all posts in communication

A lighthearted look at why some ads work and others don’t.

The cover of one of the best books I’ve ever read on advertising features a drawing of an oversized frog sitting atop a bright pink pig.

The pig is wearing snorkel gear and flippers.

It’s a silly visual meant to illustrate the absurd limits to which people might go for an “original” ad concept.

You can imagine a marketing manager being presented with it and exclaiming “That’s our new ad campaign…?”

Which just happens to be the title of the book.

“That’s our new ad campaign…?” by Dick Wasserman is a great resource, as the subtitle states, “for CEOs, Presidents, Ad Managers, Account Executives, Art Directors, Copywriters, Students, and Anybody Else Who Wants to Learn Howto Create Better Ads.”

(If you’re reading this, you’re at least one of those people, right?)

It’s a book that gets right down to the basics: What makes good ads good and bad ads bad; how to achieve the former and avoid the latter.

Although it’s a perfect primer for folks just starting out in the business, there’s plenty in this book for seasoned professionals too.

Here are three (of many) reasons you’ll want to read it:

1. You’ll learn useful stuff (or at least better ways to articulate what you already know).

Stuff like how to judge the merits of a creative concept. Why ads should be more like plays and less like speeches. And why what an ad implies – intentionally or otherwise – is as important as what it actually says.

Sure, some of this is fundamental. But let’s face it, many people working in advertising and marketing began their careers in a different area altogether; some of these lessons may be things they’ve never formally learned. They’re lessons well worth hearing.

2. You’ll enjoy reading it. (Again and again.)

Wasserman infuses his book with a lighthearted tone that makes it a pleasure to read. Even some of the chapter titles induce chuckles, most notably Chapter 9: To Arms, To Arms! Every Man Look Sharp! That Damn Agency Is Asking Us to Trust Its Intuition Again!

But just as fun as the writing style is the illumination the book provides, especially regarding the way consumers and advertisers respond to ads. Wasserman pulls back the curtain on the human mind, unveiling why ads with a sense of “drama” are so effective (pages 7–9). He delves just as deeply into the fear factor that makes advertisers reluctant to approve any idea deemed too “different” (page 42).

3. The chapter called “Some Good Examples of Bad Advertising” is alone worth the price of the book.

In this chapter the author has created a series of print ad concepts for a fictitious advertiser (“The Widget Group”). These funny little thumbnail sketches perfectly illustrate common mistakes advertisers can make – such as trying to say too much, lack of drama/tension, and failing to communicate on a personal level. By taking note of these examples, advertisers can avoid falling victim to trite, banal ad concepts. Agency folks will find this chapter a valuable resource for steering clients away from tired ideas.

Here are a few more pearls of wisdom from Wasserman’s pen:

On simplicity: “Making an ad try to say more than one simple thing at a time is like inviting two people to give a lost driver directions at the same time.”

On the hazards of “safe” advertising: “The risks involved in trusting (your agency’s) judgment are small when you consider the risks and economic waste involved in paying for advertising that nobody notices or remembers because it looks just like everybody else’s advertising.”

On agency account executives: “A good account executive…should be encouraging your firm to accept more innovative, provocative advertising. This means…he’s always going to be bugging you a bit. If he’s doing his job, you will sometimes find him irritating.”

I’m convinced that if everyone involved in creating and approving advertising would read this book, the quality of advertising in America would increase tenfold. So by all means give it a read. It’s as entertaining as it is enlightening.

(Although this little gem is currently out of print, it’s well worth the effort to find a copy – which you can do easily at your library or




Then their eyes were opened…

It takes a certain vision to recognize the potential in a “risky” or unconventional idea.

Check out this story about a local pastor who literally lit up when someone suggested an unorthodox idea for a Bible study.

This story appears in the May 2012 edition of Cleveland magazine.

It doesn’t take a genius to see the obvious. (Then why don’t we notice more stuff?)

A  friend of mine has a gripe about the CBS show “The Mentalist.”

He says, “The guy’s not a mentalist, he just observes stuff – like Sherlock Holmes. They should call it ‘The Observer’ or something.”

He’s got a point. The character isn’t clairvoyant, he just notices things. Everything, in fact.

Most of us don’t do that. With images and information constantly buzzing around us, we’ve conditioned ourselves to “grazing,” to picking out only the bits that are most interesting and ignoring the rest.

That’s true whether we’re on the computer, watching a TV show or just living our lives.

I realized how non-observant I’d become when I tried my hand at an online “choose the correct logo” game.

I failed miserably.

I’m a writer, not a designer, so I tend to think verbally more than visually. But that’s no excuse. I realized I need to put more effort into retaining more of the information my eyes feed my brain every day.

After all, us agency folks work in a “creative” field. Ideas don’t spring from an information vacuum but from our accumulated knowledge and experiences. If we don’t actively gather that data and catalog it in our minds, we’ll have much less to call upon when we need to brainstorm an idea.

If we do load up our palette, however, we have that much more information from which to pull solutions.

Of course, being observant also has “real world” applications too:

• It’s a useful skill if you ever need to tell police about something you witnessed.

• It can help you remember a new acquaintance’s face so you’ll recognize them later.

• It can help you talk someone through a procedure over the phone without having any visual reference in front of you.

• In extreme cases it may even save your life.

But how do you become an observer, rather than a viewer?

You just have to do it. Take in your surroundings. In your mind, describe to yourself what you’re seeing.

For example, the next time you’re standing in line at a fast food restaurant, make a point of observing:

• The color and pattern of the floor tile

• The number of cash registers

• What the counter is made of

• If the lights are fluorescent or incandescent

• The number and location of the exits (This ties into the “may even save your life” statement above.)

That’s just one example of opportunities for observing. Any time you’re standing in line, waiting in the doctor’s waiting room, surfing the Internet, or if you’re just out and about, stop and force yourself to observe.

It’s a great mental exercise, and the things you remember will most likely be useful to you down the road.


“You have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room.”


“How often?”

“Well, some hundreds of times.”

“Then how many are there?”

“How many? I don’t know.”

“Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.”

—Sherlock Holmes and Watson, from “A Scandal in Bohemia”

Naming, Part I: It’s hard and all the easy ones are taken.

Occasionally our agency is asked to craft a name for a new brand or product.

It can be a fun project.

It’s also hard as heck.

That’s because most of the simple one-word names are already taken. If it’s a single, cool-sounding word, someone is probably using it.

Here’s a little brainstorming exercise that proves the point: Imagine an automaker in Detroit has asked you to come up with a name for a new car.

(Although in reality cars are marketed towards specific demographic groups, for the purposes of this discussion just imagine a “generic” vehicle and consumer.)

Where do you start?

You could run through a list of animals. You’d come up with Jaguar, Cougar, Eagle, Falcon, Skylark, Viper, Ram, Barracuda, Impala, Bronco and Mustang to name a few. (All kept shiny with Turtle Wax, no doubt.) Those names have all been used. Tiger? Lion? Panda?

Those just won’t work, will they?

So you try, let’s see…how about Zodiac signs? Taurus, Aries…crap, those are taken and the rest are kind of…out there.

Speaking of stars, does the universe offer a solution? Ford has a Galaxy, Mitsubishi an Eclipse. Mercury and Saturn are in use. Milky Way is fine for a candy bar, but not a car. Andromeda is too feminine. (And please don’t suggest Uranus.)

How about mythical names? Well, you’d think there’d be a lot there too, but other than Saturn, Mercury, Aurora and Thunderbird the pickings are pretty slim. You can’t exactly call a car Zeus or Thor.

And Puck is right out.

That leads us to Greek terms. Let’s see, there’s Delta (taken) and…um, not much else.

You move on to names of places: Several sound really great and conjure up cool imagery – Aspen, Daytona, Malibu, Sierra, Milan, Capri – but of course they’re taken. You try picking other cities – Pittsburgh, Flint, Kalamazoo – and quickly realize you should just keep moving on.

What about music? Hyundai has the Sonata. What else could we try? Melody and Harmony would be great if the car were a girl. Octave? Nocturne? A bit technical. Most of the other terms are incomprehensible to anyone who doesn’t speak Italian.

Becoming slightly desperate, you throw caution and political correctness to the wind and begin exploring the hunting grounds of Native American tribal names. Unfortunately, Jeep has beaten you to the punch and grabbed up Cherokee, Apache and Comanche. Dodge took Dakota, and GM has owned Pontiac since General Custer’s time (not to mentioned the misspelled Aztek). Mazda even took the Navajo. You’re left with Cree, Sioux and Hopi, and there’s not much you can do with those.

A-ha! Why not something with just letters and numbers, like Mazda RX-7, Audi A4, Pontiac GTO or Ford F-150? Trouble is, letters and numbers don’t mean much on their own (although some, such as A, V, X, Z and the number 1 have more personality than others). It usually takes a massive marketing campaign to imbue an alpha-numeric name with meaning.

It’s at this point that you realize that coming up with a name, while perhaps still fun, will not be easy.

Barring the use of an existing single word that’s exactly right for your product and audience (Pontiac nailed it with Vibe, Kia with Soul, Nissan with Cube), what we’re left with is essentially three options:

  1. Putting two words together: Grand Prix, Grand Am, Town & Country, Town Car, Fifth Avenue, Ramcharger, Sunfire, Range Rover, Crown Victoria, PT Cruiser (PT isn’t a word, but…)
  2. Putting a prefix in front of a word: Ford Econoline, Pontiac Trans Sport. (This is actually a better option for car parts than for an actual car. Think of Duralast batteries, ThermoQuiet brakes, AutoLite spark plugs.)
  3. Coining a new word.

Option 3 has become particularly popular these days. We’ll talk about the challenges of coining a new name in an upcoming post.

NEXT: Naming, Part II: To create a name that’s on target, get ready and aim before you fire.