Opinion: On the campaign couch ... with JB

We're close to hiring a senior person who has some "previous" in agencies. Having had a very strong recommendation from the headhunter (who's placed him before), and on the basis of several interviews here, we're convinced of his side of the stories and are about to take the plunge. We've tried to get references from previous employers but the legislation has made them all so cautious, all they'll provide are the dates of employment. Our PR suggested leaking the rumour that we're about to hire him to gauge the reaction in the trade press, but if they all hate the idea won't we look silly for even thinking about it? Help!

You can see why this senior person is so well-thought of by his headhunter: he's very well paid and he comes round every 18 months or so. The perfect client. I think you can discount that recommendation more or less completely. In a village as small and as gossipy as ours, I find it surprising that you're dependent on written references from previous employers. Haven't you taken one of them out for a Waterhouse lunch? You should. In fact, I suspect you're suffering from Fourth Wife Syndrome: "Damian's difficult, everybody knows that, but he's brilliant. The others simply couldn't handle him. Damian says I'm the first woman he's ever met who really, really understands him." It's also what the Fifth Wife will say in a couple of years' time.

Someone mentioned your adverse criticism of an advertisement for long-handled nail clippers for leading with a headline along the lines of: "Getting on a bit? Having trouble bending over?" Reportedly, you didn't like this approach because it stated the obvious to the prospect in a faintly insulting manner. You said you would have preferred a positive headline, such as: "How to have neater toenails."

But if you are right, how do you then explain the success of self-identifying headlines that flag down target customers using quite small spaces? I'm thinking of lines such as "Hard of hearing?", "Need help with your English?", "Pregnant? Can't find anything to wear?", or indeed "Male impotence?" (Apologies, but I didn't note the actual examples you gave at the IPA Finance Conference.)

Whoever reported all this to you was clearly a hard-of-hearing financial director. But since I keep on saying that any failure of communication is invariably the fault of the communicator, I suppose I must reluctantly take the blame for this travesty of the truth. (It's no good storming out of a focus group, shouting: "Idiots!" If they didn't get it, it's your fault, not theirs.)

Self-identifying headlines are great. As Jim Young said 70 years ago, all readers of all ads make an instant, almost subconscious judgment: either "That's for me" or "That's not for me". If I have got piles, then by far the best headline is: "Haemorrhoids?" If I haven't got piles, I won't even notice the ad.

The point I was making was a different one. All the best bits of communication not only allow for but actively encourage a contribution from the receiver. A joke is not a joke until someone has "seen the point". Posh references: E H Gombrich refers to "the beholder's share" and Arthur Koestler wrote: "The artist rules his subjects by turning them into accomplices." Receivers become part-authors; and who's going to challenge something they contributed to?

Before you can entice an audience into collaboration, you first need to understand them. Long-handled toenail clippers are designed for that increasingly important market that is mainly defined by euphemisms: senior, grey, silver, evergreen. And I can tell you from first-hand experience that people in that market know only too well the consequences of being in that market. So all that stuff in the headline about getting on a bit and having trouble bending is not only unnecessary; it denies the reader the chance to participate.

If the ad I'm reading simply says "NOW! New long-handled toenail clippers from Snippex!", my immediate response is: "Long-handled? That's great! That means I can now cut my toenails without bending! I shall certainly send for some forthwith!" And because I have added that last bit myself, it's all the more persuasive. I've concluded something rather than simply accepting it passively.

To deny your audience the chance to participate is the equivalent of explaining the point of a joke just before you get to it. It's clear you don't trust them to get it on their own. So you've insulted them as well.

(On re-reading this, I find I've left nothing for you to contribute. Sorry about that. But see my answer to the previous question.)

"Ask Jeremy", a collection of Jeremy Bullmore's Campaign columns, is available from Haymarket, priced £10. Telephone (020) 8267 4683

Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@ haymarket.com or Campaign, 174 Hammersmith Rd, London W6 7JP