2016-12-12_1415If you’re serious about creating great ads, you’ve undoubtedly seen and studied them.

Legendary ads created by the giants of the industry. Ads created by the likes of Ogilvy, Bernbach, Burnett, Lois, Ally, Riney, Clow. Ads that can be referenced by name alone.

They’re supposed to be teaching aids. Unfortunately, most copywriters look at those ads and decide to copy the superficial: the style of the ad, the layout, or the exact phrasing of the headline.

What they don’t copy is how the ad solved a communication challenge — the strategic approach that the advertising team took to make a point more credible, or emotionally resonant.

Here’s an example of one of those classic ads I mentioned. The “Lemon” ad from Bernbach’s VW campaign:

volkswagen_lemon_hires1 Now, there are two major takeaways from this ad, in my opinion:

  1. The (at that time) shocking idea of putting a derogatory word or title next to a picture of the product
  2. Showing off  quality by spotlighting a manufacturers willingness to discard items that fail to meet exacting standards

Now, if you’re a schmuck, you’ll copy the “Lemon” headline exactly as is (and justify it as an homage), rather than copying the strategy. And maybe it’ll work OK-ish for you so long as you include the second takeaway in your body copy.

But if you’re smart, you’ll figure out how to get the juice from the strategy without ripping off the exact headline. Instead of copying the exact phrasing, you’ll copy the strategy and make it your own.

In other words, you’ll do something like this:


Now, the headline isn’t quite as punchy as “Lemon.”  And, no, the ad ain’t perfect.

But whoever wrote this captured the “throw out anything that doesn’t meet exacting standards” strategy perfectly. And the ad works.

In fact, I was just browsing the magazine it came from at an airport when the ad leaped of the page and smacked me upside the face. I ended up buying the entire magazine just to be able to scan the ad.

And that’s how you steal an ad idea: look for the underlying persuasive strategy, copy it, then make it your own.

P.S. If you’ve never read the book Steal Like An Artist, it’s got lots more advice on how to steel ideas and make them your own. And it comes highly recommended by yours truly. 


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