Crappy…good…or sublime advertising? How to tell the difference with 6 simple questions!

It's as easy as this.

How do you know when an ad is good? Are there different levels of “goodness”?

Some would say that you can never totally know in such a subjective field. Others would say that it’s all related to how much the ad helps to sell. Yet others would measure it through quantitative testing that statistically measures the projected awareness and recall of an ad. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

This is a complicated issue, right? Well, it doesn’t have to be if you ask yourself 6 simple questions!

Knowing if an ad is any good is actually very easy. Deciding just how good the ad is entails more steps, but it’s also pretty simple.

Here’s how I go about it.

(Note: When I say “ad” I mean any type of advertising, from TV, to radio, to online, to social media, to print, etc. I’ll serve up some TV and print examples, you think of your own too!)

Is an ad good?

This is the easy part. Because you decide. And there’s not much to think about, because most ads are either mediocre, barely adequate, or even outright crap.

This may sound overly-critical of the advertising industry that I love, but it isn’t, it’s just a fact of life.(*)

One of my favorite quotes from the great David Ogilvy is “…unless your advertising contains a big idea, it will pass like a ship in the night”. Sadly, most ads and campaigns do pass like a ship in the night! Ogilvy went on to say “…I doubt if more than one campaign in a hundred contains a big idea”, but I’ll be a bit more generous and serve up this handy visual.

(*)And, lest you still think I’m being too harsh on advertising, consider this: …the same can be said for just about anything at all. Most movies are mediocre. So are most tv shows, buildings, airlines, songs, cars, restaurants, people, books, employees, athletes, plays, concerts, etc. Most “things” in life really do pass like a ship in the night! But…when we come across that big idea, and it pops us in the face…well, then it can be magical. And the search for that is part of what keeps us going!

So, here’s how it goes:

Look at an ad. Then simply ask yourself question #1: “Do I like this ad?” As simple as that. If the answer is yes, then the ad is good…for you. If the answer is no, then this ad is mediocre, or worse, and no amount of rationalization is going to change that for you. So that’s it! For example, here is a good car ad, and here’s a mediocre car ad. (click to see the examples as you read along. All according to my brain, of course!)

Most ads will “pass like a ship in the night”, but some will come ashore onto the island of “good ads”. And here is where we start chasing those elusive ads that are not just good, but really good – these are the ones that really make a difference!

So it’s good! (phew!). But just how good is it?

The ad is good. Now, here’s where the magic happens, because there are many different levels of good. And to know how “good” is good, these are the questions I ask, in this specific order. If you’re able to keep answering “yes”, the ad keeps climbing towards the pantheon-level of advertising greatness.

Question #2: “Does the ad have something “sticky” about it? Some kind of a hook that my brain can latch on to?”

There is so much stimulus out there today that an ad needs some way of hooking itself to your brain…or it’s gone, even if it’s a “good” ad. What the hook is depends on you, but it can be things such as unusual cinematography, cool special effects, interesting casting, an unexpected storyline twist, celebrities, romance, a catchy song, a humorous twist, a cute animal, a sexy guy/girl, etc.

IF “YES”, then the ad is good AND memorable. Proceed to the next question.

Question #3: “Is the brand or product linked to the creative idea in a credible and interesting way?”

Hopefully it is, or else the ad is a waste of money for whoever is paying for it. Here’s an example of an ad where the product is woven seamlessly into the action. Here’s another one. Sometimes though, you’ll be hard-pressed to remember who or what this story is connected to, or this one. What a shame. I wrote a post on the topic of brand linkage, but the bottom line is that if you meet the love of your life at a bar, yet you can’t remember their name or their number…then it probably wasn’t meant to be, and next time you should stop after the third beer.

IF “YES”, then the ad is good AND memorable, AND brand linked. Proceed, young grasshopper.

Question #4: “Does it make me want to buy the brand or product?” (*)or at the very least does it improve my feelings towards the brand?

The whole point of this for marketers is to make money, and money is made through sales. So your ad better help sell, on some level, or you’re going to be out of a job. Some ads make me want to spend money, other big productions just leave me cold. (*)Note: I qualify the question above because some ads are just not meant for me (like lipstick, hair gel, diapers, etc.). In this case nothing will make me want to buy it, but it should make me feel better/warmer about the brand or product.

IF “YES”, then the ad is good AND memorable, AND brand linked, AND persuasive. I am most impressed, you and your client need to go out for drinks to celebrate. First round is on me!

Question #5: “Is the ad campaignable across time and/or media?”

We’re getting into the rarified air of greatness here, few ads make it this high up, and we’re going to need an oxygen mask soon. Great ideas are rare, and most ads are expensive to produce and roll out in front of a wide audience. So when you have an ad with such a strong idea at its core that it can run, in different iterations, for a long time, well that’s just golden. Here’s a timeless example, and here’s another that you all will know. Just as good, if this idea is strong and flexible enough to live across different mediums, it will have a much better chance of reaching the consumer in a meaningful way. This is key in today’s world, as shown in this example, and this one.

IF “YES”, then the ad is good AND memorable, AND brand linked, AND persuasive AND campaignable. Folks, this is very rare. I am not going to exaggerate and say that I’m getting weepy, but I’m pretty much getting weepy.

Question #6: “Does it move me?”

After all of this buildup, if the ad evokes a visceral, emotional reaction, if it touches my heart, or my emotions, in a way that is true, and real and non-manipulative…well, what can I say. This is beauty. This is why I got into the advertising business! Running across these gems makes me feel happy, alive and full of energy. This is the holy grail that all of us in the business chase, every day. And we’re lucky if we get to work on just a few of these in our career!

When I saw this Levi’s ad, it touched me. It inspired me on some deep emotional level. It’s everything an ad can be…it’s branded poetry.

When I watch this Coke ad, it affects me. It changes my outlook. It makes me love the brand. It makes me happy. Amazing stuff for a simple tv ad!

When you get to this sublime level of “good”, advertising can indeed be a wondrous thing. Built to generate commerce, but ultimately also uplifting like those special moments in art: be it the very best film, or play, or aria, or sculpture, or building facade!

UPDATE Aug 30: I was looking through a great blog, and I found a quote by Maya Angelou that I think sums it up beautifully:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

So there you have it. How to tell if an ad is good, and more importantly just how good it is, in 6 easy questions.

But wait!…there’s more!! Here’s a little wallet-sized reminder ready for printing:) Keep it handy next time you’re watching TV, and I do hope you experience the thrill of coming across one of the really, really good ones!

What are your thoughts? Do these questions ring true to you? Do you disagree violently? How do your personal favorites hold up to this criteria? If you have any that make it all the way to the “pantheon” level, I’d love to hear about it. And as always, thanks for reading!


18 thoughts on “Crappy…good…or sublime advertising? How to tell the difference with 6 simple questions!

  1. The message I get from the entirety of the six parts is that it is all about participation. People want to feel like they have found something, they will gain, and that they will be able to share the idea with someone else. I would also argue that pairing things with education now is a strong selling point. Thank you for sharing these insights! (lists and bullets work very well with our paradigm now as well!)

  2. I don’t even drink, but if I decided to imbibe, I’d give serious consideration to Absolut. Brilliant in its simplicity, and absolut-ly memorable. Conversely, while the Coca-Cola commercial was warm and fuzzy, it didn’t move the needle for me on the sticky-meter. (I’m already struggling to recall what message I was supposed to get out of it.) But you are spot-on when you say that only I can decide if an ad is ‘good,’ which means it’s all about relevance.

    • HI Media Fairy – that’s what I tried to convey in the note – the first step (good or not good), is only up to YOU. Then, the degrees of goodness are still debatable, but there are some common markers that we can all agree upon. I’m glad you picked up on it, although I probably should have called out the concept of “relevance” directly.

      Thanks for reading and, if I may be so bold as to make a suggestion for when you change your mind, I’d recommend for you an Absolut on the rocks, with some soda water, and a touch of cranberry juice. Crisp, clean and delicious:)

      • Sounds yummy! I’ll toast you when I try one. (I’m not actually a tee-totaler; consumption is just very infrequent)

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    • Hi Vinny, nice to see you around here, thanks for reading, and thanks for posting!

      I think experienced advertising professionals, especially creatives can probably rely on that gut sense of “does it excite me?”…they sense it and they just…know.

      But the trap for most people out there (including account guys like me), is that every “great” ad will excite you, but not everything that excites you is a “great” ad. So many “great” ads fall short on brand linkage, to name just one example.

      That’s where the questions come in – to put some order into the thinking about “how great is great”.

      Hopefully someday I’ll be able to boil it down to just that one question:)

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