What’s a Good Ad?

As we roll into the advertising maelstrom that is the Super Bowl, every marketing expert in America gets asked to talk about the ads, before, after, and sometimes during the event. Which were the best? Which were the worst?

Over the years I’ve developed my own criteria for TV ads that I’ll be thinking about when I see the game this weekend. Let me share them here:

A Good Ad Captures Customer Attention

If customers don’t pay attention to your ad, then the rest of this doesn’t matter. I picked up a great line somewhere over the past couple of years: “A good ad is one that makes you look up from your phone.” In our multiscreen age, I think that’s a pretty good criterion.

Especially in the Super Bowl, a lot of ads seem to rely on noise and bright visuals to get us to look up, but that’s not the only way. One of my favorite ads goes back to the 1991 Super Bowl, a Nike ad called “Heritage.” A solitary runner moves through the darkened streets of a city accompanied by quiet, haunting piano music. As he runs, he passes by huge projections on the sides of buildings of famous Nike athletes and great sports moments. A full 90 seconds of solitary peace. The story goes that when the ad originally ran, people looked at the screen precisely because it was so quiet: “what happened to the sound?” The music was considered so powerful that it was re-used eight years later for a commercial when Michael Jordan retired.

The other way Super Bowl advertisers often try to get our attention is with kids and animals. Recall the beloved Darth Vader “Force” Volkswagen ad from 2011, when a child in a Darth Vader costume tries getting the Force to work with no success until his father surreptitiously flashes his (VW) car’s lights. This is a perfect example of what’s called “borrowed interest.” While the ad was a viral sensation and thus built awareness, using kids and animals to grab our attention when kids and animals have nothing to do with the product is at some level cheap gimmickry. (NB: “cheap gimmickry” should not be a synonym for “advertising.”)

In contrast, if you can make something cute an integral part of the message, then you have something! EDS’ 2000 Super Bowl ad famously brought the concept of managing IT projects as “herding cats” to hilarious life as a group of grizzled cowboys brought “10,000 half-wild shorthairs” safely to town.

A Good Ad Identifies the Product, Brand, or Company

While there may be exceptions, mystery is not a good quality in an advertisement. One of the worst phrases you can hear in a verbatim is “what was that an ad for?” It often seems to occur in fashion advertising or teaser campaigns. An infamous example of the latter was the Infiniti “rocks and trees” campaign, which, ahem, showed no cars. So the brand name or the product should appear somewhere, either beginning or end, and long enough that fast forwarding won’t completely blur it out. (Interestingly, there is some evidence that people absorb brand names even when fast forwarding.)

A Good Ad Should Focus on a Big Idea

What’s the key message of your ad? If you can’t say it in a few words, I guarantee your customers can’t. In class, I’ll talk sometimes about the “bumper sticker”. Can you convey a message concisely enough that it would (readably) fit on a car bumper? People are bombarded with advertising messages every day: can you make yours easy to remember?

This is where all those brilliant tag lines come home: The Ultimate Driving Machine, Just Do It, Curiously Strong Mints, Can You Hear Me Now? I bet you can guess the brands for all of those (BMW, Nike, Altoids, Verizon Wireless).

A Good Ad Stresses Benefits, Not Features

I am a big fan of Clatyon Christensen’s “jobs to be done” framework. People don’t buy your product because it is big/powerful/pretty/cheap/etc. They hire your product to perform a job for them. So don’t tell me your razor has five blades, show me it gives me the closest shave ever. Even then, that’s a functional benefit. Emotional benefits are likely to be stronger. How does a close shave make me feel? High-tech products are particularly likely to fall prey to “feature-itis.” Yes, specs are important, but they shouldn’t be the highlight of an ad.

A Good Ad Addresses the Target Market Appropriately

Don’t insult your target market. Don’t make your customer feel bad about him- or herself. Usually companies get into trouble with this because they are trying to be funny, but it isn’t always funny to the person involved. Many years ago, Compaq ran an ad targeting women customers for their computers. The ad stressed ease of use. Unfortunately, the execution — a series of computer usage mishaps — made it look as if women were too dumb to use existing computers, which did not appeal to the professional women Compaq was trying to target.

A Good Ad Meets its Objectives

This is arguably the most important criterion. You have objectives for your ad, right? Is it to build awareness? Remind people to buy you? Inform about a new product? What do you want to have happen after the ad has run? You should be thinking about how you will measure that and how to make sure your ad generates the results you want.

I Like It is Not Enough

Finally, beware the ad that the boss or the client simply likes. It’s surprising how often this still happens. A striking visual may be funny or moving, but unless it fulfills the other criteria, it’s unlikely to be successful.

Have a good criterion or a best/worst ad? Share in the responses. And enjoy the game.




A practical business professor musing on marketing and management from his not quite ivory tower. Writings do not represent the views of Northeastern University

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Bruce Clark

Bruce Clark

A practical business professor musing on marketing and management from his not quite ivory tower. Writings do not represent the views of Northeastern University

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