The Power of Restraint

The Power of Restraint

By John Foust

On an out-of-state trip, I saw a billboard that compelled me to pull off the road to take a closer look. What was so unusual? It had more words than I had ever seen on a billboard – 45 words. “What in the world were they thinking?” I asked myself. “I’m probably the only driver who knows what the billboard says, and that’s because I stopped to count the words.”

The person who designed that sign hadn’t considered what it would look like on the side of that two-lane highway. He or she had created it on a screen or layout pad, with no awareness of the fact that drivers would have only a few seconds to read it. For years, I’ve heard that eight is the maximum word count for a readable billboard. That one had 45.

The billboard needed what a lot of ads need – restraint. Here are three areas that call for that special brand of discipline:

1. The sales call. This is where it starts. It’s understandable for advertisers to be excited about their products and services, but they shouldn’t be encouraged to put unsubstantiated claims and exaggerations in their ads. Salespeople who are close to closing a sale often have a tendency to accept anything their clients want to run. But this is the time to hold firm and gather the raw material that is needed for an effective ad campaign. First, learn about the client’s audience. Then learn about what is being advertised – with a focus on features and benefits.

2. The ad copy. The next step is to translate that information into an idea, and then to transform that idea into convincing words and pictures. Even the best ad concept in the world will fall flat if it is not put together the right way.

It’s important to use restraint in writing copy. Readers don’t respond favorably to words like “unbelievable” and “fantastic” and “incredible.” They prefer to hear the truth, because that’s what they need to make informed buying decisions.

Specific language works better than generalities. “Save 40 percent on a new widget” is more effective than “save money on a new widget.” “Three-year warranty” is better than “great warranty.” And “one-acre lot” is more descriptive than “large lot.

3. The ad design. A store owner once told me about his philosophy of print advertising. “I think white space is wasted space,” he said. “I want my ads to be filled from corner to corner.” It was no surprise that his ads were bursting at the seams with illustrations and blocks of multiple colors. To make matters worse, he thought that all upper-case type made his copy more important.

Sadly, his ads looked like indecipherable blobs on the page. I don’t think anyone would make the effort to read them.

Poet Robert Browning is famous for writing, “Less is more.” Although architecture later adopted the phrase, it is just as appropriate for this business of advertising. Less is definitely more.


(c) Copyright 2019 by John Foust. All rights reserved.

John Foust has conducted training programs for thousands of newspaper advertising professionals. Many ad departments are using his training videos to save time and get quick results from in-house training. Email for information: