H&R Block’s “Billion Back” Commercial In A Football Stadium Is Brilliant Advertising

Now that I’ve given you an example (here) of what I consider to be a bad commercial for mental model associative purposes, I want to shine a light on the positive and discuss with you a commercial I find to be brilliant and try to explain why I think that.

First, I should define my terms. I define a “good commercial” for the purposes of our conversation as something that makes you more inclined to actually buy the product being sold. This is the obvious, basic truth of advertising. Just as some operational companies go adrift by focusing on sales and total revenues for an extended period of time to the detriment of bottom-line profits, some companies likewise go adrift with their advertising campaigns by trying to be funny, evocative, or “create buzz” even if it does not actually make people more likely to buy the products being sold.

This confusion is understandable because all great advertising faces a certain a dilemma, an internal tension to resolve: How can you be both entertaining and persuasive? If you focus too much on trying to be entertaining and show half-dressed women with a Pepsi on the table in the background, then you are going to catch people’s attention but you are not going to actually be selling that many more Pepsi’s (I know an apostrophe doesn’t go there, but “Pepsis” looks too weird for a place on this blog) than otherwise.

However, if you turn your product into an informercial that simply lists features, then you will be about as captivating as a prospectus on liability insurance. You may be informative, but you won’t be persuasive because people will be using that commercial slot as a chance to talk to the other people in the room or take a bathroom break.

Now, let’s take a look at what H&R Block has done with their recent commercial as part of their “Get Your Billion Back, America” series.


Take the 31 seconds and give it a watch. This is what a perfectly executed commercial is like. It’s persuasive and makes a call to arms that will eventually lead to more clients and profits for H&R block shareholders; they point out that Americans left a billion dollars on the table by doing their own taxes, and call for you to use their service. The whole commercial is actionable.

But it is also entertaining; simply stating a number like “billions” or “tens of billions” or “trillions” is a nebulous concept that is often used with such frequency that they have a glazing, dulling effect on the listener. It’s like when you hear a pundit or analyst use the term “global economy”. The term has become so clichéd that it is devoid of meaning so that when you want to take about a truly global company like Coca-Cola doing business in 210 countries, you won’t adequately catch people’s attention because the term has become so overused it is nearly meaningless.

That’s what makes this commercial so successful: they “tag” the billion dollars by making it tangible. The concession worker putting $500 on every seat represents your money. You can’t practically smell it, touch it, taste it! The narrator then creates an effective juxtaposition by highlighting the enormity of $1 billion (pointing out it represents every seat in every stadium across professional sports) while also making applicable to you; that $500 sitting on the seat represents money that you could be leaving on the table by not using their services.

The commercial is brilliant because it focuses on what they can do for you, rather than focusing on the cost it will be to you. Most commercials say something like, “Instead of $99.99, you can get it for $49.99!” But this commercial shifts the terms; how can you get mad about paying $150 (or whatever the fee that the H&R block tax professional ultimately charges you) when you are getting your $500 back. This is a very persuasive permutation of the “you can’t afford not to buy it” segment of advertising.

These are the kind of soft factors that go towards the qualitative side of investing. No, you aren’t going to make a buy or sell decision about a stock based on an advertising campaign; at most, it represents two or three out of the thousand puzzle pieces that go into making an investment decision. But if I were a shareholder of H&R Block, I would be proud of the company’s strategy with this advertisement. You can tell that the people running this campaign didn’t lose sight of the objective that the end game is to ultimately improve profits, and with that end goal in mind, they crafted a strategy that achieves its persuasive effects through entertainment and information, using visceral imagery and clear-minded appeals to your economic interests to accomplish their goals. These people understand psychology, and know what they’re doing. It’s very well done.

Originally posted 2014-01-14 23:17:17.

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13 thoughts on “H&R Block’s “Billion Back” Commercial In A Football Stadium Is Brilliant Advertising

  1. says:

    Yeah, I see what you mean with that commercial. However, as someone who used to work at H & R Block, I wouldn't recommend them to anyone. They charge insane amounts of money for tax preparation, while paying their preparers slightly above minimum wage. They had me do this one guy's return that took me about 20 minutes to do, and they charged the poor guy over $400. That's a lot of money for a guy that only made about $10K that year. 

    Not only that, but the company pressured us employees to market IRAs, which were nothing more than bank CDs that charged more fees than paid out interest, making it certain that clients would lose money. Not to mention that they also offered refund anticipation loans with interest rates of around 100%. Maybe that's a winning business model, but to me, it just takes advantage of people who don't know any better.


  2. says:

    Staying strictly on the advertising front and duly noting Dave's comment, I can only say that as someone in the ad business, I couldn't agree with you more on the brilliance of this commercial. I normally bounce up during commercials to spend my time more productively in pursuing the million housekeeping tasks always awaiting (although sometimes, it's to get another beer), but this one stopped me in my tracks during a football game last weekend. Great concept, finely executed. Nice analysis on your part, too—you may have a future as an ad agency exec, Tim! (Oh wait, you'd prefer to hang out in cafes collecting dividend checks; I almost forgot!)

    Now, as an editor on the punctuation front, I empathize and support you wanting to avoid that "Pepsis" affront to the eyes, but Tim, my man, making it into an incorrect possessive "Pepsi's" masquerading as a plural is no solution at all to your dilemma! The world's English teachers are rolling in their graves as I type, I am certain! Much better just to go with the singular, changing "that many more Pepsis" to "that much more Pepsi." Pepsi in that case stands for every Pepsi, all Pepsi everywhere, not just the one bottle someone grabs off the shelf.

    This gentle suggestion brought to you at no charge, no pitch to buy an IRA, nor to take out a refund anticipation loan for your next tax return…    🙂

  3. Ed R Cassel says:

    Dave, just because you failed to be satisfied at H&R Block is no reason to mislead others regarding the company.  I am in my 13th year with HRB as a preparer.  An individual with $10K would no doubt require a 1040EZ and a state equivalent.  That is typically $40 for each.
    IRA's were promoted for a period until it was determined others do a better job.  The type of IRA investment was up to the investor not an automatic CD.
    As an employee, you were paid according to your knowledge and abilities.  My earnings last year were far in excess of minimum wage.  Sorry you didn't make it, just stick with the facts.  There is a reason HRB is the biggest and the best.  My returning clients tell us so.

  4. says:

    Ed R Cassel DaveSchauber  

    Hey, I KNOW WHAT I SAW when I worked there, so I'm not misleading anyone. 

    I personally prepared this guy's tax return, and THAT is what they charged him. The guy in question had self-employment income, requiring a Schedule C. He also got the EIC and had dependents, which required more paperwork. If you've been doing this for 13 years, then you should "no doubt" know that a 1040EZ will not cut it in that particular situation. Yes, he got back a lot of money in connection with the EIC and the tax prep fees were taken out of his refund so he didn't have to pay out of pocket, but I don't see that as a reason to charge someone that much money for tax prep, not to mention the predatory interest rates on that "Rapid Refund" crap they were offering at the time. And, yes, the interest rates on that were pushing 100%. Also, consider the Emerald Advance, which was offered to people prior to the holidays, where people who qualified could borrow money at the reasonable rate of 36%! If THAT ain't a winner, I don't know what is!

    "IRA's were promoted for a period until it was determined others do a better job.  The type of IRA investment was up to the investor not an automatic CD." 

    Yeah, sticking your money in a mattress would have done a better job than what they were offering at the time (2008). At the time, the only thing that was being offered was a bank CD at H&R Block Bank, which was paying out miniscule rates, which were outdone by the annual fees that were being charged. Maybe this has changed since then, but that is what was happening when I worked there. And, when the office manager saw that I wasn't selling many of them, she threatened to require me to attend some sort of "training" at an office three hours away. When she did that, I told her what she could do with the job. 

    If you worked there for 13 years, then yes, I can see where you're making more than minimum wage, since you generate commissions with your client base (they're never customers, always 'clients'). However, in your first year, you don't make much more than minimum wage.

    HRB is "the biggest and the best" mainly because there aren't that many other options, other than dealing with a local CPA who would charge you out-of-pocket for tax prep fees, where HRB would deduct the fees from your refund. 

    Anyway, maybe they've changed some things since I last worked there, but I can't imagine the changes have been that drastic. 


  5. says:

    Ed R Cassel 

    And, as far as saying I "didn't make it" goes, I left by choice. I wanted to do right by the customers (or "clients" as you HRB folks call them), and I just couldn't do that while working in that capacity. After a while, listening to customers (mostly low-income) express their displeasure with excessively high tax-prep fees, and being expected to defend the indefensible, gets pretty old. The BS about selling the IRAs was just the final straw.

    But, I'm glad you like what you do. Have a good tax season!


  6. DavidPeterson1 says:

    Interesting that this conversation migrated into whether or not H&R Block overcharges or not.  The conversation was originally about the series of commercials that are aimed primarily at people that are bad at math.   Putting $500 on each seat hints to the idiots that they might have overpaid by that much per person.   

    Does no one realize that with a third of a billion people in the US (330,000,000), a billion overpaid in taxes is only $3 per person?  Maybe $5 if you consider that kids do not pay taxes. (non-filing adults would be considered in the average)

  7. lot_steve says:

    My experience with H&R Block has been thus far successful. They genuinely want to help people. Take the FREE second review for example. Maybe you don't want to pay the fees, so you prepare your own taxes. Before you file them, you can bring them (along with your last 3 years of returns) to H&R Block and they will review them for free. If you have additional monies that were overlooked or a credit that got missed, you could have thousands of dollars that you've left behind. For a fee to file the necessary paperwork and get you those back taxes that are owed to you and you deserve, its really a no brainer. It's FREE MONEY, people! Regardless of whether you like the company or not, for a FREE REVIEW, its worth the time it takes. They help a lot of people get a lot of money that was missed by someone else.

  8. Whateverusername says:

    Were you aware that english is a living language? (Shakes his head in dismay) think about it for a moment there editor. Now once you’ve come to a conclusion on this matter, discard those thoughts and reconsider.

  9. Chris205 says:

    I think this commercial is misleading. It makes it sounds the the government holds everyone’s tax refunds in a big pot and if you do your taxes wrong you won’t be getting yours back. There is no way for the government to know how much it will be or should be returning to taxpayers until they file their return. H&R is using peoples fear that they are somehow now smart enough to file a return without professional help to pursuance people to use their service. If they don’t use H&R theirs neighbor may get the money that they should be getting. People are smarter than that. The commercial sucks!

  10. SuddenSam says:

    I think it's a good, attention capturing commercial… and that was the topic of the article, right? Not the honesty or character of the company. It works visually, although IF we were to debate the merits or the math it leaves less impact than it could.

    The Michigan Wolverine stadium is currently the highest capacity football stadium in the US, with a capacity of almost 110,000.

    Basically the commercial states that taxpayers are leaving over a billion dollars on the table, and at the time we are seeing a panoramic view of a huge stadium – therefore our minds only take that one stadium into account when we picture money in the seats. 

    IF you were to use the Michigan stadium and put $500 on each seat you would end up with $55,000,000… a little over 5% of one billion. On the other hand, if one were to put $10,000 on each seat you would end up with 1.1 Billion.

    I'm just an old country boy, but if you offer me $10,000 in one hand and $500 in the other I'm going for the big fist every time!

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