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When influencing opinion, heart not head

Adman says farmers should use stories to make an emotional connection with consumers

Ticked off city people don’t get agriculture?

Instead of spewing facts, employ emotion, veteran adman and host of CBC Radio’s, “Under the Influence,” Terry O’Reilly, said here at Ag Days Jan. 18.

“My industry (advertising) has proven time and time again that information doesn’t necessarily move people,” O’Reilly said. “You have to attach emotion to it.”

For years frustrated farmers, touting “sound science,” have extolled the safety and value of genetically modified (GM) crops, pesticides and other modern agricultural tools, but critics remain.

Although O’Reilly never referred to it in his address, ‘emotion,’ has arguably been effectively used to attack GM crops and pesticides. One of those emotions is fear — fear that both are unsafe.

Perhaps without realizing it, O’Reilly was saying fight fire with fire.

“If you have an image problem in the marketplace, you just can’t inundate people with facts and figures and hope to change their minds about it,” O’Reilly said. “You have to move them on an emotional level. And you have to make people feel your messages in their gut, not just process it intellectually in their brains.”


The way to evoke emotion is through stories.

“Stories make people care about issues, things and problems,” O’Reilly said. “And if people form a positive image about you they will buy your product, they will stand by you. They will even fight for you if they feel good about you.”

He also said to remember stories can communicate in intangible things like trust — something that’s paramount for the food and agriculture sector. Storytelling can also add value to your products. Information may inform people, but stories move people.

“A great story is aimed at your heart, not your head,” O’Reilly said.

Skeptical? This story might change your mind. O’Reilly said his friend Rob Walker tested the impact of storytelling recently on eBay. He bought four mundane items at a flea market, including a used meat thermometer for 75 cents. Walker posted the thermometer on eBay with the following story: “Everything had a temperature in those days. Cheese was cold, avocados were warm, my heart was a piece of hot meat pierced by love’s thermometer.”

The thermometer sold for $51.

Not convinced? The other three items — crepe paper, a picture frame and a small wooden mallet — were purchased for $1.99, 59 cents and 33 cents, respectively. They came with stories too and sold on eBay for a whopping $59.50, $21.80 and $71. The mallet sparked a bidding war.

“These stories… made somebody feel something about those boring products,” O’Reilly said. “Those stories increased the desire in somebody to own those products. And more importantly they added an incredible value.”

Each of the items stood out on eBay and the reason is that all the other items on eBay had no emotional content,” O’Reilly said.

Take action

Stories needn’t be fictional. By taking a chance and exploiting opportunities a business or industry can create their own stories. Take U.S.-based Morton’s The Steakhouse. A hungry businessman about to board a flight to New Jersey tweeted he’d like the restaurant to deliver him a steak when he landed in two hours. And to the businessman’s delight and astonishment, a Morton’s representative, dressed in a tuxedo met him with a 24-oz. steak, shrimp, potatoes, napkins and silverware.

The businessman tweeted: “OMG I don’t believe it. Morton’s showed up at Newark with the porterhouse…”

A lot had to happen to pull it off, O’Reilly said. Someone monitoring Morton’s social media. Someone quickly approved a crazy idea. The food had to be prepared and driven 23 miles to the airport. And someone had to track down the tweeter.

“It was not only outstanding customer service at work here, it was a great story,” O’Reilly said. “And that story became great marketing because it was shared all over the Internet, all across North America. Morton’s Steakhouse had taken the time to respond to a customer who loved its product even though it did not know that man personally. Morton’s Steakhouse chose to take advantage of an opportunity not even knowing if anything more would come of it, other than making that one man happy at that gate that night. But it still did it. And by doing it, it created a remarkable story.”

Trust is powerful

There are three lessons here, O’Reilly said:

  1. Opportunities create stories.
  2. Look at the world through fresh eyes.
  3. Powerful stories can be told with just 140 characters on Twitter.

Farmers already enjoy a good image, but there is some misinformation they need to counter, O’Reilly said later in an interview.

“Farmers are the most trusted occupation in Canada,” he said. “And that is a wonderful starting point because others would give their left hand to have that much trust. So tell compelling stories. If you want to talk about trust… don’t say ‘trust me,’ just tell me stories about trust. Use storytelling to tap into the emotion of people’s hearts and you can never lose.”

Farmers shouldn’t be too aggressive in countering their critics either.

“Don’t start a fight, but instead tell your side of it,” O’Reilly said. “If science is a big part of it, figure out a way to bring meaning to the facts. Don’t just use the facts because you’re looking for meaning, you’re looking for emotion. There is lots of emotion in science.”

About the author


Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.


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