The danger of disimprovement

Why we should stick to one single message

In his 1961 classic Reality in Advertising, Rosser Reeves recounts a tale about former president Calvin Coolidge.


“Coolidge, sitting patiently in a stern little New England church, listened attentively to a minister who had preached steadily for two hours.

A friend, later, asked him what the sermon was about.

“Sin.”, said Coolidge.

“What did he say?” persisted the friend.

“He was against it,” said Coolidge.

Reeves, pioneer of the “Unique Selling Proposition” continues with the point: “The consumer tends to remember just one thing from an advertisement—one strong claim, or one strong concept.”

The fact is, the more we say, the less our audience will hear.

Every time we feel like we should add another offer, another product, another message, or another focus to our marketing, we should try to pause.

Then, it’s good to ask ourselves, “Is our market position the fact that we have many prices, many products, many services, and many promotions? Is that the one thing we want our potential customers to know about us?”

Because that’s the effect unfocused marketing tends to have, along with the possible implication that the advertiser does too many things to be really great at any of them.

Having many products under one roof may, in fact, be our positioning, but if it isn’t, we should make sure that’s not the primary message we’re sending by including too much in our marketing.

Everyone’s busy and we see thousands of marketing messages every single day.

Which means it’s simply too much to ask that people remember the details of our ads or content.

They saw it for a fraction of a second while they were on their way to do something else. Or, I suspect, they skimmed it between eight other newsletters they got today.

It’s okay—even vital—to repeat and reinforce our single message in multiple and varying ways.

Like E. B. White said, “When you say something, make sure you have said it. The chances of your having said it are only fair.”

But we don’t want to veer off our main message or make our marketing try to do too much. That’s what mid-century advertiser Howard Gossage called “disimprovement,” or the act of “making things worse by trying to make them better.”

Of course, we’re always going to be tempted to just add one more little thing, or make sure we’re highlighting every single one of our product’s capabilities.

But we should try to remember that everything we add diminishes the effect of what was already there.

It’s not easy to leave something alone, to let it be finished—especially if we didn’t have a direct hand in its creation—but that’s probably the truest test of a good marketer.

As Ogilvy once wrote, “Any fool can write a bad advertisement, but it takes a genius to keep [their] hands off a good one.”

So say one thing. Say it well.

And try to stop once you’ve said it.