The Monday Morning Quarterback

Ten Ways to Make Sure Your Advertising Works

Years ago the owner of a New York department store said that half of the advertising dollars he spent annually were wasted.

He said his problem was that he didn’t know which half.

Today there is good reason to believe the wasted portion is what an advertiser spends on the creation and production of advertising.

We Americans, exposed to millions of dollars worth of advertising daily, hardly remember even the most recent ad we’ve seen.

National audience research annually lists a “Top Ten” of stand-out ads – consigning all the others to unmemorable oblivion. In other words, good ads are one in a million.

Is it that bad? Why does ineffective advertising clutter the landscape and abuse our eyes and ears like packs of screaming monkeys?

It’s my humble opinion that there is, in place, all across the country, from local media and agencies to New York and London conglomerates, a generation of advertising professionals that neglected to learn the basic structure of salesmanship and storytelling in advertising.

I believe there is a classical structure to a successful ad. This has nothing to do with layout or design or production technique. Classical structure is common to all successful advertising for web, TV, radio, newspaper, out-of-home, direct mail – all of it.

It is possible to make a great ad with a classical structure whether or not you are working with the best agency, the best artist, the best photographer, or the best videographer. However, you can work with the best people in the world and, if your ad has no structure, your ad will not work.

The classical structure of a successful ad is comparable to a good book, movie or story with an exciting beginning, a compelling middle, and a satisfying ending. For this analogy, I am indebted to Robert McKee, an outspoken story structure educator.

There are three equal pieces of the successful ad structure pie, just as there can be three acts to a Broadway play or a Hollywood movie.

Act 1: The Objective. The creator of an ad knows that the advertiser has a product or service to sell that will fulfill the needs of a certain segment of the audience.

Act 2: The Conflict. The creator of an ad knows that there is a value placed on the product or service that will overcome consumer objections to the time, effort and distance required to make a purchase.

Act 3: The Conclusion. The creator of an ad must resolve the conflict and request the appropriate response.

What is important to note here is that this classical structure works precisely because the audience instinctively expects it; anything else confuses the audience and results in less effective advertising that doesn’t sell anything.

Years ago a journalist asked avant-garde film maker Jean-Luc Godard, “Surely you agree that a film must have a beginning, middle and an end?” The surrealist film director replied, “Yes, but not necessarily in that order.”

You’ll note that Godard is today revered as a great artist and not a terrific product pitch craftsman.
But that is exactly the deal. Producing good advertising is a craft, not an art. Like all crafts, there is a set of agreed-upon facts that lead to a successful production. Though there are surely more principles than I will list, herewith are ten ways to be sure your advertising works:

1. Every ad has a protagonist – that is, someone who is in charge. The ad’s audience already knows that the advertiser wishes to provoke a favorable response. In an ad, the protagonist-advertiser is in charge of the sales effort. No outside force can come between the protagonist-advertiser and the audience. Therefore, only the advertiser can affect the audience’s comprehension of the message.

2. Every good ad features an advertiser presenting a conflict to the audience. Advertising conflicts include price against value, convenience against distance, and consumer loyalty to another brand against consumer desire for change. Advertisers naturally face competition in the marketplace. The volume and quality of the audience that decides to turn into purchasers will be wholly dependent upon how the advertiser deals with competition (aggressively, or, less successfully, passively or reactively).

3. To attract impressions, ads must be attractive. Brevity is everything. Image is all. Extraneous words and activity (visual or otherwise) are absolute dead ends that the audience will rebel against by changing channels, turning the page, or worse, developing a bad opinion of the advertiser.

4. Never lie. Ever. Why? Because it’s wrong, that’s for sure.

5. Respect the audience. Audiences understand that complexity can be a good thing but that complications are not. Overcoming audience objections about the difficulty you are presenting – you’re asking them to get off that damn sofa and buy something – is hard work. Audiences are distracted, but they can take in a great deal of information once they become interested. They want to know how things work, but not necessarily how things are made. If you are selling cookies, show someone enjoying a cookie. The audience will instinctively appreciate it.

6. Know the advertiser as well as you know yourself. Find out what makes them tick and you’ll be allowed to make good advertising that they don’t understand. This will be an important step, because advertising is for customers, not advertisers.

7. Good ads have a beginning, middle and end. The audience wants to know why they should pay attention to your ad, and so you must offer an exciting reason right at the beginning. As your ad progresses, you must reassure the audience with a compelling reason why their time is being well spent. By the time your audience finishes with your ad, they should be fully aware of the subsequent actions you expect from them and pleased that they took the time to pay attention.

8. Every good ad has subtext. This is one of the most important – and usually forfeited – aspects of good advertising. There is something behind every good ad that brings out shared emotions in the audience. This is called subtext. It’s the purely irrational, emotional connection between the advertiser and the audience. It comes to the creator of the ad by knowing the advertiser inside and out.

9. Question everything. Nothing improves an ad better than constant questioning of its usefulness at every stage of its development.

10. Ask for the sale. Ask in the image. Ask in the headline. Ask in the copy. Ask again and again. Then beg. There’s no such thing as a successful, standoffish ad.

If, as the philosopher Norman Douglas said, you can tell the ideals of a nation by its advertisements, it follows that the great audience out there in the dark understands the ideals of advertisers through the ads we make. Employing classic structure, creators of advertising can increase response and sales by making advertisers’ ideals and objectives resonate.

And if you ask me, that’s the truth in advertising.

~Art Reker, Account and Creative Executive