Ad Report Card

Soft Sell

Why quiet, understated TV ads are so effective.

Also look at this Magnum Photos gallery on the use of silhouette in photography.

The Spot:A man sits at the counter of a coffee shop, tapping on his laptop. Text bubbles pop on-screen as he trades instant messages with an unseen interlocutor. “Remember how we used to say ‘WHEN’ we retire, like it was a sure thing?” types the person at the other end of the chat. “I know,” types the man. “Then it became a lot of ‘WILL WE’ retire.” When the imploring response comes—”How do we get from ‘WILL WE’ back to ‘WHEN WE’?”—the man is at a loss, staring aimlessly out the window. An announcer utters the first spoken words of the spot as the scene fades: “John Hancock. The future is yours.” (Click here to watch the ad.)

In the never-ending battle for your attention, advertisers have experimented with all sorts of A/V tweaks. Generally, the goal has been amplification: boosting the volume of the announcer’s voice or flashing the product price in big, bright numbers. But I’ve noticed a recent mini-trend of ads that muffle senses instead of attacking them. The most striking example is a commercial for the asthma medication Symbicort. As our spokeswoman prances around singing Symbicort’s praises, she is almost completely obscured by shadows. We strain to make out her features even in the tight close-ups on her face. We’re left wondering whether this woman is a wanted criminal or has some sort of jarring scar the director wished to hide.

This silhouette technique has been used before—most notably in ads for DeBeers diamonds (shadow people slip on sparkling necklaces) and for the iPod (shadow people bop around to music). In each of those campaigns, though, 1) the people are pure silhouettes, not half-lit noir freaks and 2) the aim is to showcase the shiny product by fading the humans into the background. In the Symbicort spot, the product—I’m not even sure what form it takes; a pill? an inhalant?—is never seen. The only clear, well-lit image in the ad is of icky bronchial tissue. I keep waiting for the woman to emerge into sunlight at the close of the ad, symbolizing the newfound happiness Symbicort has brought her. But it never happens. And I’m left wondering: Why would asthma sufferers aspire to an underilluminated lifestyle?

Two dueling financial services firms also employ the sense-muting gambit. In Prudential’s “Retirement Red Zone” ads, people silhouetted in solid black and white discuss their retirement preparedness. The idea here seems to be that obscuring our vision will heighten our sense of hearing, forcing us to concentrate on the spot’s spoken words. John Hancock’s “Cursor” campaign similarly lets us eavesdrop on intimate money conversations. But this time the missing ingredient is aural. The John Hancock dialoguers text each other over smartphones and laptops, so we hear only the background noise of an airport gate, a coffee shop, or a city park—punctuated by clicking keystrokes and the chimes that signal a new text message has arrived.

These ads have been airing for almost two years now. They continue to be the quietest moments you’ll find anywhere on television (save for the occasional CBS Sunday Morning segment consisting solely of static wheat-field footage). “The reality is that very few people only watch TV today—they watch while they’re reading a magazine, looking at email, or answering a text,” says Jim Bacharach, vice president of brand communications for John Hancock. “What we have found, and confirmed in our tracking studies, is that the quiet of our ads makes people lift their heads and look up.”

The ads mainly run during live sports events, in part because viewers tend not to DVR live sports and in part because sports programming is the most focused way to reach John Hancock’s target market (adults over 35 with investable assets exceeding $250,000). “You’d think sports might skew heavily male,” says Bacharach, “but the programs we’re buying—like golf, college football, and the MLB playoffs—are actually closer to a 55-45 percentage split.”

I asked Bacharach if it’s more effective when the ads run during raucous college football games, where their silence offers a stark contrast, instead of during already quiet golf broadcasts. He said he felt that didn’t matter much, but that the best placement for these ads is in the middle of a pod of other commercials, where they stand out from the crowd. “Unfortunately,” he acknowledged, “we can’t guarantee they’ll be placed in the middle of a pod when we buy the airtime.”

I imagine the best placement of all would be immediately following a ShamWow or Slap Chop ad—where their soothing white noise and gentle chimes might come as welcome antidotes to the bleats of pitchman Vince.

Grade: A-. By zigging where others zag, the John Hancock ads cut through the TV clutter. We pay close attention to their text, following the characters’ conversations. And those final moments—in which the cursor blinks with implacable expectation—artfully symbolize the uncertainty that can accompany big financial decisions. Take a lesson, Symbicort. Form can mesh with function in a manner that clarifies the message instead of dumbfounding the viewer.