How the Legendary Hollywood Actor Orson Welles Created the World’s Most Infamous “Advertorial”
In 1938, a little-known actor and playwright named Orson Welles and his cast got on the air of CBS radio to perform a “radio drama,” which is simply a dramatic story told over radio. What would later come would be known as the greatest prank of the 20th century.
The drama was called “War of the Worlds,” consisting of a series of make-believe news reports about an alien invasion from Mars, complete with news cutaways and battle sound effects.
After it aired, it turned out that much of the audience had believed it was real! And it made Welles an international celebrity overnight.
It even got him a lucrative contract with a Hollywood studio and made the hit movie Citizen Kane, which is considered the best movie ever made.
But the real marketing lesson here is to understand why “War of the Worlds” made people go absolutely bonkers believing it was true.
It was written as hyper-accurate newscast that had seemingly gone terribly wrong and was very believable.
Consider it to an advertorial.
For those reading this and are not familiar with the term, an advertorial is just as it sounds: it’s an advertisement dressed up to look and read an editorial.
Stylistically, it has a journalistic-like headline and the body copy is written in paragraphs in black-and-white and little-to-no graphics.
And it’s an extremely successful sales vehicle for direct response marketing because, not unlike non-poisonous snakes in the wild that mimic the colors of more deadly ones, an advertorial tricks the mind into thinking it’s an article about something the reader cares about and then hooks them with the USP, big promise, credibility, etc.
It’s too bad Welles wasn’t selling anything, because if he was, the War of the Worlds broadcast could have been the greatest ad of all time because he had the audience so captivated and established credibility that he could have sold them anything at that point (probably bomb shelters).
Lesson: Your market needs to hear the solutions to their problems that you are in business to solve. Using advertorials and sponsored content is a great way to lure your ideal prospect in and get them to read your (cloaked) sales pitch which can be used in any number of markets.
Imagine you focus on the female weight loss niche, you could do a whole report on how hormones affect weight loss or the 10 best alternatives for eating healthy while out with friends, or the best vacations to relax and lose weight on, etc. And you could use scientific research, testimonials, and whatever other credibility booster to add to your pitch.
David Lowenthal is an independent direct response fundraising serving libertarian and other freedom-loving nonprofits.
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