Updated: Jun 19, 2022
Let's face facts:
Your ads probably suck.
How do I know this, having seen 0 of your ads?
Because most ads suck. It's one of the common things that ads paradigmatically do.
So ... now what?
The thing is, sure, your ads probably suck -- but you already know this.
If you are here, reading this blog, it could be because you are bored out of your mind and hard up for reading material ... but probably it's because you have ads, and they aren't achieving what you'd hoped, and you kind of suspect that they pretty much suck and you are looking for pointers so that you can get them to stop doing that and maybe do something else instead, like convincing any of the 832 people who apparently viewed your last one to finally stop dithering and buy something.
If this were a consultation, and we were troubleshooting your ad strategy in my virtual office hours, I'd interview you about your ideal audience, and then I'd take a look at your ads, and we'd figure out where these two pieces of our puzzle were missing each other -- and we'd design a test ad to see if it closed the gap, and then we'd do it again until we got the match we were aiming for.
But this is a blog post, and I can't see what missteps your current ads are making, and you don't want to waste time designing new ads that also suck, just in a different way.
So, in the interests of efficiency, here are three of the more common reasons why ads suck, and -- most importantly -- what to do about them.
I recommend you print this list out and use it as a reference when you are building your next set of ads.
Or hire me (I like this option a lot).
Here we go!
1. The ad sucks because it's really just an announcement.
Obviously your ad has to give people some idea of what's for sale and when/where/how to buy it. But if that's all your ad does, it's only going to be effective on people who already know something about the thing you're selling and have decided they want it -- people who are only waiting for an opportunity, basically.
There actually are a few situations in which the ad-as-announcement works fairly well. What these situations mostly have in common is that the context of ad delivery is set up so that your audience is pretty much guaranteed to be pre-selected to consist mostly of people who already have, and know they have, a reason to be interested in what you are selling.
Prime examples here include a notice via the school loudspeaker that prom tickets are now on sale, or the lead singer of a band reminding concert-goers from the stage that albums and T-shirts and bumper stickers are all available at the vendor booth just outside.
Not all juniors and seniors will buy prom tickets, and not every concert attendee will spring for a piece of band memorabilia. But in both cases the group hearing the "ad" is guaranteed to consist mainly of people who have a reason to listen and who understand themselves to have a reason to care - they aren't going to go "What's this got to do with me?" mid-announcement. In both situations, also, persuasion isn't really called for, or even useful -- the people who want the thing have in all likelihood already decided they want the thing and planned to purchase, and the ones who don't want it have some reason (lack of a prom date, already owning all the band's T-shirts) that no amount of clever advertising is likely to overcome.
There's no reason to waste energy and ad copy trying to convince people who need no convincing, or trying to persuade people whose reasons not to buy are outside your ability to address.
2. The ad sucks because it is all about the item.
I know I'm going to get some funny looks for this one. Should the ad not be about the product or service that's for sale? What else would an ad even be about?
These are totally fair questions, but:
It's all about emphasis.
Ads that are just announcements suck because they don't explain –– they don't give a reason to purchase, they just inform audiences what's for sale and (probably) where and for how much.
Ads that are all about the item suck because they give reasons why someone might want the thing, but they fail to show why these people would want the thing.
Ads that suck in this way tend to involve a lot of product description: They go to great lengths to explain why the product (or service; it works the same way) is so darn great.
The brand Stihl makes top-of-the-line chainsaws.
I still don't need one.
You can describe the features of the latest Stihl chainsaw to me all day (although I kind of wish you wouldn't). That isn't going to turn me into a Stihl customer unless you can convince me that I need a chainsaw in the first place.
Before you can convince me to care that you are running a 20% off sale on Stihl chainsaws, you need to convince me to care about chainsaws, period. Otherwise, the news that the chainsaws you have for sale are both excellent and cheap won't inspire me to rush down to your hardware store and stock up on them.
Usually, giving your audience "a reason to care" comes in the form of highlighting a need they will recognize themselves as having, and showing how the item in question is going to meet that need.
Ads for liquid drain cleaner (product) or a plumber (service) that show somebody struggling to unclog a drain may fail on other grounds (a topic for another day), but they do a solid job of giving any member of their audience who has a clogged drain a reason to care about the item that's for sale.
Think about the need your item meets, or the goal it makes attainable. Think about who would be in a position to have those needs or goals. And then show where your item fits into that picture (really, each of those pictures; if there is more than one option, there should be more than one ad).
#3. The ad sucks because it is NOT about the item.
At this point, you might reasonably accuse me of just having you on -- the ad sucks because it's about the item, but then it sucks if it isn't? Come on!
Hear me out:
The people you want to reach need to know, first, why they should care what you're selling... but then they also do need to know what you're selling.
I probably don't see ads that suck because they neglect to clearly identify what's on offer as often as I see ads that suck because they are really just announcements or ads that suck because they are really just product descriptions -- but I see them a lot more often than I ought to see them, which would be "never."
I have a hunch that most ads in the "wait, what's the product?" category can be chalked up to experiential marketing gone wrong.
Experiential marketing is the advertising trend -- I started to say "fad," but it's been around long enough that's probably unfair -- that says you aren't selling a product, you're selling an experience.
I've always felt that "selling the experience" made more sense for some products and services than others. I've been involved in selling concert tickets and museum passes, and in those cases yes, of course, we are selling the experience -- I guess technically there ARE tangibles, if we issue printed tickets/passes, but those are obviously not the things that people are paying for; they are just how people demonstrate that they've paid and are therefore entitled to enter the building and partake of, you guessed it, the experience. But I have also helped to market art objects and handmade jewelry, and while you probably could say you are selling the experience of looking at the art or wearing the jewelry, you'd have to perform some mental gymnastics to get there and I'm not sure what advantage that would confer over just selling the goods themselves.
Like most other slogan-ready ad strategies, experiential marketing has some genuine insights that can be valuable if you use some common sense in applying them. Do it well, and experiential marketing can help you connect with audiences' anxieties and aspirations at the point where your item intervenes to help them resolve their fears or realize their dreams.
Do it poorly, and you end up with something like the unintentional surrealism of those early Cialis ads. What have bathtubs got to do with erectile dysfunction? Why are these people taking their baths outside? Are the separate bathtubs a metaphor? WE MAY NEVER KNOW.
I'm being hard on the Cialis advertisers here, but it's because they were handed possibly the easiest marketing job in history -- tell people who miss sexual intimacy they can get it back if they take this one pill -- and still managed to almost blow it. Cialis survived as a product (not just a pharmaceutical) for two reasons:
a) The people actually deciding whether to spring for this purchase are usually doctors, so you don't have to convince patients it's worth X investment; you just have to convince them to ask their doctors, "Hey, what's this drug and would it mean I can have sex again?"
b) people who miss sex are really, REALLY motivated to fix this problem; it's about physical pleasure but also about intimacy and human connection and the ability to feel loved and assure someone who matters that THEY are loved; you will get a buy-in and level of commitment from your core audience here than in almost any other topic you can imagine - your audience is willing to do some of the heavy lifting for you when it comes to "get the nookie back," but you can't count on that kind of cooperation on other topics and, really, you shouldn't be expecting your audience to do your job for you anyway
The way to make sure you don't inadvertently leave your audience wondering if new bathroom fixtures are an unexpected treatment for erectile dysfunction is to really focus on that point at which the thing you are selling intersects with the problem your audience is having or their trajectory toward some goal they want to reach.
That's the part the Cialis advertisers missed; the whole bathtubs thing (besides being some weird imagery) ran parallel to the problem and its intervention; associationally, you can kind of tell that the dancing and the wine-drinking and the outdoor bathing in the Cialis ads are all meant to be indicators of romance in some way, and by giving you a 36-hour window for use Cialis theoretically gives you a better opportunity to enjoy those moments and set the mood, etc. -- but there is no point at which taking Cialis logically intersects with the activity shown in the ads such that what we see at the end (the happy bathtub outcome) is clearly a result of having taken the pill sometime in the previous day and a half.
The meet-point is (almost) everything.
Realistically, it probably also helps if the experience you decide to sell is one your audience might reasonably want to have. I've often thought a lot of confusion could have been spared if somebody on the ad team had thought to ask, "Look, if I told you 'take this pill and sometime in the next 36 hours you will send up sitting outside in a bathtub overlooking wine country next to your partner, who is also in a bathtub but not the same one' ... would you take that pill?"
Or even shorter: "Would you like to sit side-by-side in separate bathtubs on a date?"
Ad creatives can be a zany bunch, but I feel sure that even the wackiest of them would have no trouble determining that most people do not really want to be taking baths next to, but not actually WITH, a romantic partner, and that even if they did they wouldn't especially want to be doing it buck-naked on a hillside in the middle of nowhere (or in any of the several other scenic but otherwise inexplicable locations those Cialis bathtubs have inhabited over the years).
So if you want to use experiential marketing, and you find that to be a useful framing for thinking about ways to connect with your audience, go ahead.
Just be sure you actually do connect with them, instead of trotting alongside for 30 seconds of ad space. And remember that in advertising, as in so many other areas of life and work, it's a matter of grabbing "the right tool for the right job." If you are selling tickets to an Alaskan cruise, then showing images of people enjoying sunning themselves on deck or flicking past pictures of sweeping Alaskan wilderness will probably be about as effective as any pitch you could make. If you are running a fruit stand, you absolutely CAN choose to market your business by selling the experience of shopping at a fruit stand, if you want to. But you could also just say you've got really great watermelons and let your customers infer that they will enjoy the experience of eating them. I don't often advise students or clients to trust their audiences to make connections unaided, but I really think most people will be able to make that particular leap.