Signs of the Times

A long time ago in a galaxy far away, when I was younger and even foolisher, I was a window display designer at the downtown flagship department store of a national chain. For grins, my co-workers and I would wait for bus commuters to arrive by standing frozen in the window like manikins. When a curious person came up to look at our display, we’d suddenly unfreeze, scare the bejesus out of him, and run away laughing.

Yes, displays and signage compel attention.

Join me now as I pull out of my garage, and we look at the world of signage through the eyes of your attention-deficit-disordered target audience. I’ll share some marketing tips about signage along the way.

As I drive down Anniversary Street, I marvel at the sheer volume of signage. I see street signs, parking signs, "cable buried here" signs, storefront signs, marquis signs, plus a bumper sticker touting a folklore theater. I see plywood-constructed signs in empty lots, fluorescent signs taped to the sides of pipes, and tattered pastel signs for old garage sales still on the telephone poles. A giant primary-colored, hand-painted restaurant window poster shouts that kids can eat free and that now is the time for me to buy pies.

One advantage of signage is immediate gratification. It’s sometimes called "point of sale" or "P.O.S." because you are in a position to see the sign and buy the product on the spot.

Hungry kids? Meet restaurant pies. The point? A sale.

I drive by a billboard on East Washington that is pushing the 12-word limit. It is pretty tough to read a billboard with more than 12 words when you’re driving by at 55 mph. When it comes to signs, shorter is better. Except for the "AS" sign I pass, which is missing a "G" on the front. The moral: check to make sure your outdoor signs are in good shape. Otherwise, you are advertising your lack of quality.

When I enter East Towne Mall, the signage gets very dreamy and emotional. A beautiful woman in one wall poster says that I should dream it and I should live it. I agree! Another sign introduces me to "love’s embrace" and says I will always be surrounded by the strength of my love. It also shows "how every kiss begins." If only I had known this on my first date! A backlit sign taller than me with a giant close-up of a surly, freckle-faced teen says that he went from skater to a sonnet-reading, rock-climbing, math-tutoring, philosophy-studying, trash bag-sledding engineer — and that I should choose my educational adventure.

While I am not the target audience for these ads, I think they are doing the right thing in making an emotional connection. I certainly noticed them a lot more than the 10-gazillion XX% off sale signs that were everywhere. It pays to zig while others zag.

Signage is a visual medium, and we humans are hardwired to notice certain visuals. Or as we say in the ad business, always show "Tots, Treats, Tarts, and Terriers."

Sure enough, I find my attention drawn to the images of cute smiling babies, tasty sugar cookies, even tastier underwear models, and endearing animals. One kiosk displayed a doormat with this inscription: "Our dog flunked out of obedience school. Now he’s back here living at home." C’mon … that made you smile!

Finally, I look for that critical sign that says "Men." Inside the washroom, a sign over the air dryer says that they are embracing environmental global preservation and that they are grateful I am using their hand dryer as an earth-friendly alternative. A faceplate sign on the soap dispenser proclaims that the manufacturer is enhancing my world.

Truly, the signs of signs are everywhere. So, if you want to make an effective sign, make one main point. The more you can communicate visually and emotionally, the better. Keep your headline under 12 words, and keep in mind that less is more.

Find a way to stand out, and show a tart with a terrier feeding a treat to a tot.

For more detailed advice, see Chapter 3 in my first book: Perfect Phrases for Sales and Marketing Copy.

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