The Power Of Four Little Words

The following is an excerpt from John Steel’s inimitable book ‘Truth, Lies and Advertising the Art of Account Planning’. Since reading it, the following passage has stuck with me as a powerful example of how well crafted messaging can be both simultaneously short and effective.

Four one syllable words can do almost as many jobs. I have lightly edited this piece to avoid references to content outside of the bounds of this excerpt and to highlight particularly relevant passages. If you are interested in Planning and have not yet read the book, I highly recommend picking yourself up a copy. There’s many more anecdotes of equal caliber contained inside.

John Steel – Will Work For Food

Living in the San Francisco Bay area, one of the most prevalent forms of communication is, unfortunately, that of signs held up by homeless people to attract donations from passers-by. There is one sign that I see perhaps more than any other:

“Will Work for Food.”

Wherever you live, you have probably seen this sign, or one very much like it, and although it is by now so widely used as to be almost invisible, I think that at its heart, it is a very powerful piece of communication.

“Will Work for Food” works on a number of different levels.

  • It assumes that the passer-by knows that the sign-holder is homeless. This credits the passer-by with intelligence.
  • Work addresses the popular prejudice that all homeless people are lazy good-for-nothings who are on the streets simply because they can’t be bothered to work for a living.
  • “Will Work for Food” says, “Hey—I don’t just want handouts. I’m willing to work to get out of this mess.” And the nature of this mess isn’t just being homeless. It’s being hungry. That’s why they’re asking for help; they need to eat and they can’t afford to buy food.
  • Food deals with another prejudice, which is that any money given to a home-less person will simply be spent on cigarettes, alcohol, or drugs.

It’s amazing how so much meaning can be packed into four small words, and it’s a great example of someone figuring out the hot buttons of the people they want to influence, rather than writing for themselves.

Now imagine for a moment the way a homeless person’s sign might look if the writer belonged to the Newtonian school of advertising. In this school, remember, creativity is a needless distraction from the real work of selling, and the task of advertising is simply to tell people what you want them to think.

I’m homeless. I need money.

That’s a good start, for a scientist. It clearly states the problem and the need, and passers-by should be very clear about what is expected of them. The Newtonian research director, though, may feel that it is not specific enough. People reading that sign on the street could sympathize with the sign holder’s predicament but not be clear what was expected of them. That could be solved by the simple addition of one word that would give the communication some direction:

I’m homeless. I need  your money.

The sign is still lacking, however. The copy test comes back, and while the communication is clear, the persuasion scores are dangerously low. Where’s the call to action? Where’s the sense of urgency? Perhaps the addition of another word would help:

I’m homeless. I need your money now.

Okay. So the passers-by are left in no doubt as to either the situation or the desired response. But it reads like a demand, there’s no suggestion of anything being offered in return, and the suspicion may still linger that any money given will be spent on malt liquor, cheap cigarettes, or crack cocaine. This in turn raises the question of whether these prejudices can be addressed directly, which may require an approach that is more artistic in nature.

Nonsmoker. On the wagon. Faint at the sight of a needle.

Certainly it’s charming, and the words portray a sense of the sign holder’s character and personality, but it still doesn’t overcome the perception that the person is “begging,” when they should be working. And maybe it is trying a little too hard. By raising the issues of cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs directly, maybe it is concentrating too much on the negative and in some ways lacks confidence? A more direct, confident approach may be needed:

Just give it.

All of the above examples are feasible solutions, but none communicates on quite as many levels as “Will Work for Food.” The problem for homeless people composing signs in San Francisco today, though, is that, while “Will Work for Food” is clearly a more interesting solution to their problem, it is widely used and has consequently lost much of its power. It’s a problem faced by many advertisers: The solution seems clear, but it has already been appropriated by a competitor. Suddenly the execution itself may have to define the difference between competing products.

I want to finish with two more examples of signs that I have seen on the streets of San Francisco that certainly stand out for being different. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to suggest that they are advertising in the Howard Gossage style, using honesty and humor to disarm, and at the very least, attempting to improve the environment of the street and its advertising by providing some entertainment. Both assume a level of intelligence and understanding on the part of passers-by. They know that we know they’re homeless, and they assume we know what they want. They simply use a kind of reverse psychology to get there. One sign on Broadway proclaimed:

Why lie? I need a beer.

I was amused, but was passing in a car and would have been unable to stop, even if tempted. Bad media placement, that. But only a week later, my eye was caught by a different man with a different sign in another part of town. This time I was on foot. The man holding the sign was clearly home-less, but his appearance did not suggest that his circumstances were any more or less fortunate than his fellow street dwellers. He was not playing a musical instrument or using a cat or dog to attract sympathy, as many do these days, but was simply standing on the sidewalk, holding a typical, roughly fashioned, brown cardboard sign. Only the words were unusual.

Need fuel for Lear Jet.

I have no idea why it affected me the way it did, but the human mind is an irrational thing that is sometimes affected in inexplicable ways. As soon as I smiled, a relationship was formed and from that point there was no going back.

I gave him five bucks and wished him a safe flight.


Hey. I’m Alex Murrell. I'm a Planner at Epoch Design in Bristol where I help deliver highly creative, innovative and effective pack, instore and online communications for some of the world’s biggest FMCG brands. Want to know more? You can find me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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