The Bus that Nearly Flattens You

By: Ilan Mann

April 8, 2020

You’re jogging across an intersection when a city bus turns the corner a little too fast. You jump out of the way and narrowly avoid being run over.

Okay – I’ll admit that it’s a morbid beginning for a blog post about marketing.

But if it’s jarring, it only further illustrates my point.

There is a pervasive fiction in the marketing world that marketing materials are subject to a law of increasing returns. This is sometimes represented as some variation of “the rule of seven,” which proposes that a viewer needs to see or hear advertising from a brand 7 times for it to be effective.

Obviously this so-called rule benefits whoever is trying to sell you the ad space or marketing services. Obviously this rule is just more pseudoscience.

Suppose that over the course of 4 weeks, you see the name of a real estate agent 7 times.  Once in a community newsletter, once on a sponsored post on your twitter feed, twice in your mailbox as you toss their flyers into the recycling bin, and four times on a park bench that you pass on your jogging route.

Now suppose that you’re jogging across an intersection when a city bus turns the corner a little too fast. You jump out of the way and narrowly avoid being run over. Gripping your knees and panting from the safety of the sidewalk, you stare incredulously at the smiling face of a different real estate agent on the back of the bus.

Which name are you more likely to remember?

I’m not suggesting that you should advertise on the side of city buses in the hopes that the drivers recklessly endanger your prospects, but I am suggesting that it is ridiculous to push the idea that you need to hit someone over the head with your brand 7 times when one strong impression will do the job.

In fact, to the extent that there is research on whether or not advertising has increasing returns, it implies that advertising experiences diminishing returns in the long run. 

So why am I, someone who sells handwritten direct mail marketing services for a living, telling you this?

In short, it’s because I know that what I’m selling you doesn’t suck; the other guy hopes that if you throw enough of his stuff at your customer, some of it might stick.

In my previous post, I wrote about how another marketing myth – that humans have an attention span shorter than that of a goldfish – is used to justify putting out barely passable printed marketing products that don’t even try to stand out or catch anyone’s attention.

The theory goes that if you are sent a flyer, or a window-enveloped piece of promotional direct mail, once a month for 2 years, you may eventually recognize the brand, having seen it 24 times for a second or two on each occasion.

The sender is gambling on the fact that if they spend all that money making you throw out their flyers once a month, scroll past their videos, drive absent-mindedly past their billboards, and tune out their radio ads on your morning commute, you (or a few of the other 1,500 people on your city block) are going to choose them next time you need a ______ (fill in the blank with real estate agent, food delivery app, insurance broker, wealth manager, bank, charity, politician, or whoever sends you the most annoying mail).

So what they lack in the ability to stand-out, command your attention, or engage you enough that you remember their name – what they lack in quality – they make up for in quantity.

Like that old joke about the restaurant with the terrible food, but at least no one can complain that the portions are too small.

And if you have no idea what I’m referring to, do yourself a favour: