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Thoughts on a Different Kind of White Space
by Suzanne Pope
White space isn’t just on the page. It’s also in consumers’ minds
Any competent art director or designer understands of the importance of white space, of not cluttering up a layout just because the space is there. Good writers understand this, too. If a headline thought can be expressed in eight words, they won’t write fourteen. And if a radio script is too long to allow for moments of silence, a decent writer will know that it’s time to start trimming.
But there’s another kind of white space that deserves at least as much respect. It is a space that exists purely in a consumer’s psyche. It is the space that can be successfully filled only by that consumer’s desires, fears and ambitions. It’s the space that invites consumers to be participants in a message, rather than mere audience members.
To be clear, “participation” in this context does not mean forwarding a viral video or clicking “Like” when a corporate brand page asks, “Aren’t you glad it’s Friday?!” (It’s far from certain that all the clicking and forwarding translates into business success anyway).
No, real participation happens when consumers consciously or unconsciously choose to embrace what your brand espouses. A consumer’s white space is ready to hold all kinds of desirable associations with your brand. But to be clear, this white space isn’t for the advertiser to fill. It has to be filled by consumers themselves.
As an example, let’s look at a certain marketing challenge facing Frederick the Great of Prussia.
In 1774, Frederick ordered his subjects to begin growing potatoes. His praiseworthy goal was to protect Prussians from famine should any year’s wheat crop fail. But there was a problem. The potato was a widely despised vegetable in Frederick’s time. As one town wrote in protest, "The things have neither smell nor taste. Not even the dogs will eat them, so what use are they to us?"
Frederick quickly changed his strategy. He arranged to have potatoes planted in the royal garden, and stationed guards to protect the crop from thieves. Of course, local peasants reasoned that any vegetable worth guarding must be worth stealing. Soon, stolen potato plants were flourishing in gardens across Prussia, and Frederick’s hedge against famine succeeded. In fact, it succeeded so wonderfully that modern-day visitors routinely decorate Frederick’s grave with potatoes instead of flowers.
Frederick did not tout the practical benefits of potato farming. He didn’t need to. Instead, he simply created preconditions that allowed his subjects to associate the potato with a prestige it had never had before. The association was never announced or imposed. It was purely the creation of his consumers’ psychological white space.
One would think the threat of famine would be enough to make Prussians accept the potato, but it took an aspirational fantasy to get their shovels into the ground. That’s the thing about psychic white space. It gets filled with stuff that might make sense only to the beholder. Consider the scene outside Toronto’s flagship Roots store this past Valentine’s Day.
Some 150 Drake fans camped out overnight in freezing temperatures for a chance to spend $458 plus tax on a limited-edition Drake tour jacket. The thinking in those shoppers was probably similar to what went through the minds of the 18th-century potato thieves: I will have something that raises me up in other people’s eyes. I will have something in common with the elite. The most ambitious marketer would not dare to be explicit with a message like that, and if he tried, he would fail.
A consumer’s psychic white space is so irrational and impulsive that marketers would give anything to access it. But that’s precisely what separates sophisticated marketers from mediocre ones. The mediocre marketer pretty much puts the brief in front of consumers and orders them to read it. By contrast, the sophisticated marketer knows that a restrained selection of words and images can be enough to make the consumer print the brief himself — all in the white space between his ears.
As a case in point, let’s review the very polarizing ad done recently for Cadillac by the Interpublic agency Rogue:
People outside the United States are offended by the pomposity of this spot, by its arrogance. Some Americans are embarrassed by it, too, and have been quick to point out how, not so long ago, GM needed a taxpayer-funded bailout to stay in business. But were the offended or embarrassed ever going to have Cadillac on their new-car shortlist? No, they were not. Cadillac and its agency made the brilliant decision to speak only to those consumers whose white space craves an un-ironic celebration of America’s strengths.
Ever since the dawn of social media, marketers have spoken lovingly of the new possibilities surrounding brand conversations. But perhaps the time has come for us to acknowledge that the most powerful discussion is the one to which we’ll never be privy — and that is because it is being held in the privacy of our consumer’s mind.
Toronto freelance copywriter Suzanne Pope is the founder of Ad Teachings.