I recently came across this post on Joss Whedon’s 10 Tips for Writers and thought that the tips applied equally well to advertisers and ad writers.

If you’re asking yourself “Joss who?” — you’re missing out! Joss Whedon is the script doctor that worked his magic on Toy Story when the whole movie was in jeapardy of failing. He’s also the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and Serenity. But if none of that really strikes a bell, then you probably will recognize him as the director of the blockbuster Avengers movie.

At any rate, I found his writing tips to be thoughtfully on-target, so here’s my advertising-centric translation of Whedon’s 10 Tips:


In business/entrepreneurship this means “Ship,” as Seth Godin would say. But to stretch it past that a bit and into the realm of advertising, I’d paraphrase David Ogilvy and say, Don’t buy a ticket half-way to Europe — finish the journey.

From a branding perspective that means don’t mess around with 12 different platforms, campaigns, and media; commit to one campaign, one primary media and buy enough repetition for a long enough time to finish the job you started.

From a direct mail perspective, actually mail out the letter — finish that job, for sure — but also commit to a series of mailings, or a mailing followed up by a sales call, rather than a one-off postcard.


To quote from Joss Whedon’s original advice: “Structure means knowing where you’re going; making sure you don’t meander about.” In small business that means having a grip on your business model and your goals and not falling prey to bright shiny object syndrome.

From an advertising perspective it means work in campaigns. Don’t move and meander from one unrelated ad to another unrelated ad; have a campaign and an over-arching messaging and brand position that you stick with. Know where you’re going and have the discipline to get there. Note that advertising one sale after another automatically condemns you to meandering without structure.


Again, to quote from Joss Whedon “This really should be number one.” If you’re paying to be on the air with radio or TV, or you’re paying to mail a message to someone, you really need to have something substantive to say. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a Unique Selling Proposition (USP), but you should have:

  • an offer to make,
  • a value that you stand for (or something you stand against),
  • and an advocated position around your business/industry that you’ll stand behind.

And, really, just like in writing, having something to say IS the #1 thing about advertising.


I don’t care if you’re the branding equivalent of Apple, Harley Davidson, and Jack Daniels all rolled into one: your role in the lives of your customers is at the far periphery. Your relevance and interest is extremely limited. Keep that in mind and figure out those contexts in which you are relevant to customers. Tie your product or service back to the things that really do exist at the center of customer’s lives. Don’t let your advertising presume that your business is important to people outside of those narrow contexts in which you can help them with an immediate problem or concern.

As a corollary to this, realize that for most products and services, advertising through mass media means that 98% of the people seeing (or hearing) your ad are NOT currently in the market for what you sell.

Some people see this as a bad thing, but the truth is that speaking to people who aren’t (yet) in the market for what you sell is really one of the best things about broadcast media.


Because the best time to convince people of how wonderful you are is BEFORE they need you. The idea is to have these people enter into the market — to start their use-case scenario — already biased in your favor.  You don’t want them typing your business category into Google and making a decision based on search results. You want them typing your business NAME into Google, having already (largely) made their buying decision.

But if you take this approach, you must realize that you’re talking to people who aren’t inherently interested in your product precisely because they are not yet in the market for it. That means you must give these listeners a reason to pay attention anyway.

In other words, you have to seduce and entertain people into paying attention.  Make your ads more interesting and entertaining than the thoughts currently running through the minds’ of your audience. And do it in a way that strengthens rather than obscures your sales message.

Being both entertaining and on-brand and persuasive is tough, but it’s what separates the pros from the amateurs in the advertising game.


Clients will often be so enamored with things they love and that they feel the prospective customer should care about, that they’ll insist that you put it into the ad. Sometimes the customer does (or can be made to) care about it too. Then you’re in luck.

Unfotunately, it’s more likely that the customer will remain totally apathetic about your client’s pet obsession no matter how much he “ought to” care about it. And that’s when the business owner (aka your advertising client) has to follow the advice to “cut what you love” and focus on what’ll actually move the needle.

And of course, as a copywriter, you often have to “kill your darlings” (aka cut some of your best lines) in order to strengthen the overall ad copy — especially when you’re running short on time for that 30 or 60 second script!


If the idea is to talk to the dog, in the language of the dog, about what’s in the heart of the dog, then that means you’ve got to:

  1. Understand what’s in the heart of the dog — what the prospective customer really cares about, and
  2. Have a sense of the language of the dog — what kind of words, attitudes, phrases, etc. your customers really use when talking about their desires and frustrations and needs.

You can’t know or do any of that without listening to the customer. And these days, a lot of listening is done through your eyes by searching through reviews, forums, and social media comments. Listen to how people talk and what they talk about so that you can talk to them in your ads about the same things they care about, using the same language they use.


This one goes along with “Listen.” You’re goal is to emotionally connect with your audience. You want your ads to cause them to think of you first and feel the best about you when they DO finally need what you sell. That way they come to you as a preferred provider and recognized expert — someone worthy of premium pricing. In order to do that you have to separate out the effect you intended your ads to have from the effect they actually have.

Sometimes the feature or benefit or the line of copy or brandable chunk that you think will really connect with people doesn’t, while some seemingly “throw-away” phrase or line resonates in a way you never anticipated. If you’re tracking the audience mood, you’ll be able to do more of what resonates and less of what falls flat.


This means write cinematically and visually. This is easy to understand for TV, but it applies equally well to radio. It always amazes me the amount of people in radio who talk about “Theatre of the mind” but don’t really understand what the phrase means or never write ads that create that kind of cinematic response in listeners’ imaginations.

So regardless of whether you are creating TV Ads or Radio Ads, write your ads like a movie rather than an ad. Don’t just talk about your product or services benefits, dramatize them. Sear the mental image of that benefit onto the imaginations of your audience.


Yes, I know: this contradicts Tip #6. Stick with me a moment and it’ll all make sense.

When your ad has impact and can’t be ignored, and especially when such an ad is aired with the proper frequency to make a difference, you’ll get complaints. An ad’s ability to attract is inextricably linked to it’s ability to repel; if nobody hates it, nobody will love it either.

So when you’ve got an emotionally powerful, un-ignorable ad on your hands, prepare yourself (and/or your client) to get complaints. Expect the complaints to come, and then don’t listen to them. Apple’s “I’m a Mac” campaign got a TON of complaints, from all kinds of people who thought the campaign was mean spirited or smug or whatever. Good thing Apple decided not to listen, huh?


The reality of the customer experience has to match the promises made in the ad. This has ramifications for both ad writers and small businesses. For ad writers, it means don’t sell out by taking on clients who run bad businesses and who can’t deliver on what your ads promise.

For businesses, it means to guard against letting the customer experience slip as you grow. Instead do the opposite: reinvest in making the customer experience better and more closely aligned with the brand.

This also means occasionally allowing yourself to get “called out” on your brand promises, often in unreasonable ways. If you’ve got the guts to plant a flag and make a stand, someone will test you on it sooner or later. And you can bet that that “someone” will more than likely be unreasonable about it.

For example, someone will likley abuse your lifetime guarantee, or your “no surprises” guarantee. Then you can be like LL Bean and write off the abuse as a cost of keeping your guarantee, or you can refuse the unreasonable request, quibble over your guarantee, and add fine print to your promises. If you quibble, you sell out. And then word will get out. If you stand and deliver (even in spite of the knucklehead’s unreasonableness), word will get out on that, too. And the reward for that will exceed the cost by a factor of 10X, at least.


And there you have it. Ain’t Joss Whedon great?


  1. allantopher on 03.25.2014

    10 Advertising Tips from Joss Whedon http://t.co/kzsi2mBbWx

  2. mahanay on 03.25.2014

    10 Advertising Tips from Joss Whedon http://t.co/NwecrT80Qv – via @JeffSexton

  3. TDAllonsy on 03.26.2014

    10 Advertising Tips From Joss Whedon – http://t.co/h5uGHdr9VK

  4. houseofkaizen on 03.26.2014

    10 Advertising Tips from Joss Whedon http://t.co/QtKUqfvCRn #DigitalMarketing #Advertising

  5. kmattson on 03.26.2014

    @josswhedon is such a renaissance man that I’ll bet even he didn’t know he’s an expert in advertising, too! http://t.co/9CqYzYYseS

  6. ScLoHo on 03.26.2014

    10 Advertising Tips from Joss Whedon http://t.co/4ANY6tPLmK

  7. JWinstonC on 03.26.2014

    “10 Advertising Tips from Joss Whedon | Jeff Sexton Writes” good read http://t.co/AWpAjTrWD9

  8. AntDina on 03.27.2014

    Thanks @JeffSexton for 10 Advertising Tips from Joss Whedon http://t.co/BYOP17ZEgl

  9. bigdaydj on 03.27.2014

    An ad’s abil­ity to attract is inex­tri­ca­bly linked to it’s abil­ity to repel; if nobody hates it, nobody will… http://t.co/MrFb27FrNA

  10. virtualgo2 on 03.28.2014

    10 Advertising Tips from Joss Whedon http://t.co/94Qp385Aux – had to post this – huge Joss Whedon fan!

  11. virtualgo2 on 03.29.2014

    10 Advertising Tips from Joss Whedon http://t.co/15ndlA9ItC – had to post this – huge Joss Whedon fan! http://t.co/vAON3l2ut8