The first rule of advertising.

My college advertising professor, the esteemed Jon Anderson, taught me this: the first rule of advertising is nobody goes out of his or her way to look at advertising. If that were the only thing I learned in college, then every dollar I paid for my education was worth it. (Well, except all the money I spent on pizza — both my wallet and my gut wish I had been a little more frugal there.) Only Super Bowl watchers and advertising geeks like me actually seek out the ads.

Well, unless those ads are special. A number of years ago, I wrote a radio commercial that was chosen by the prestigious Radio Mercury Awards as the best radio commercial in the nation that year. But I knew we had a winning spot long before a panel of judges told us so. One night I was driving home, listening to a radio station. The DJ was about to put a caller on the air because, in the DJ’s words, the “caller (was) requesting something that has never been requested before.” He was requesting that the station play our radio commercial. That’s when I knew it was a home run; someone actually liked the ad enough to call and ask a station to play it.

That should be the goal, right? Our consumers should actually want us to speak to them. It’s possible. How many of us have searched YouTube for Old Spice ads? Consider the Dove “Real Beauty” campaign; we share those videos because we love them. We now have a phrase for this phenomenon — “going viral” — but in reality, it’s simply that the great ads have overcome Jon Anderson’s first rule of advertising; they are ads people actually want to see.

So how is that done? First, you need a truth. What is inherently true about people’s lives that connects in some way to your product? Going back to the Dove “Real Beauty” campaign, they have tapped into a truth about how women sometimes see themselves. The online videos are riveting to watch, and those #RealBeauty sketches have been shared by millions. A truth deeply connects you with your consumer.

Second, you need an emotion. We rarely like something because it appeals to our logic. In fact, I would say we never do. Even in our purchase patterns (which advertising is trying to affect), emotion is the driver. We want to think we’re being logical — for example, I think I buy an economy car because it gets great gas mileage. But in reality, I buy an economy car because I want to feel smart for being wise with my money. Every great ad has an emotion. Personally, I have a closet full of Nikes and a 20+ year history with Apple because they both speak to me with emotions.

Third, you need a story. Don’t think of this in the traditional sense. I’m not talking about a linear narrative. I’m talking about something that engages and draws us in. Last year’s Old Spice #SmellLegendary campaign is an excellent example. And it’s not simply the humor of a guy playing tennis on the back of a whale, though dang, that’s funny. It’s because I have something that rewards me as I watch it. Not every brand should do Old Spice ads. But every brand can do ads with a story.

Three simple things that make people actually want to watch, read, listen to, interact with, et al, your ads. Seems easy, right? Well, maybe the hardest part is the fourth thing: don’t mess them up by trying to say or do too much. If you’ve done those first three things well, let them be. Otherwise, your ad will quickly be relegated to the all-too-humongous pile of ads people couldn’t care less about.


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