What I Learned About Advertising From Working in the Mental Hospital

The first night I worked the midnight-to-eight shift I realized two things.

First, I was working with one other guy. And second, the two of us were locked in with 49 mental patients.

The second night I realized that my first night was my training, my only training, and the other guy hadn’t told me anything. I also learned that I would work alone every other night. That’s right, just me and 49 mental patients. Why every other night? Don’t ask me, I just worked there.

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So what does working in a mental hospital have to do with advertising? Well, for one thing, when you're locked in alone with 49 mental patients, learning to persuade large groups of people comes in mighty handy. I was just out of high school and needed money to go to college. Money I expected; the advertising training was a bonus I didn't grasp until years later. Now I'd like to pass it on to you. Here are five lessons from the mental hospital designed to help anyone in the persuasion business.

1. Things aren’t what they seem.

They told me when I started that we were the attendants and the inmates were crazy. But, what I saw didn’t match what they told me. I'm not a mental health professional, so all I know is that the people in charge had a view of reality that didn't match mine.

One night I was working with a highly regarded attendant, and we had to give a patient a penicillin shot in the butt. He said as we approached the guy’s bed, “Be careful; this guy’s dangerous.” The patient was sleeping on his back. So, the so-called highly regarded attendant grabbed him by the shoulders and tried to force him to turn over, and that started a fight, and we had to restrain the guy to give him the shot.

The next night I worked the same ward alone (Remember that every other night thing?) and I had to give that patient another shot. So I’m standing beside his bed with the needle, thinking how am I going to pull this off alone. And the patient in the next bed says, “You know the guy’s practically deaf, don’t you?” So I yelled in the guy’s ear, “Turn over; I have to give you a shot.” The so-called crazy person said, okay and turned over; I gave him the shot, and that was it. The mental patient in the next bed had better information than the people in charge.

Things weren’t what they seemed in that place.

Later when I ran an advertising agency, I learned that so many of the things we dreamt up inside our ivory tower office were just plain wrong or irrelevant in the outside world.

And we weren’t alone. People in charge of advertising agencies and corporations were making big decisions based on bad information, including big, bloated research reports that told you everything except what you needed to make a smart decision.

2. Look into the heads of the people you’re trying to persuade.

Try something new. If you use market research, do some of the interviews yourself. That will give you a shot of reality you can't get from just reading a research report. And make sure you use the right kind of research, or you could spend more money than you should, get confused or just plain tuckered out. Check my blog post "How research dumbs us down." You'll see how the least expensive research gives you better understanding than the most expensive research.

If your company or client has a salesforce, tour with them. Smart sales people can teach you how to create more persuasive messages. Plus, you can watch them use their sales materials and see what works and doesn’t and learn how to make sales aids that really aid. Going on sales calls may seem like an obvious idea, but the sales people would tell me all the time, “You’re the first advertising agency person to ever do this. Our own marketing people don’t even come out here.”

This kind of research is quick and inexpensive and always made our work more effective.

It's also the best tool I've ever seen to sell marketing and advertising ideas to whoever has to approve them. That's because it gives you credibility. For one thing, you can start your presentation with words like: "I've been talking to your customers, and here's how you can beat your #1 competitor." Or: "I've been touring with your sales people and…"

Most of my marketing clients get separated from their customers and sales people. The best ones know it, but they're busy with management stuff, so they value anyone who stays in touch with their market. One of my best clients was a tyrant who had principles that everybody had to live by. There was one principle, though, that overrode all others. If you took the time to understand the customer's point of view, you had the last word.

In my next post I'll cover the persuasive power of patterns and a demonstration approach that makes people believe. You’ll get all the benefits of working in the mental hospital without having to work there.

Look for me on April 13th.