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What makes the perfect ad? Two advertising myths debunked

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What makes a perfect ad?

In a 2013 post on the psychology behind ad and digital copywriting, I elaborated on a fundamentally different appeal that traditional ads (print, radio, TV) make to “captive” audiences, versus content & copy for digital experiences – where by nature we participate in the medium rather than being subject to it.

But when is it REALLY it the "best coffee"? Easy: when I need it most.
When is it really the “best coffee”? When I need it most.

On the advertising side, it’s no stretch to say that where, when and how you see/hear an ad, not just the ad itself, impact how well it’s received.

If I see a 50% off sale advertised in a store window, for example, I’m just a tad more likely to walk in – all things being equal – than if I find that same promotion in the back of a newspaper.

In marketing and advertising settings, this is where we see words like “channels” and “verticals” get thrown around when looking at a message’s context: to try to account for and control situational aspects that a campaign’s success is so dependent on.

But it can be simpler than that. Let me explain.

MYTH: Your target consumers fall neatly in niche “verticals.”

TRUTH: Your vertical is NOT your audience.

To target specific markets, marketers tend to split up their ad budgets into different verticals, which essentially means an ad should reach one type of user, audience, or industry segment. (A retail vertical – including consumer packaged goods, or CPG – is distinguished from “healthcare” or “technology.”)

But verticals only estimate. They might be useful for things like analytics and reporting, but they don’t, and aren’t meant to, qualify your consumer base. In other words, they’re artificial distinctions.

Someone viewing your ad isn’t either a “retail” or a “technology” shopper. Those are shortcuts. In actuality, he/she is one three-dimensional consumer with the same set of needs grounded in psychological appeals – emotional, practical – exposed in varying contexts.

So why is this important? Well, the primary issue lies in how we target from an advertising perspective. When you extend the idea of verticals out to the concept itself, you make the underlying assumption that your target consumers care about these distinctions and how they impact the message. They don’t. That’s how you end up with tired, repeated concepts. And pharma commercials with “happy, well-groomed people in mono-chromatic T-shirts playing badminton or some other bullshit sport.” (Per Esquire Magazine.)

CPG sample (vertical)… or simply effective messaging at the point of sale (context).

Your audience doesn’t care about – and isn’t sold on – technique. They care about staying power.

Another issue lies in how we target creative talent to create ads. The ability to concept, write and design an effective ad isn’t determined by industry category. To that end, neither should be the person doing each of those things.

Creative muscle, after all, works best in an environment of change. With homogenization, it atrophies.

MYTH: Your advertising channel matters as much – or more than – your message.

TRUTH: Context matters to your audience much more than the channel.

As Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media puts it, “In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that… the medium is the message.”

But that saying “the medium is the message” needs a little more inspection.

I can’t say it better than this“Many people presume the conventional meaning for ‘medium’ that refers to the mass-media of communications – radio, television, the press, the Internet. And most apply our conventional understanding of ‘message’ as content or information. Putting the two together allows people to jump to the mistaken conclusion that, somehow, the channel supersedes the content in importance.”

That’s why advertisers miss the boat when they assume (reasonably) that a communication channel itself impacts messaging. In reality, it’s the interpersonal and social – psychological, even – implications of that medium that shape our interpretation and action as consumers. There’s so much more at stake in the message (namely, us as consumers) than the channel you choose.

It’s important to make this distinction.

As Understanding Media attempts to explain, the consequences of a medium are its true message. Look at McLuhan’s idea of message as it relates to advertising and digital in 2016 especially, and you can see content has been de-prioritized for shorter attention spans and flashier elements of web or ad design.

So, back to business: does the particular channel you choose – digital, for example – have any impact on your content? Only as far as cue-based recognition and the purely technical capacity to convey it goes (e.g., conventions like CTAs and space limitations).

Let’s take it a step further. To your audience, it’s not channel that matters, it’s context. I see an ad on the side of a bus or on my phone, after all, the same psychology may be at work. The content may be identical. But it’s context – a variance in attention span, for example, not varying screen sizes – that shapes the message and how successful it is (how I’m able to interpret and then act as a consumer).

Context shapes interpretation; the medium’s the conveyor belt. And context means a full range of situational dependencies tied to your audiences… again, not the channel itself.

This requires a much more nuanced understanding of people than the available tools to reach them.

Your “perfect” ad requires an understanding first of when, where (context) and what (message) I want as a consumer, THEN how to deliver to me. And it appeals to the varying contexts your target audience will find you in, not just a certain vertical.

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