Context Matters

Whenever I meet with a new advertising client or prospect, one of the first items of business is to come to a meeting of the minds concerning the singular importance of:

The Message.

What-the-ad-says has more to do with the success of the campaign than any other factor.  Demographics, psychographics, media, reach, frequency, formats, etc. are important, to be sure. But The Message trumps them all.

So, early on we discuss message development.  What outcome(s) are we hoping to achieve?  What do we want our prospective customer to think, feel, and do?  How can we penetrate the prospect’s brain, the seat of thoughts and emotions, and then press all the right buttons to elicit the desired response?  

Messages don’t exist in a vacuum.  Messages live and breathe in an atmosphere we call context, and there are multiple contexts to be considered. There’s the context that each listener, viewer, or reader brings to the table.  There’s the context of community (think: sports, academics, politics, society).  There are temporal contexts, spatial contexts, and seasonal contexts.  Every advertising medium brings its own context, as well.

When the message meshes with its contexts, communication is facilitated.  But if any context isn’t congruent with the message, communication suffers.  We’ve all heard radio spots that should have been updated but weren’t.  The Christmas gift-giving ad that runs on December 27th.  The spot announcing an upcoming Big Sale…that took place last weekend.  Or the commercial that opens with, “Summer’s right around the corner…” (an unnecessary introduction under the best of circumstances, it sounds especially lame when it airs in September).

Whose job is it to pay attention to context?  Everyone’s, really.  That is, everyone who plays a decision-making role at any stage in the process, from concept to completion.

Let me illustrate.

An ad salesman confers with an advertiser about what his ad should say.  The salesman, in this example, works for the local newspaper.  He brings his notes, maybe even a rough sketch of the ad, to the newspaper’s graphic designer, who in turn womps up the actual ad as it will appear in the paper.  They bring a proof copy to the advertiser for review.  The advertiser makes corrections (and let’s hope his spelling, punctuation, and grammar are up to snuff, because once he’s signed off on the ad, that’s how it will be printed.  If there’s an inappropriate apostrophe, for example, the odds these days are against someone at the newspaper catching and correcting it on their own.) and the approved ad is placed to run in the paper.

Let’s assume they got the ad right.  Is that the end of it?  Nope.  Because that ad doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but in a context.  If the layout of the page on which the ad has been placed to run isn’t proofed carefully by a competent editor, this is what can happen:Image

If you’re investing in advertising or creating advertising for someone, you’ll be well served by remembering that context matters.  Pay attention.  Follow through accordingly.

Shall we drink to that?

About Rod Schwartz

Rod Schwartz backed into a lifelong career in radio advertising in 1973 in Springfield, Illinois. He joined the Pullman (Wash.) Radio Group in 1979, where he worked until his retirement at the end of 2022. Since 1991, Rod and his family have operated Grace Broadcast Sales (, providing short-form syndicated radio features to radio and TV stations across the U.S. and Canada. Rod also operates an independent advertising, marketing, and communications consultancy for small business owners and professionals, An avid photographer, Rod shares some of his favorite images of the Palouse at and on his Viewbug gallery.
This entry was posted in Advertising (General), Branding, Communication, Copy, Copywriting, editor, graphic design, Newspaper, Print, Problem-solving, Professional Services Advertising, Promotions, Proofreading, Radio Advertising, Radio Commercials, Radio Copywriting, Sales & Marketing, Storytelling and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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