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Three Things All Great Ads Do Perfectly

Get these right and everything else will fall into place


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Frank McKinley

3 years ago | 5 min read

“The biggest drawback to free TV is how many commercials you have to watch to enjoy it.”

Whenever my son comes to me with this complaint, I put on my wise old man hat and reply, “I know what you mean, son. But, remember. Nothing is free. You can either pay to make the commercials go away or let others pay for you to watch TV for free.”

Cable TV is the worst of both worlds. You pay for access and you watch commercials. Why? Because actors want big paychecks. And if they can draw a crowd when their show is on, they deserve it, don’t they?

I’m reminded of an old film that makes this point right from the start — A Face in the Crowd. Andy Griffith stars as a drifter named Lonesome Rhodes who is discovered by a local radio producer. He gains attention by singing in the jail so he can be “a free man in the morning.

The producer invites Rhodes onto her radio show and he’s an immediate hit. Advertisers start calling for spots on his show. Of course, the station owner is thrilled.

But then Nashville comes calling. What’s a drifter to do?

Haggle for the best deal, of course.

All paid for by eager advertisers looking for attention.

All Attention Is Not Equal

It’s easy to see why ads don’t work.

They’re intrusive. When you’re watching your favorite show, you get interrupted every 10 minutes or so to see a “special message from our sponsor.”

Or maybe 4 or 5 such messages.

You scan your Facebook feed and every 7 posts there’s a commercial. And don’t look at your sidebar. There’s people wanting to sell you something there, too.

The internet has created more platforms for ads than ever.

They can be annoying. Ever had your child tap you incessantly on the shoulder trying to get your attention? Ever work next to someone who tells the worst stories and jokes you ever heard — and wants you to laugh? Have you ever been stung by a wasp and feel that throbbing pain for what seems like forever?

That’s annoying.

And what’s worse is you can’t forget or block it out right away.

Then you see the same commercial every single break and experience those awful feelings over and over.

They say it takes 7 impressions for an ad to make an impact. The problem is if advertisers run boring ads, you forget them. So they have to go all out to grab and hold your attention so you’ll think of them when you need whatever they’re selling.

Photo by Natasha Brazil on Unsplash

What Works Isn’t What You Think

Copywriters tell us that you should sell benefits, not features. You need to make sure your offer is clear and easily acted upon. If it’s not, you’re wasting your time and money.

You also run the risk of being boring.

Clearly, some ads do work. Warren Buffett, who owns a large stake in Geico, says he’d spend $2 billion on ads every year if he could. And you know a guy with that kind of financial cred isn’t going to flush money down the toilet on something that doesn’t work, right?

So let’s get to it. What makes the best ads work as well as they do?

Tactic #1 — Shock people.

I’m not a smoker, but I can’t forget that ad where the lady in the commercial puts on her wig, inserts her teeth, and speaks through a tracheostomy voice box.

That’s obviously a horrible handful of the adverse effects of smoking for decades. To make the point, they hit you with every sense imaginable.

You see the bald head, the sinking cheekbones, and the intense sadness in the woman’s face. You hear the gritty monotone sounds of the robotic voice. Inside you feel pain where you never felt it before, wondering if anything might be wrong with you.

Even the best taste of the cigarette you crave turns to ashes as you ponder the pain this poor woman is going through every single day.

This ad not only says smoking can kill you — it conveys it with unforgettable sensory experiences that pop up in your mind if you even think about cigarettes.

Thank you, CDC.

When you shock people, you’re breaking their patterns. You’re violating their comfort zones. Why does this work? Because when nothing hurts, you’re not motivated to change.

Be careful, though. Use shock sparingly. Too much and you’ll run people off whenever you show up. You want to use just enough to get people off their couches and shout, “I’ve had enough! I’m changing now. Today is a new day, and it’s mine.”

Photo by Klim Sergeev on Unsplash

Tactic #2 — Tell stories.

You’ve probably noticed a theme by now.

If you want to move anyone to do anything, stir their emotions.

Stories do that. We may not understand what it’s like to step into a character’s job. But we’ve all felt the emotions of joy, excitement, jealousy, frustration, anger, and sadness. The best storytellers invite us into the hero’s emotions as well as her thoughts.

Emotions are the best way to connect with anyone for that matter. You like your friends because you have fun together. They lend you an ear when you want to rant. And they’ll bring you a meal when you’re recovering from surgery and can’t muster the energy to cook.

It’s one thing to hear someone tell us how to do something. Frame it in a story and we can see how it works in the real world — where challenges abound and the will to press on is tested relentlessly. Instructions call us to act, but stories inspire us to do something.

Tell stories when you need people to catch a vision and make it their own.

Tactic #3 — Suspend disbelief.

It’s hard to believe a nobody can become an overnight success.

Most of the time it doesn’t happen that way. That’s why when someone’s hard work pays off, they have to prove it with real numbers.

“I did this and it worked wonders. And you can too. I’ll not only show you how, I’ll show you how I helped other people do it, too!”

Do it for yourself and people will think you’re bragging. Help others do it and you’ll be a hero.

When I went to the doctor, I wanted to know he could make my problem go away. He assured me he could, and after a 30 minute surgery he did.

If you have a talent and don’t bless others with it, you’re selfish. Granted, I did pay for his service. Even doctors have to eat. And to me, that service was so valuable I knew it would change my life.

It couldn’t do that until I gave up the idea that I’d just have to live with my condition for the rest of my life.

What’s the antidote to disbelief?

Hope in a new possibility.

Without hope, you stay stuck. You wither away. And eventually, you die. Hope changes all that. It gives you strength to face tomorrow. Acting on it brings relief and rest. When your problem is settled, you’re free to focus on the things that charm you most.

That’s the most powerful thing anyone can sell.

Grab attention. Engage people emotionally. Offer hope that things can be better. Then invite them to make that hope real right now by making it easy to say yes.

Do that, and you’ll make every advertising dollar count.

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