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You may have heard this over and over. The quote goes something like this:

It is not what you say, it is how you say it.

Despite being mistaken for a close relative of the Machiavellian “the end justifies the means”, when it comes to the art of writing this saying holds true.

Just think of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, to take just one example. In one instance the author spends half a chapter describing a snail crossing the street if I remember correctly. The style supersedes the message. This is true when it comes to prose and sometimes it is true even in advertising.

Have you ever seen the film My Dinner With Andre? It’s just two people talking for close to two hours. I would rather shoot myself than having to watch it again but that is not the point. What matters is that it was an experiment in “entertainment” stripped of all its glamour. And it succeeded. On the other hand, if the purpose of the film was to sell me a Coke or a pair of shoes, it would have failed miserably. That’s because an advertiser has to make The Message the central theme of his/her work.

Stay with me.

A thousand people can photograph the same blade of grass. Everyone will see it differently and a few photographs of the very same blade of grass may even have the power to move you to tears. It is unlikely but possible.

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Generally speaking, in advertising, you can’t show me that same blade of grass and ask me to buy a burger as a result of seeing it. My point being that there is room for art in advertising but only if the message is kept in the foreground. If the camera widens to reveal a cow eating grass and a voice explains that now McDonald’s is serving pasture raised, grass-fed all American beef, I might want to buy a burger after all. Of course, the danger of the audience feeling sorry for the cow is too high for the hamburger giant to try out my idea. We don’t want to be reminded where our food comes from.

How you say it plays a big role in advertising but it plays a limited role. What I mean is that what you say does matter only if the premise remains clear. There are a million ways to produce an advertising campaign so how you sell your product is still of paramount importance.