What makes effective ad copy?

This will probably be the area where I depart farthest from the mainstream Madison Avenue crowd whose ‘pap’ invades our ears and assaults our eyes on a daily basis. I parted company with most film makers years ago, so what’s one more gold star I won’t be getting at the top of my conformity exam?

I come from a generation of storytellers. Besides a shiny silver quarter if you’re young enough, or a platinum credit card once you’ve outgrown hard cash, there is very little in this world that will hold someone’s attention better than a good story. A truly effective commercial is often nothing more than a miniature story, usually lasting anywhere from 15 to 60 seconds, whose purpose is to sell something or motivate people to take an action. There are certain rules that govern a story…among them: there should be a beginning, a middle and an ending. A story should also deliver a message. Sound like some commercials you remember? If a spot doesn’t deliver a message, and deliver it clearly, it probably won’t do the advertiser much good. The ‘in your face’ concept, that includes repeating your name and phone number as many times as possible, simply has you playing in the same league as everyone else; it may even get you noticed but won’t get you remembered.

How many times have you found yourself scratching you head, trying to figure out exactly what the sponsor is selling or even who the sponsor is? Just when you decide they’re pushing the cheese, it turns out to be the wrinkle-free jeans. About the time you get comfortable with the exotic new car, the commercial ends and you don’t know who makes it or how you’re going to get it down off that peak in the Himalayas. So you get into your trusty old clunker, back carefully out of the driveway, and go buy some cheese. All you took away for the millions the advertisers spent to reach you was a hunger for Gouda…because they gave you nothing clear to remember, didn’t tell you what they wanted and never ‘closed’ the deal with you! It’s pretty basic stuff. Especially when you’re asking for something don’t expect people to think, right down to letting them know when your spot is over [that’s right, it needs an ending]. Be clear in your message and, by the way, don’t forget to ask for the business! It doesn’t get more basic than that, yet it’s probably the most forgotten rule in all of advertising.

The spots that fry my fish are the ones where the advertisers assume you already know who they are. I wonder how much money circles in the swirling water until the ceramic bowl sucks it under, because somebody’s corporate ego got the best of him. Nike can get away with just showing you a ‘check-mark’ since they’ve already invested bazillions of bucks to establish that symbol as their ‘brand’. You probably aren’t Nike and need to leave more than just a calling card for identification with your target audience. Let’s see what happens if we divide the word assume in just the right places: ass / u / me. Enough said?

You’ve probably heard references made to the theater of the mind. Whether broadcast or print media, engage it. People can be made to see the word picture you’re painting with very little extra effort. If I tell you, “Don’t think of a purple elephant” what happens? She sneaks in there, doesn’t she? Now, whatever you do, don’t imagine her performing pirouettes in a tutu. Oops! I’ll bet it happened again! See what I mean?

It’s fine to be entertaining. Entertainment can help draw attention to your spot but be careful not to out gimmick yourself by getting in your own way. I frequently hear the statement, “People don’t have time to listen to a story anymore”. To me that’s just an excuse for writing bad copy or not giving it your full creative attention. A minute is still a minute, no matter how you fill it. Why not fill it with something meaningful? Receiving your message is one thing, remembering it is another…and there is nothing easier to remember than a story. Whether you’re approving copy or writing it, keep it clear, be direct and be a storyteller!


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