Ira’s third video on storytelling is by far the most popular.

So much so that it has been featured on numerous blogs and even been turned into an Kinetic Typography video. Take a look:

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Basically, Ira Glass is describing the positive side of the Dunning-Krueger effect.

The Dunning-Krueger effect basically says that the perceptive abilities, sensitivity, and awareness necessary to know that you suck at something, are the same perceptive abilities, sensitivity and awareness necessary to (eventually) become skilled at that very thing.

So if you have good taste — the aforementioned perception, sensitivity and awareness — then you have the potential to become good, or even great, but you’re stuck making stuff that you know kind of sucks until your craft skills catch up with your taste and ambition.

Believe it or not, that’s the positive side of the Dunning-Krueger effect. The negative side is that the totally incompetent lack the ability to sense their own incompetence. They suck like a hoover, but think they’re great.

But the positive side is only positive if:

  1. You retain your ambition to be great and don’t settle for becoming a hack, and
  2. You work through that awful feeling of knowing you are consistently creating stuff that’s “not that great,” as Ira puts it.

And while this might have very self-evident relevance for creatives and craftspeople of all kinds, including copywriters and advertising professionals, this video’s relevance to advertisers and business owners might not be so evident.

So I’m going to give you my spin on it…

From an advertisers perspective, I think this video speaks to:

  • Linear, no-threshold thinking,
  • Minimum Effective Dose, and
  • Cumulative Effect

Linear, No-Threshold Thinking

Linear, no-threshold thinking assumes that a function is predictably scalable. That if you do twice as much, or half as much, you’ll get double or half of the result.

But more often than not, there are thresholds and inflection points, and diminishing returns which make linear, no-threshold thinking dangerously misguided. If you buy a ticket halfway to Europe, you don’t end up with a half a European vacation; you just end up stranded at sea. 80% of the parts of an engine don’t get you 80% of the horsepower.

And to borrow an example from my partner, Roy H. Williams, if…

“Reliable data tells us exactly how many motorcycle riders have died trying to navigate an S-curve at 100 miles per hour. The straightforward logic of traditional accounting, with its linear, no-threshold thinking, predicts one-tenth as many deaths at 10 miles per hour.

But we know this is ridiculous. The number of riders that die at 10 or 20 miles per hour is likely to be zero. There is a threshold speed at which the curve becomes dangerous. Any extrapolation that crosses that threshold is certain to be inaccurate.”

These kinds of thresholds are inevitable when dealing with human response. Especially when it comes to advertising. There is a threshold of interest, relevance, and impact for ads: the threshold which moves an ad from background noise into conscious awareness. If any ad fails to reach that threshold, it becomes essentially invisible, and would require nigh-unto-infinite repetition to get results.

And assuming that you have given your ad writer something worth saying, then the factors which determine whether your ad crosses that threshold are what Ira Glass might call the taste, ambition, and honesty of your ad writer.


If your ad writer is a hack — if he accepts adspeak, hype, and advertising cliches, or tries to bluff with fluff on the production side — then your ads are never likely to cross the threshold of impact. And no matter how much frequency you load into your ad schedule, your ads won’t move the needle on sales.

If your ad writer aspires to be great and has a modicum of talent and craft skills, then your ads will likely cross the impact threshold. As Leo Burnett said, “When you reach for the stars you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either.”

And of course, it’s not only a matter of impactful vs. not impactful. It’s also a matter of how impactful. The more impact your ad carries, the less repetition is required. LBJ’s “Daisy” ad is a classic example of an ad so powerful, it only required one airing to make an impact (pun intended):

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And, this is where talent and craft really take over from taste and ambition. The more skilled and talented your ad writer, the more impact he (or she) can bake into your ads.

Minimum Effective Dose

What do you think will happen to your headeache if you take 20 mg of Ibuprofin?

Nothing, right? Because while Ibuprofin can be a godsend for getting rid of headaches, the minimum effective dose is 200mg, with most adults taking 400mg or more.

If you take significantly less than 200mg, you’ll recieve no benefit.

Simlarly, If you go the gym for a day or even a week and complain that it didn’t work, you simply didn’t meet the requirements of the minimum effective dose. You’ll see some benefits at the end of a month, but plan on 90 days for real changes that others will comment on.

And it’s no coincidence that Stephen King compares writing to weightlifting. Want to be a professional writer? Better be prepared to put the time in every day becoming a “stronger” writer. Just like Ira Glass says about doing great creative work.

The same thing applies to Advertising.

Most mass-media branding campaigns require enough frequency and duration—enough of a minimum effective dose—to really work their magic. You might get lucky and see some results in 90 or 180 days, but plan on a full year or longer at a high enough frequency of ads to get a minimum effective dose.

And just like with working out (or, in Ira’s case, with doing great creative), there’s a certain level of frustration and chickening out you just have to work through. Be prepared for this chickening out period, and take Ira’s advice: fight your way through it.

Cumulative Effect

Cumulative Effect is the other side of the coin from Minimum Effective Dose. Assuming your ad passes the threshold for relevance and impact, and that you’ve scheduled enough frequency to give the audience a minimum effective dose, the persuasive power of your ad will build over time.

You might just be starting to see results at the end of a year, but those results will accumulate and build. You’re not starting over each year, you’re standing on the persuasive results you gained from the year before.

For Ira Glass, the cumulative effect of doing a lot of ambitious work and working through your frustration period is to breakthrough into the ability to speak in your real, authentic voice, and to do interesting and special creative work that matters.

For advertisers, the cumulative effect of your advertising is certainly about increasing your market share and moving the needle on sales. But it’s also about finding your advertising voice and hitting peak stride in your ads and campaigns.

Most TV shows, and especially most comedies, get better after a season or two. The Simpsons first season wasn’t as good as what was to come. It took a season or two to really hit its stride. Same thing with Seinfeild. And most advertising campaigns are like that. The results build with time, but so does the authenticity of the voice and the impact of individual ads.

And that folks, is what I took away from Ira’s third video on storytelling. If you saw something else in the video, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.


  1. mahanay on 03.05.2015

    Ira Glass On Advertising Part III – via @JeffSexton

  2. Michel DuBil on 03.13.2015

    That the “Daisy” ad required only one airing to make its impact is not strictly true. Its impact went only to the issuing agency and a handful of collegiate advertising majors who got giddy over the cheap sucker punch.

    One airing was distasteful enough to cause the Republican candidacy to sue for its removal. The example does not uphold the ad’s impact. It was an unsuccessful ad. Millions of voters did not see it because it ran only once.

    Roy Williams does not approve of ads that run only once.

    That the ad was not ready for prime time suggests the writer was a hack who wasted a lot of money on whimsy.

  3. Jeff on 03.13.2015


    Thanks for commenting. Unfortunately, I have to (vehemently) disagree with your appraisal.

    By all accounts the Daisy ad was incredibly successful in solidifying the public’s fears of Goldwater’s potential for overly-aggressive and reckless use of nuclear weapons, should he become President. And it did this without mentioning Mr. Goldwater’s name. The ad simply caused the viewer to recall, in his own mind, Mr. Goldwater’s proposal to use nuclear weapons to defoliate Vietnam, or his well-known assertion that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” The ad also evoked memories of the still-recent Cuban missile crisis.

    The ad utterly changed political advertising forever and, to this day, remains one of the most, if not the most, famous politcal ads of all time. To say that the ad’s impact “went only to the issuing agency and a handful of collegiate advertising majors” is absurd. I’m not sure what ax you have to grind over this — you’re not Goldwater’s relative, are you? — but I think it’s clouding your view of the situation.

    Also, if you know anything about who wrote the ad, you’ll know that this ability to pluck a “resonate chord” in the listener — to cause the audience to read between the lines — was a dominate theme and ability of the late, great Tony Schwartz. A man who, by all accounts, would be the exact opposite of a hack. Tony Schwartz was a noted media theorist, praised by no less than Marshall McLuhan for his insights, and also one of the highest paid and most effective radio advertising experts ever to grace the businesss. Calling such a man a “hack” is not only risible but insulting.

    Finally, while you are right that Roy doesn’t approve of ads that run once, that isn’t the same as denying the rare ability of an ad to make an impact or be effective on one airing. Good strategy isn’t based on the rare exception. So relying on an ad to do it’s job in one airing is largely unsound strategy. And is especailly so for the 99.99% of people in Roy’s audience. The vast majority of ads simply aren’t powerful enough to make an impact on one viewing. And most media aren’t so widely viewed as to capture a significant audience on one airing.

    More to the point, Roy is advising business owners on how to build a brand, not to write an ad for an immediate sale. And Roy is correct, you can’t build a brand in one ad, let alone with a single airing for that ad. It requires significant repetition, consistency, and frequency over time to do that.

    But none of that means that an ad can’t make an impact with a single airing. In addition to the Daisy Ad, I’d cite Theodore Macmanus’s “The Penalty of Leadership,” which ran only once in The Saturday Evening Post, and helped Cadillac overcome negative publicity from their first foray into 8 cylinder engines. It was an ad that de-positioned Packard as a automotive leader, without mentioning Packard, in much the same way as the Daisy ad de-positioned Goldwater as a sensible candidate.

    So, yes, Michel, there are a few, extraordinary ads that have made an impact on a single airing. And, yes, the Daisy ad is not only one of them, but an outstanding example of that phenomenon.