Friday, November 4, 2011

I had my cake and ate it, too, or something.

Mine's better

When I was a kid –– around seven –– I decided to learn how to cook. And what does a seven-year-old learn how to cook? Right. Devil's food cake.

My mom gave me her recipe and impetuous youth that I was, I immediately set out to improve it.

Which I did.

I'm not going to lie to you. I didn't spend my entire childhood perfecting cakes, but I did make enough of them to get pretty good.

I like devil's food cake. A lot. And that created a problem. I had the limited patience of a seven-year-old. So as soon as a cake had barely cooled, I'd flip it over and pick a little piece out of the bottom. Just to make sure it came out alright.

And nobody would notice.

Before long, I was taking bigger and bigger samples. Until one day, I ate the entire inside. I couldn't help myself.

That night, at dessert, my mom cut into... a shell. Seriously. There was nothing to it but about a half inch of the outside, left perfectly intact, just barely enough to support itself without collapsing. Christopher Wren would have been proud.

There's a point. And the point is about over promise.

Everybody sitting around the table that night expeceted a cake. Not just a cake, but one of my pretty amazing devil's food cakes. 

What they got was not-cake. They weren't happy about the crust they did get, even though the tiny bit that was left was super good. They were disappointed because they didn't get as much as they thought they were going to.

And this is what happens over and over, every day, in our lives. Movie advertising that tells us to see "The movie of the decade." Book jackets that exclaim "The best novel you'll ever read." Packages that scream "New and Improved." Both. Like something can be both new and improved.

Hollywood is continually stunned when a little independent film makes a ton of money at the box office. But if you think about it, what's happening is that that little independent film might actually be no better than just okay, but simply can't afford to buy favorable reviews and a huge marketing campaign. Without any hype, there's no expectation. When there's no expectation, there's no disappointment. People who see the film tell their friends. And suddenly, word of mouth is accomplishing what a $200 million ad budget can't.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "But Brian, you have to get people into the theater in the first place. How do you do that without making an over promise of some kind?"

There is a way. Back when I was learning how to be a copywriter, we called it creativity.

Or, to come full circle, don't just follow the recipe. Figure out how to improve it.