How to Tell if Your Ad Is Terrible

Hello Friend,

Are you worried that your ad – the one you have been working so hard on and is about to go up onto the Internet where everyone can see it – might just be…horrible?

Do you look at your work and think, “this might be confusing to the consumer” or “this might not motivate anyone to do anything” or even “this might be an absolute piece of junk”?

Well, you don’t have to suffer in isolation. There is hope for you! Through the years – and careful analysis of lots of truly bad advertising – we here at Gary Stein Labs have been able to create a simple five-point checklist that will help you – yes, you – determine for yourself whether or not this ad is worth anything at all.

Simply print out your ad and hold it up to the screen. Got it? OK, well…not in front of the screen. On the side. So you can also see this text. There you go. Hold your ad next to the screen and follow along the list below. If your ad makes any of the mistakes listed you will know with absolute certainty that your ad sucks.

Ready? Let’s begin:

Point No. 1: Is Your Headline a Tagline?

Taglines are great things. When done correctly, a tagline neatly sums up the idea behind a product and what value it brings into the world. It should be short and memorably phrased. It should be inspiring and make it seem like the product is worthwhile. And, it should come somewhere near the bottom or the end of the ad.

Too many companies (or their agencies) fall too deeply in love with the tagline and want to put it up in a prominent spot. But that’s too early in the discussion. You can’t start by talking about you. You need to start by talking about them. If your headline – the big text at the top of the ad – says “Brand X: Changing Underwear Washing Forever,” you missed the consumer. You need to have a headline that is about the consumer and her needs. Let the press write headlines about you, after you’ve achieved success. For now, write about the consumer.

Point No. 2: Does Your Call to Action Feel Absolutely Unignorable?

Assuming that you are not doing a pure branding effort, where simply watching an ad is the reward in and of itself, you need to tell people to do something. Or, rather, you need to invite them to do something, whether it is to buy something or visit your site or forward something on to a friend. You can’t just have an ad that says something but doesn’t compel another action.

But, that call to action has to seem like something you can’t ignore. If someone could reasonably respond to your call to action with “no thanks,” you blew it. If your call to action is a question like, “would you like to see some more information?” you missed the opportunity. The call to action has to be phrased as an imperative. “Act Now” is the classic, but there are plenty of others that are less harsh. Make sure you are really calling on the consumer to do something meaningful.

Point No. 3: Does Your Graphic Element Have Anything to Do With Your Product?

There are a lot of images out there that you can choose to put in your ad. A quick Google Images search can yield anything that can be plopped in. But, if you have decided to put one of those images into your ad, it has to communicate. It has to help convey a message and (hopefully) compel an action. It has to give the ad some life or humanity or help put the product in context or give some new information – maybe about what the product looks like or how it is used.

If you have an image in your ad, and it is not immediately, totally clear why it is there, take it out. You have a very short window of opportunity to connect with your consumer and give them a new idea. An image is a great shortcut to getting your idea across. But if that image doesn’t communicate in the way you need it to, you’re just wasting your time.

Point No. 4: Is Your Ad Relevant and Differentiated?

Someone told me this a long time ago: advertising is the art of creating something that’s relevant and differentiated. That’s it. You need to have a message that’s relevant – it’s clear how the product you are advertising fits into the consumer’s life and solves a real need. But you also need to be unique – your ad needs to stand separately from any other ad that exists out there that is advertising a product that is also relevant to the consumer.

It’s so tempting to simply say what the product does or what the benefit is. But unless you are the absolutely only brand that can make that claim, you’re going to have to make sure that your claim is presented in a unique way.

Want to know the secret to creating great ads? Tell a compelling story that reveals a product attribute. Every brilliant ad follows this format. If you do this, you have a great shot at success.

Point No. 5: Is Your Ad About One, Simple, Compelling Thing?

Let’s face facts: there is too much stuff out there and the explosion of media has simply brought more stuff to us. It’s not that people don’t want all this stuff. They are signing up for cable and subscribing to magazines and getting RSS feeds and everything. The problem comes, especially for ads, when they try to communicate too many things.

You have to cut. The key to design is not so much knowing what to put in as it is knowing what to leave out. That has to be your mandate. Apple’s success has much to do with the fact that every new thing it creates gives you more abilities with fewer buttons. Consider the trackpad on the MacBook. Ten years ago it was tiny, did nothing more than move the pointer around, and required a button. Today, it is huge, allows you dozens of functions, and has no button. Do that with your ad: cut, cut, and cut. Ask yourself what single thing can a person do that would be valuable to you and point everything toward that.

Sound good? The thing about these pointers is that it’s not really about digital, per se. That’s because we have long left the era when digital was a thing in and of itself. Now it’s a core part of most people’s media lives and we need to respect that. And that means holding digital ads up to the same scrutiny that we do with all other ads in all other formats.

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