. After all, things on hold don't go away, but lie in wait. Not a very appealing concept! By contrast, saying four periods vs. 13 conjures up the image of actually having fewer periods—a much more attractive notion than having periods "on hold."

The efficacy of DTC messaging also varies by demographic and function (the action you are looking to drive will impact which DTC approaches are best to use). These differences are evident in the messages that were most motivational for different audiences.

For example, the Seasonique message about experiencing four vs. 13 periods a year was most effective in motivating women between ages 36 and 45 to visit a Web site. But the most effective message to get women not currently taking an oral contraceptive to call an 800 number is from YAZ: "YAZ also can help keep your skin clear." And the most motivating message to get woman from 18–35 to call an 800 number is from Cerazette: "In contrast to the combined pill, Cerazette can be used by women who are breast feeding."

Finally, for women in the post child-bearing years, health issues take precedence over messages built around reducing periods or supporting breast feeding safety and messages centered on cosmetic concerns, such as clearer skin. The winning message for women in the post child-bearing demographic (most likely to get them to visit a Web site) is from Lybrel, and focuses on reducing cancer risks:

"Oral contraceptive use may provide some protection against developing cancer of the ovaries and cancer of the lining of the uterus."