I’m sorry, what was the question?

An ad currently running for the Lexus ES starts off with this headline-as-question:

“Is it possible to engineer desire?”

I’m guessing the answer they’re looking for is yes– even though the copy never says so–and that the Lexus ES is proof. Well, fine, this wouldn’t be the first car ad that tries to juxtapose emotion and science, heart and steel, etc etc etc.

But that just makes this execution derivative.

What vaults it past derivative to silly is that question mark. It’s that school of thought that says “Don’t just tell people things. Ask them instead—it’s more involving.” Ask the right question–Allstate’s “Are you in good hands?” comes to mind–and the effect can be unsettling…or illuminating…but never boring. But ask the wrong question and the opposite happens. What better way to signal you know nothing about me and don’t care to learn than to ask me a question I see no reason to answer? Here’s another example, for a new Canon DSLR:

“When Canon created the new EOS 30D, what were they thinking?”

I don’t know. I don’t care. But what was that copywriter thinking? That the implied meaning—Canon’s done something terrible, Canon’s gone off its rocker—would give this ad a frisson of danger?

Lawyers have a sacred rule when it comes to courtroom witness examination:
Never ask a question you don’t already know the answer to. The object, obviously, is to maintain control, avoid surprises and keep a witness from going in an unproductive direction.

Copywriters might consider a different rule: Never ask a question if people don’t care what the answer is.

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