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Ten Rules for Good Advertising

By Jim Rhodes

I have written on this question before, but it keeps coming up in meetings with clients, so I hope you won’t mind if I revisit the subject. The department store magnate John Wannamaker (1838-1922) is reported to have said: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half.”

So what makes an effective ad campaign? There are two components: (a) the media in which the ad appears, and (b) the ad itself. In this post, I’ll focus on the latter.  Why is one particular ad better or worse than another?

For a good many years, the late lamented trade magazine Business Marketing (in recent years reincarnated as BtoB Marketing) ran a popular column called “Copy Chasers,” in which an anonymous team of experienced creative types critiqued ads submitted by readers.  I still have a yellowed clipping from the magazine listing the Copy Chaser’s 10 criteria, and I refer to it often when we are creating ads for our clients. While these rules come from an earlier time when print magazines were the primary media for business-to-business (B2B) advertising, I believe that they mostly translate to other online media as well.

 Photo Credit:  Echo-Factory.

Here are the rules:

1. Use high visual magnetism. On average, only a small number of ads in an issue of a magazine will capture the attention of any one reader. Some ads will be passed by because the subject matter is of no concern. But others, even though they may have something to offer, fail the very first test of stopping the reader scanning the pages. Ads perish right at the start because, at one extreme they just lie there on the page, flat and gray, and at the other extreme, they are cluttered, noisy and hard to read. An ad should be constructed so a single component dominates the area – a picture, the headline or the text – but not the company name or the logo. Obviously, the more pertinent the picture, the more arresting the headline, the more informative the copy appears to be, the better.

2. Select the right audience. Often, an ad is the first meeting place of two parties looking for each other. So there should be something in the ad that at first glance will enable readers to identify it as a source of information relating to their job interests – a problem they have or an opportunity they will welcome. This is done with either a picture or a headline – preferably both. The ad should say immediately to the reader, “Hey, this is for you.”

3. Invite the reader into the scene. Within the framework of the layout, the graphic designer’s job is to visualize, illuminate and dramatize the selling proposition. The graphic designer must consider that the type of job a reader has dictates the selection of the illustrative material. Design engineers work with drawings. Construction engineers like to see products at work. Chemical engineers are comfortable with flow charts. Managers relate to pictures of people, and so on.

4. Promise a reward. An ad will survive the qualifying round only if readers are given reason to expect they will learn something of value. A brag-and-boast headline, a generalization, or advertising platitude will turn readers off before they get to the message. The reward can be explicit or implicit and can even be stated negatively, in the form of a warning of a possible loss. The promise should be specific.

5. Back up the promise. To make the promise believable, the ad must provide hard evidence that the claim is valid. Sometimes, a description of the product’s design or operating characteristics will be enough to support the claim. Comparison with competition can be convincing. Case histories make the reward appear attainable. Best of all are testimonials. “They-say” advertising carries more weight than “We-say” advertising.

6. Present sequence logically. The job of the graphic designer is to organize the parts of an ad so that there is an unmistakable entry point (the single dominant component referred to earlier) and the reader is guided through the material in a sequence consistent with the logical development of the selling proposition.

7. Talk person-to-person. Copy is more persuasive when it speaks to the reader as an individual – as if it were one friend telling another friend about a good thing. Terms should be the terms of the reader’s business, not the advertiser’s business. But more than that, the writing style should be simple: short words, short sentences, short paragraph, active rather than passive voice, no clichés, frequent use of the personal pronoun “you.”

8. Be easy to read. Font should be no smaller than 9points. It should appear black on white. It should stand clear of interference from any other part of the ad. Column width should not be more than half of the width of the ad.

9. Emphasize the service. Many B2B advertisers insist that the company name or logo be the biggest thing in the ad, that the company name appear in the headline, that it be set in boldface wherever it appears in the copy. That’s too much. An ad should make readers want to buy – or at least consider buying – before telling them where to buy.

10. Reflect company character. A company’s advertising represents its best opportunity (better than the sales force) to portray the company’s personality – the things that will make the company liked, respected, admired. Messy ads tend to indicate a messy company. Brag-and-boast ads suggest the company is maker-oriented, not user-oriented. Whatever it is, personality should be consistent over time and across the spectrum of corporate structure and product lines.

On the next post, I'll touch on the first component of an effective ad campaign, the media which the ad appears in.