Uncle Sam, the Call to Action Man

Greg Lowe

April 15, 2013

In 1917, as World War I raged in Europe, British Intelligence intercepted a coded message known as the Zimmerman Telegram. The telegram, sent from the German Empire, contained an invitation for Mexico to join the conflict and launch an attack on the United States. The message was the final straw in a string of provocations and on April 6, 1917, the United States Congress ended its policy of non-intervention and declared war on Germany. Soon, the United States was sending 10,000 soldiers a day to France and was in desperate need of military recruits. From this need sprang the famous Uncle Sam U.S. Army recruitment poster, which declared “I want you for U.S. Army” and provided the address of a recruitment center.

Though imbued with a deep sense of patriotic purpose, the poster teaches an important lesson about advertising that is still relevant today. Through the ad, the United States government, personified by Uncle Sam, was calling the American people to action. In advertising, such invitations are known as “Calls to Action” or “CTAs.” Through the use of Calls to Action, marketers state exactly what they want consumers to do next. For the consumer, they provide a clear and easy next step for acting on interest. Though particularly applicable to online communications, CTAs can also be very useful in traditional advertising. When properly used, a Call to Action can provide multiple benefits:

  • Increased Conversion Rate – Visits, page views, and impressions are nice, but if a company isn’t converting eyeballs into purchases, it won’t succeed. Effective CTAs translate traffic into transactions.
  • Enhanced Engagement – Calls to Action encourage user participation. This engagement increases the recall of information over passive exposure.
  • Improved Analytics – Direct responses to clear CTAs are easy to measure.
  • Clear Goals – Formulating a Call to Action forces a marketer to think through his/her goal for a marketing piece.

Because their purpose is to simplify the user’s path to purchase, CTAs are generally displayed very prominently within a piece. While sound design principles should dictate the specifics of CTA placement, Calls to Action should generally be obvious and prominent in their style and placement. Often this means that they are bold, colorful, and catchy. When advertising on digital mediums, companies may consider displaying a CTA as a prominent button, rather than an obscure text hyperlink. A good CTA will include an action word like “continue,” “click,” “download,” or “join.” Most importantly, a Call to Action clearly communicates what the marketer wants the consumer to do next.

While there are occasions in which a pure branding campaign, void of a CTA, may be appropriate, such occasions are rare. Branding campaigns are primarily the prerogative of behemoth brands with massive marketing budgets, expansive target audiences, and obvious consumption paths. Even companies that have traditionally engaged in branding campaigns are beginning to see the benefit of CTAs. Laurent Faracci, U.S. chief marketing manager for Reckitt Benckiser, a consumer-packaged-goods heavyweight, recently remarked that ideally, “100% of our digital media would have a call to action.”

In today’s competitive environment, most companies can’t afford to spend marketing dollars to buy impressions and build recognition. They need their advertising to prompt immediate action. Effective Calls to Action are one of the most successful ways to translate traffic into transactions. When producing advertising materials, companies should remember the example of Uncle Sam and boldly declare to the customer: “I want you to take an action!”