A little less conversation

Why use words when actions can do the job far better? A look at some genius ads that use non-verbal communication

By jeremy lee

The lifting of four fingers, the pursing of the lips and blowing of a whistle, the raising of an eyebrow, the emittance of a fart. All of these recent examples of non-verbal communication in ads (for Domino’s, Confused.com, McDonald’s and Andrex respectively) join perhaps the most famous instance – the back pocket tap for Asda – in demonstrating the power of actions over words.

With roughly two-thirds of communications non-verbal, perhaps we shouldn’t be shocked at its popularity - if anything, we should be surprised that it isn’t used more.

And because it's also instinctual - a smile signifies happiness, a frown sadness and the wrinkling of a nose shows disgust - it also transcends cultural and language barriers, Ben Jaffé, the chief strategy officer at FCB London (the agency behind the new Andrex work), points out. "In fact," he continues "non-verbal communication is so powerful, we use it to communicate with animals."

He continues: "Take dogs for example. Dogs are descended from wolves, but through millennia of human selection, they have developed facial muscles that allow them to communicate with us in ways their ancestors simply can’t. Think about adorable puppy dog eyes. Think about wagging tails and quizzical tilts of the head. Now think about our latest work for Andrex; it’s wall to wall non-verbal communication. A fart, a sheepish smile, raised eyebrows, a side glance and a whole lot more. But, most importantly, there’s a simple, but powerful non-verbal exchange between the Andrex puppy and the protagonist: a little nod from the puppy, that says ‘you got this’.”

And talking of farting dogs, Vets For Pets has recently launched a TV ad with a dog that lets rip on a sofa while sat next to its two disgusted owners - who react quickly to cover their noses. British humour has a long established tradition that jokes about bodily functions are an easy way to raise a smile – but non-verbal communications is a serious business too.

Alan Young, joint chief creative officer at St Luke's, invokes Orlando Wood’s seminal book Lemon - an account of advertising’s self-harming decline in creativity. “Wood draws on the neuroscientist Iain McGilchrist to show how marketing communication has switched from ‘right-brained’ work, which is nuanced and subtle, emotionally moving to a ‘left-brained’ approach which is literal, blunt and emotionless," he says. "The left-brain is the seat of language and likes to tell us what to think. The right-brain expresses itself through images, sounds, and gestures that come together to make us feel something. It leaves room for the viewer to enjoy reaching the conclusion through experiencing a flash of insight.”

This is why, Young continues, the recent McDonald’s campaign with the elevated eyebrows is so successful. “Can you imagine if the McDonald’s campaign expressed the shared agreement to pay the restaurant a visit verbally rather than through the gesture ‘In the mood for a McDonald’s?’, ‘Yes, great idea.’ At the end of that version the only thing we’d likely fancy would be to throw up.”

Mark Elwood, the chief creative officer of Leo Burnett UK, which created the McDonald’s ‘Raise Your Arches’ ad, says that the insight came directly from the ‘fan truth’ that its customers can invite people to enjoy a McDonald’s without saying a word - a simple nod or gesture can be the suggestion. Taking that invitation and making it more hyperbolic with the eyebrow raise, was a near perfect example of when non-verbal communication was the answer to the brief. “That the gesture also aligned to the symbolism of Golden Arches, even better and stickier,” he adds.

It's an approach Elwood has also used for Leo Burnett’s debut work for Confused.com. "'Just used Confused’ is a similar example of when non-verbal communication can be deployed with power,” he says. “The audience insight is that finding insurance is a chore that no one loves, but that moment when you’ve completed the task is joyful, a feeling of satisfaction, particularly if you’ve saved money. Using ‘whistling’ to symbolise a ‘good job done’ is something the people of the UK can relate to culturally. When non-verbal communication plays to a truthful audience insight, it can be so much more powerful than words."

Fast food brands, in particular, are frequently adopters of non-verbal communications, perhaps indicative of how competitive the market is. Non-verbals give them a point of differentiation that can easily be remembered.

For example, KFC with its use of visuals in its recent outdoor ads of people licking their fingers remind people of its well-established “Finger-licking good” strapline, rather than just telling them so again.

Domino’s too has just launched a campaign with VCCP that shows people exchanging 'high fours' to promote its £4 lunch menu.

With so much of advertising (inevitably) relying on a small lexicon that inevitably results in category cliches it’s little wonder that anything that can help achieve differentiation is a distinctive benefit..

Young continues: “'CUT PRICE', 'PRICE CRUNCH', 'PRICE SLAM'. 'PRICE DROP'. 'BRAND MATCH'. 'ROLL BACK' - Supermarket price advertising is full of dead-language. Unless it comes with a gesture. The Asda pocket tap is more memorable, more authentic and better branded than any phrase I’ve ever heard to say, 'low cost'. Why? Because it leaves room for the viewer to reach that conclusion themselves."

This is probably why Havas London reinvented the pocket tap in its first work for the supermarket when it won the account in 2021. It is a reminder of Asda's well-established value proposition and rekindles its emotional connection with customers.

Combining the pocket tap with theatrical scenes of Asda staff acrobatically stocking shelves, customers hurtling through space and children landing on beds of plush toys takes the non-verbal communication (which was first used in 1977 and reintroduced by AMV BBDO in 2020) gives the supermarket an additional message of joy, as well as price.

Young concludes: "There is an old maxim by the Edwardian satirist Hector Hugh Munro: 'In baiting a mousetrap with cheese, always leave room for the mouse'. Fewer words and more action are the ways to capture the imagination."


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