Surprise! The "Best" Ad Ain't What You Think

Surprise! The “Best” Ad Ain’t What You Think

When most people judge a Super Bowl Commercial, they typically judge it as:

  1. A piece of 30 or 60-second, feel-good theatre, first and foremost,
  2. A possible brand-awareness tool, second, and
  3. An actual ad, not at all—doesn’t even enter into the equation.

Basically, if the ad looked cool, made you laugh or gave you the feelies, and was somehow vaguely related to the brand, then it’s judged a good Super Bowl Ad.

This is stupid. 2015-02-03_2333

The first thing an ad has to do is sell.

No, not every ad has to have a hard sell. I’m not advocating for a Super Bowl full of Billy Mays-style infomercials.

But, yes, every ad should be selling.

And by that standard, the real “best” ad of the Superbowl is actually a pretty crappy ad. There’s no emotional appeal and the “idea” behind the ad, if it could even be called that, is misguided at best.

Good drama it ain’t.

The Best Crappy Ad of the Superbowl

But the ad for Jublia is really the ONLY ad that actually had a snowball’s chance in hell of making a sale.* Watch it:

YouTube Preview Image

Again, it’s a genuinely crappy ad that makes no dramatic sense.

And yet it packs enough moments of clarity—enough informative, substantive messaging—to actually sell the product.

Even during the game, at a noisy party, I was able to pick-up on and remember these three things about Jublia:

  1. It’s a new FDA-approved drug to treat toenail fungus
  2. It’s topically applied (rather than a pill), and
  3. It’s capable of going under and through the toenail to actually get at the infection and kill it.
Stupid, but the idea of a topical solution to toenail fungus that works DID get through

Stupid, but the idea of a topical solution to toenail fungus that works did get through

Hall of Fame Worthy stuff? Not hardly.

But enough of a value proposition to actually sell some product?

Yes. Yes, indeed.

I can say that because I have toenail fungus and the ad managed to sell me on giving Jublia a try.

More to the point, I bet you can’t name one other ad for a product (not counting movies and TV shows) that actually accomplished the same feat (pun intended) of making a compelling USP sales proposition of any kind?

Go ahead, name one other ad that told you something new or compelling about the product or service. Something that would likely make you consider buying, if and when you are ever in the market for whatever was being sold. Name another ad that said something of substance.

The Budweiser “Brewed The Hard Way” ad came close.

I really liked the hard stance Bud took. Yeah, “punching down” ain’t the best brand strategy—if the so-called “King of Beers” is that threatened by pumkin ale, it’s probably time to relinquish the beechwood throne—but defining what you stand against always brings clarity to the brand, and that’s a good thing. Apparently Bud stands against decent beer. God bless ’em. At least they know their target market.

And while the BMW i3 Ad got me intrigued by the new car, it didn’t actually sell me on it. Know what I mean?

So What Was The Worst Ad of the Super Bowl?

I’m not sure of the actual worst ad, but I’m willing to predict which ad represented the biggest wasted opportunity.

That would be the Loctite Commercial.

That ad cost Loctite their entire ad budget for the year. Seriously. The entire advertising budget for the freaking year.

And what did they get for a year’s worth of ad budget?

An ad that barely registered as having something to do with… glue? And fanny packs. I think. 2015-02-03_2350

But here’s the real shame of it: Loctite actually makes an awesome product that most homeowners should have on hand and would likely buy, if only they knew about it.

And isn’t that where Super Bowl ads can do the most good: for great products with mass appeal but low awareness?

The product is called thread lock (though most people refer to it as Loctite, natch), and you apply it to screws and bolts that keep coming loose. Just put it on the threads and it keeps everything “locked tight,” effectively preventing screws and bolts from backing out, vibrating loose, or rusting shut, etc.

  • Got a kid who wiggles in her seat and causes the bolts in her chair to work loose? Loctite ’em.
  • Does your lawnmower vibrate a tiny metal screw loose on the regular? You know what to do.

You get the idea: it’s a great must-have product that most people don’t know about—who wouldn’t want to advertise that on the Super Bowl? Plus, you’ve got the entire comedic world of “loose screws” and “stuck nuts” to mine… I mean, c’mon, people!

But instead of advertising that bit of greatness with a compelling ad capable of actually, you know, selling something, we had that harlem shake dance number and lame jokes built around Loctite’s me-too superglue product. Whoopee!

And that’s my curmedgeonly take on “Best Superbowl Commerical That Actually Sold A Product” along with my opinion on “Biggest Missed Opportunity.”

P.S. I am prepared, of course, to eat my words (along with some humble pie), if Loctite super glue starts selling like crazy following Sunday’s ad. If you get news of Loctite’s 2015 sales, send it to me and I’ll do a follow-up post.

P.P.S. Love to hear your thoughts on which ads kicked butt and which ones failed in the comments section.

*OK, the “Like a Girl” commercial was a brilliant piece of propaganda that “sold” it’s perspective. Kudos to it. But I believe PSA’s have a leg up on the old “relevance” department, making them an unfair, Apples to Oranges comparision when judging actual product ads. I think that’s at least one reason why we were OK with the domestic violence PSA and not at all OK with Nationwide’s downer of a “Make Safe Happen” commercial.


2015-02-01_1414Ira Glass has advice on advertising?

Well… not specifically, but he did do an amazing four part series on storytelling, and I thought I’d translate his advice to advertising, starting with the first video in the series.

The first video covers Ira’s two basic building blocks of storytelling: the anecdote and the moment of reflection. And in advertising terms, I think these are roughly analogous to Relevance and Credibility. But sticking with storytelling for a moment:

  • The anecdote is the narrative that presents action in real-time, pulls people into the “world” of the story, builds suspense, and generates interest, and
  • The moment of reflection is the part that helps raise questions and frames the meaning of the story

You can see Ira explaining these two building blocks here:

YouTube Preview Image

Anecdote = Meaty Factoid or Reality Hook = Credibility

In advertising speak, the narrative is often some interesting factoid or product feature that can then be tied to a benefit, need, or desire.

  • “Our product uses a better grade of X, so it [provides this benefit].”
  • Or, “We spend twice as long doing Y as the other guys, and that means you get [this benefit]
  • The coakroach you see in the morning is the straggler behind hundreds of others that were in your home last night.

Or it’s a reality hook that’s tied to an immediate moment of need:

  • You hit your garage door opener and hear this [sound effect of Garage Door spring breaking], leaving your car trapped in your own Garage. Now what?
  • That roach you saw scurrying away when you opened your pantry…

In the case of the factoid, the Anecdote is providing credibility and, with the associated benefit, some degree of relevance.

In the case of the dramatization, it’s 100% relevance, framed in terms of a recall cue. As in, when this event happens to you, remember [our brand promise]

Moment of Reflection = Raise Questions, Frame Meaning of Ad Campaign


Planting a flag on occupied territory involves a fight

Branding and positioning (almost) always involve theft and warfare.

The meaning of your brand and the “position” you want in the minds of consumers is usuallly already occupied, or at least contested, by another brand. Somebody else owns, or is trying to own, what you want because there are only a few positions worth owning. If you want to plant your flag on that piece of mental real estate, you’ve got to remove their flag first. Either steal the land out from under them or fight for it: theft and warfare.


That bunny HAD to keep going and going if it wanted to take “long lasting” away from Duracell.

Take regular old batteries: the only three qualities people care about are:

  1. long-lasting,
  2. reliable, and
  3. cheap*.

And of those three, the only two suitable for branding are “long-lasting” and “reliable.” That’s why Energizer spent gazillions of dollars on that bunny that just kept going and going and going… until it had stolen “long-lasting” out from under Duracell. They could have owned some other attribute with far less effort and expense, but it wouldn’t have been worth owning.

So now Energizer owns “long-lasting” and Duracell has switched to advertising reliability, simply because it was the only thing left to take that was still worth owning.

The point to all of this is that it’s almost never enough to position your brand; you have to de-position (aka unseat) your competition as well.**

And that positioning-de-positining dance is what the moment of reflection is all about.

When you mention the fact that your brand does X (and the other brands don’t), you get to frame the meaning of that fact:

We do X because we’re committed to delivering, [this benefit]—which means that the other guy simply doesn’t care.

Now the tag end of that statement doesn’t always have to be explicitly stated. In fact, it’s often better to have the audience draw that conclusion themselves. Sometimes, though, it helps to openly call out the competition and rhetorically punch them in the face. But regardless of which way you accomplish it, that bit of de-positioning should be part of your ad.

For example:

“When your garage door breaks, call us, because we’re [the only service center in this area that is] open 24-7 and have fully stocked trucks capable of fixing your door on the first visit, even at night and on weekends. We’re here when you need us, not just when it’s convenient. [Unlike the other jerks that are only open during business hours]

But that’s just for one ad. When you start talking branding and positioning, you’re really talking about campaigns.

Chances are, if you do X because you’re committed to Y, then X isn’t the only thing you do.

In fact, you’re probably doing an entire alphabet full of things differently or better than the other guy. Actions that point back to the values that drive your company. And a good ad campaign will frame all those factoids to consistently establish and support the position you wish to claim in the mind of the customer.

So each ad, you raise a factoid (or an Anecdote in Ira Glass terms) and you frame it in terms of this value, or brand position (through a moment of reflection).

And your ads should do all of this while raising questions about why your competition doesn’t do these things and whether or not they really care about the customer at all. Position yourself; de-position your competitors.

Where Most Advertisers Go Wrong

Most advertisers go wrong in three places:

1) They provide no facts, reality hooks, or dramatized moments of need. There is nothing to establish credibility or relevance. They have no anecdote or story, so they come off as boring, irrelevant, and/or unbelievable. In the words of Roy H. Williams, the ad is all cheese and no meat. What most advertisers want to skip to is the framing part, the moment of reflection, where they just openly state what they believe and stand for, and so it comes off as so much solipsistic blah-blah-blah.

2) They try to cram all the facts into a single ad, rather than stringing them out into a campaign. When you just list the facts, they lose their dramatic impact, and you’re back to blah-blah-blah land.

3) They state a feature or function—what should be an anecdotatl bulding block—but don’t contextualize or dramatize it. There’s no interest or dramatic force in the fact they give the audience, so it doesn’t translate into relevance or even all that much credibility, either.

4) They attempt to position themselves, without deposition the brand that already holds that position in the minds of customers. If you claim a quality or position that another brand already owns, you’re really just paying to advertise them—unless you deposition them in order to reposition yourself.

And that’s Part 1. Stay tuned for part 2 later this week.

* Yes, eco-friendly or green is another quality people might care about for batteries, but then you’re into the land of rechargeables rather than regular old alkaline batteries. Different market.

** Sometimes you are lucky enough to have no meaningful competition in your cateogry, allowing you to simply claim what you want for a brand position. And that’s a very good thing. Take advantage of it! Also, I’m aware that “deposition” is a legal term, which is why I’m hyphenating the word so as to mean un-position. Thanks for indulging me in this : )

 P.S. I’m usually wary of talking about marketing or advertising in terms of war, simply because the analogy doesn’t hold: in war you can attack the enemy directly, in marketing you usally can’t; all you can do is persuade the customer. Walmart didn’t kill Kmart, we did when we stopped shopping at Kmart and started shopping at Walmart instead. But the analogy is useful when describing a zero-sum competition. There is only so much market share, customer dollars, and brand positions available. Either you get them, or the competition does. Just keep in mind that the only way to beat the competition is to win the customer.   



The Mighty HIPPO

The Mighty HIPPO!

“Advertising is the only business where the largest clients with the most amount of money can bully and demand the agency’s worst work…while the smallest clients with little or no money must meekly accept the agency’s best.”

I don’t think there’s an advertising or marketing professional working in America today who hasn’t had the challenge of convincing their boss or client to run what should have been an obviously brilliant ad campaign or marketing idea.

The first solution to this, of course, is to learn how to explain, defend, and sell your work and then having the simple courage to do so.

Learn to Wrestle — and Defeat! — The HIPPO

But even professionals who are normally great at selling their work run into obstacles when faced with an obstinate, heavy-weight HIPPO — Highest Paid Person’s Opinion.

And that’s when one has to use the magic words.

The Magic Words

The magic words are: Let’s Do An Experiment. Or perhaps, “Let’s Just Test It, First.”

No one wants to be seen (or to think of themselves) as a don’t-confuse-me-with-the-facts dogmatic bully. And that makes it hard to refuse an experiment or a test, which then gives you some room to prove out your idea.

Unfortunately, you still have to convince the HIPPO of the validity of your test, and this is where personas come in.

The One Opinion to Rule Them All

Without a persona, the question of whether this or that ad or initiative is worth doing (or even worth testing) comes down to personal opinion and gut feel. So naturally, the highest paid person’s opinion wins out. Hence the power of the HIPPO.

But, when you have a 3-dimensional, fleshed-out Persona that represents the customer’s use-case, buying motivations, and descision-making style and criteria, you’re no longer forced to argue your opinion vs. the HIPPO. You can now resort to the persona’s opion. And since the persona represents the customer (and therefore sales), that becomes the one opionion capable of trumping the HIPPO.

Combine the power of the Persona with the magic of lets do an experiment, and you’ve got the key to push your best work past the HIPPO. The persona lets you argue why your idea is meaningful to the customer, and the test gives your idea a fair chance at proving itself with actual customers.

Build Your Own Personas & Learn From The Best

2014-10-30_1027So now all you need to do is craft and get buy-in for your personas.

And fortunately for you, THE experts in the field of persona-based marketing have just created a short, how-to on doing just that in the form of an easy to read kindle book available for just $2.99.

It’s called Buyer Legends and if you buy it now, you can have a set of personas finished within a few hour’s work.

Need help selling your ideas/ads/campaigns/strategies/initiatives?

Download your copy of Buyer Legends now. Then use the magic words.

P.S. As a “side benefit,” personas will not only help you sell your brilliant ideas, they’ll also help you create more of them 

P.P.S. If you’re too cheap to pay $2.99 for the book, my Wizard of Ads colleague (and all-around good guy), Tim Miles, is giving copies away, no strings attached.

2014-10-17_1512A few weeks back I posted a list of 11 Marketing Triggers I swiped from a Quora answer, and also promised to eloborate on each item on the list, starting with the first, Ethos.

If you’re not familiar with the list, here are the 11 triggers:

1) Ethos (your per­ceived char­ac­ter) is the most impor­tant, as opposed to an appeal to pathos (emo­tions) or logos (logic).
2) Peo­ple make judg­ments by comparison/anchor­ing.
3) Peo­ple process infor­ma­tion best from sto­ries.
4) Peo­ple are fore­most inter­ested in things that affect them.
5) Break­ing pat­terns gets attention.
6) Peo­ple look to other peo­ple’s deci­sions when mak­ing decisions.
7) Peo­ple will believe things more eas­ily that fit their pre-existent mind­set. The con­verse is also true.
8) Peo­ple han­dle one idea at a time best.
9) Peo­ple want more choices, but are hap­pier with fewer.
10) Peo­ple decide first, then ratio­nal­ize — If peo­ple are stuck with some­thing, they will like it more over time.
11) Expe­ri­ence is mem­ory, the last part of the expe­ri­ence is weighted heavily.

What’s a “Trigger”

First, “trigger” is probably the wrong word for this list. “Principle” might be a better term. But for better or worse, trigger is what the author of the list used, so I’m sticking with it.

But what is a trigger?ElectricDrill

Ultimately, it’s a lever you can pull to give you access to stored energy. Think in terms of electric drills or trimmers or firehoses, and not just guns.

So a marketing trigger is a communicational lever you can pull to tap into already present and stored up desires, emotions, or instincts for the purposes of empowering action on the part of the audience. You want the people who see or hear your ad to take action: to buy the product or service.

And for your ad to cause (or at least influence) action you’ll need to present your audience with more than just information and reason-why — you need to trigger emotions, desires, and instincts.

Let’s Talk About Ethos

I’ve written about Ethos before but let’s start with the ABC’s of the topic:

A)  Customers prefer to do business with people and companies that they like and trust. If they neither like nor trust you, chances are you won’t get their business if they have any other reasonable option open to them. Ethos determines your likability for a given audience.

B) People have expectations around how a banker, bouncer, and surf instructor should look and act, such that an investment banker who shows up to a nine figure deal in boardshorts probably isn’t going to go over so well, and a not-so-muscled guy in a three piece suit probably isn’t going to incur much respect trying to break up a fight in a biker bar. Meeting audience expectations through proper decorum, or strategicaly violating those expectations, is also an aspect of your ethos that should be intentionally planned out.

C) Given enough respect for another person, you’ll not only accept but act on their advice. Maybe that person is your grandfather. Or an old boss or commanding officer. Maybe it’s a mentor or coach or a personal hero of yours. Whoever it is, I’m sure you can imagine how their advice is acted on almost instantly while most advice you recieve gets taken with a grain of salt and/or a large dose of procrastination. That’s what makes ethos a powerful marketing trigger.

Digging Deeper

In my article on Genesis Stories, I talk about how Aristotle breaks Ethos down into three component attributes:

  1. Practical Wisdom (aka domain expertise) — Do you trust this person’s subject matter expertise?
  2. Disinterested Goodwill — Do you believe they have your best interests at heart?
  3. Virtue (not just honesty and integrity, but overall excellence) — Do you respect this person in general?

Or, in the terms of Jay Heinrichs, you could think of these three as: Craft, Caring, and Cause, respectively. Good advertising should positively position the brand / company / owner in terms of their craft, caring, and cause. And, as mentioned, one of the best ways to kick that off is with a strong genesis story.

But the thing to remember about Ethos and advertising is that there are multiple aspects of ethos involved in persuasion:

  • How the audience percieves you, the advertiser (in terms of caring, craft, and cause)
  • How the audience percieves themselves (in those same terms),
  • How they WISH or ASPIRE to be perceived (again in terms of caring, craft, and cause)

When using ethos as a marketing trigger it’s best to focus on the gaps between these aspects of ethos:

  • What’s the disconnect between how your audience actually see themselves and how they WISH to see themselves?  Is the disconnect primariy in terms of caring (they wish they cared more or were more passionate or maybe more compassionate)? Of craft or skill (they wish they had greater abilities)? Or in mission (they wish they were motivated by a larger cause and could consider themselves a dedicated member of a tribe)?
  • What’s the disconnect between how they see you and how they see themselves? Do they see you as more dedicated? More skilled? More objective? All three? Which one will have the biggest impact?  How can you create that perception?

If you can answer these questions, you can use ethos as a persuasive trigger.

In situations where you have no real competitive advantage (and neither do your competitors), you can build your ethos to get people to like and trust you more than your competitors. This will become the core of your advertising strategy.

In situations where you have a competitive advantage or a USP or a special sauce, you can relate the benefits delivered by all that to the prospect’s self image. Or better yet, to bridging the gap between their current and their aspirational self image. How can your product help them move from who they are now to who they really want to be.

marlboroAnd if this sounds a bit too theoretical and high-drift, just remember that we’re really talking about the essence of image-based branding. The Marlboro Man didn’t sell billions of dollars of cigarettes by engaging in reason-why advertising copy. Marlboro’s campaign established an ethos for the brand that appealed to the audience’s aspirational gap.

And that’s how it’s done.

Let’s say you raise chickens and farm eggs for a living.

And unlike big agribusiness, you’re trying to raise your chickens under humane conditions, to follow the spirit and not just the letter of the law for “organic,” and that your chickens truly are “free range.”

How do you compete with all the aggribusiness jerks who cut corners, spin words, play the loopholes and then get to claim the same “organic” and “free range” titles as you?

When the average shopper looks down at all her options staring up at her in the Whole Foods aisle, most of her choices are all going to say the same things, over and over again: organic feed, free range/cage-free, omega 3s, yada yada yada.

How do you make your eggs stand out in a sea of sameness?

Answer: put a number on your claim: 2014-09-13 12.23.41 The other eggs say “Cage Free” and leave it at that.

Alfreco Farms specifies “108 SQ FT Outdoors Per bird.”

They put a number to the idea of “free range.” And that added credibility was enough to win my sale.

But it’s the picture they draw on their Website that really brings it home: 2014-09-14_2219 Now you know EXACTLY how much the other jerks are equivocating when they call their hens “cage-free” or “free-range.”

And you not only know, but FEEL in your gut, just how big the difference is between Alfresco Farms’ pasture-raising and some mega-farm’s “organic” and “cage-free” practices.

So when you’re faced with a similar challenge, give this a try: Put a number on it, then paint a picture.

P.S. Note that this company also tries to use alternative labels and certifications: “pasture-raised” vs. “free range” and “certified humane” over and above “certified organic.” All good things to do, but none of them have the power of putting a number to the claim. 

I saw an Acura ad tonight that left me rivited.

Frankly, I’m not sure it’s all that great an ad in the bigger picture, but the editing and storytelling was genius.

Some may think I’m overstating my case on this, but no less a genius than Stanley Kubric claimed that the very best film editing was being done in commercials way back in a 1987 Rolling Stone interview. Check it out [italics are interviewer, normal font is Kubric, bolding is me]:

Books I’ve read on you seem to suggest that you consider editing the most important aspect of the filmmaker’s art.

There are three equal things: the writing, slogging through the actual shooting and the editing.

You’ve quoted Pudovkin to the effect that editing is the only original and unique art form in film.

I think so. Everything else comes from something else. Writing, of course, is writing, acting comes from the theater, and cinematography comes from photography. Editing is unique to film. You can see something from different points of view almost simuluneously, and it creates a new experience.

Pudovkin gives an example: You see a guy hanging a picture on the wall. Suddenly you see his feet slip; you see the chair move; you see his hand go down and the picture fall off the wall. In that split second, a guy falls off a chair, and you see it in a way that you could not see it any other way except through editing.

TV commercials have figured that out. Leave content out of it, and some of the most spectacular examples of film art are in the best TV commercials.

Give me an example.

The Michelob commercials. I’m a pro football fan, and I have videotapes of the games sent over to me, commercials and all. Last year Michelob did a series, just impressions of people having a good time —

The big city at night —

And the editing, the photography, was some of the most brilliant work I’ve ever seen. Forget what they’re doing — selling beer — and it’s visual poetry. Incredible eight-frame cuts. And you realize that in thirty seconds they’ve created an impression of something rather complex. If you could ever tell a story, something with some content, using that kind of visual poetry, you could handle vastly more complex and subtle material.

People spend millions of dollars and months’ worth of work on those thirty seconds.

So it’s a bit impractical. And I suppose there’s really nothing that would substitute for the great dramatic moment, fully played out. Still…

After reading this I tracked down those Michelob commercials to see for myself, and of course Kubric was right:

YouTube Preview Image

YouTube Preview Image

Kubric was right about the billiance of the editing, but also in the limitations of these commercials, as they are the epitomy of style without substance being used to sell style and fashion (i.e., products without substance). There is a hint of a storyline in these ads, but it’s left very intentionally vague, impressionistic, and, well, fashionable. And that’s OK for beer, I guess, but probably not what you want for cars, though I don’t think those ads did anything for Michelob sales, either.

What you need for more substantive products like cars is a style that keeps the “visual poetry,” but harnesses it to tell a “story with content.”

Which is precisely what is so brilliant about this Acura Ad:

YouTube Preview Image

Same visual poetry, but now it’s in the form of a cohent narrative that shows the passion behind the substantive efforts to make a substantive product: a performance-oriented luxury car.

Will this ad sell some freaking cars? I don’t know. But it should at least generate some interest. And maybe make you feel something for Acura you might not have ever felt before.

And that’s no small thing.

But forget about Acura, let’s talk about you!

Because I predict we’re going to be seeing more of this form of intense, rapid-fire visual poetry going forward. This Cirque Du Soleil-esque form of rapid distraction.

Sure, we’ll still pay attention to the well done, dramatic monologue. And sometimes it’s better to zig when others zag, like Dodge did a few Superbowl’s back.

But intelligently harnessing the power of rapid-distraction storytelling is becoming more and more common in mainstream advertising. And it’s not limited to just big national brands either. Frankly, I think the only thing stopping radio advertisisers from doing it is skill. Heck, it’s already been done once.

So what are you waiting for?

Do you know how to tell a story in rapdi-fire format?

Page 5 of 34« First...34567...102030...Last »