Tips for better advertising design

Advertising is the science & art of arresting human intelligence long enough to change its mind.

Advertising is both a science - following formulas and research and an art - aesthetics. It should arrest - grab a hold of, human intelligence - one mind 'speaking' to another, long enough - no longer and no shorter, to persuade one to think differently, to change an attitude.

That is one definition of many. The typical textbook definition from when I was in school (1970s) was that advertising is selling a product, idea, or service. But, it's so much more - selling has to do with a behavior - transaction of money, reaching for a certain product, or pulling a voting lever. To change one's behavior (select Tide instead of Cheer) one must first change one's attitude. That attitude change is the job of advertising.

Ads for AmericanAirlines on the back cover of The New York Times Magazine

The concept of the ad is apparently that this new terminal at New York's JFK Airport has been designed for a world class experience while traveling. The target market is those who spend more time in airports than the casual traveler. But, traveling has become more of a hassle. American Airlines, according to this full page ad is not countering that hassle.
Take a good look at the photograph: cold, long walkways, no moving sidewalk, no courtesy carts, no gate destination in view. Not a single seated person. We don't even see many inviting seating areas. Each traveler is pulling or carrying luggage, on a polished hard floor.
There is just nothing appealing in this photo that would appeal to a world traveler. In fact, it supports the notion that traveling is now a chore and not as much fun as it used to be.
The copy reads, "Experience a terminal like no other." Thank God. Hopefully, other terminals are better than the one depicted in this ad.
Lesson: all elements in a design piece should support and enhance its basic concept.
Those elements include typography, layout composition, color, photographs, logos. The photograph in the AA ad does not enhance the concept of world class design for travelers.

Assuming the photo was appropriate and did enhance the concept, there is another lesson here:
Align elements to provide greater integration and order within a composition.
Notice how the flush-left headline below aligns with elements above it in the photograph, but the smaller flush-right text copy does not. The example below on the right has been altered so that the text copy also aligns with photographic elements. A blog reader posted that she even saw a house - conveying the subtle subliminal message that the terminal has the comfort and security of home.


We assume the concept here is to contrast the experience while in an airport lounge to that of the airplane itself - it is more refined. This ad should contrast the experience of sitting in rows on an airplane to the freedom of sitting in a comfortable lounge. The photo, however, shows rigid, monotonous rows, just like on an airplane.
Better: shoot the photograph from an angle that diminishes the alignment of the rows and enhances the openness of the lounge. Maybe more warm colors (like those shown in the background) and less view of an airplane.

Alien advertising copy

Saw this full page ad in the local daily newspaper. The ad layout also serves as the home page for their website.
So, let's take a look. The image is an engraving of a cloud - it appears to be a storm cloud with the gathering height and the darker bottom. Not sure what it means or its relevance, but its a nice engraving. Below that is the headline. Please read it:



Now, what does that mean? Unmatched perspective? Limitless possibilities? Unleashing a spirit? Pure crap. If you spend some time and use your imagination, you might be able to stretch the meaning to make some sense. But an advertising headline should not require that much work. It should be clear and to the point.
This ad is for a new restraunt on top of the tallest building in Oklahoma. I'm sure there will be a great view of the prairie (or of clouds as in the illustration?). Just like any other high-up view of the prairie, but now from a bit higher up. The objective of the copy is to encourage the reader to consider trying this new restraunt. Of course, the view will be great, but we also should have a desire to eat the food and enjoy the surroundings.



The tagline in this ad, Globally inspired American cuisine, would have made a better headline. It inspires curiosity about this new restraunt. The existing headline (I won't type it again) does not stir any emotion or yearning in the mind of the reader (other than WTF?)
    'Where would you like to go for dinner?'
        'How about some place where an unmatched perspective creates
        limitless possibilities and unleashes the spirit of discovery.'
    'Huh? I meant to eat dinner.'


Lesson: Write from the reader's point of view. Use plain language. Nobody on this planet talks like this: An unmatched perspective creates limitless possibilities and unleashes the spirit of discovery.
Tip: Write copy to match the way the target market thinks and talks.

A deceptive ad
The advertising profession has to battle an often-deserved reputation of not being trustworthy. Many polls of trust place ad people down with used car salesmen and politicians. Outrageous claims are part of the reason. Here are a magazine ad and web home page banner with some misleading copy and visuals. The ads are for a travel vest with many pockets to hold your stuff:

The implication
All the stuff on the 'Tourists' on the left would fit into the vest pockets worn by the 'Travelers' on the right.

Do you believe it? Wouldn't there be bulges from the water bottles and the long lenses on the SLR cameras?

In the list of items shown above, there is no SLR camera even pictured, only two smaller point-and-shoot cameras. So, maybe part of the transformation from Tourist to Traveler includes buying a smaller camera. That has nothing to do with pockets in a vest - the ad makes no mention of having to buy smaller stuff (nor does it mention that you should wear different teeshirts under the vest). The perception (and that's all that really matters) is that by buying this vest, all the touristy stuff can fit into it and you will then be dressed like a 'traveler'. But, that is clearly not true.

Ad with lack of clear information

Full page newspaper insert and an enlargement of the contact info.
Once buyers are persuaded to buy a product, they then seek more specific info: Where do I get this? When are they open?
Great design (clear communication of a message) respects the reader enough to make the info easy to spot and understand.
Notice, at the bottom of the enlargements below, the hours for M-Th are the same as those for F-Sa. At a glance, the ad suggests that there are different hours on the weekend. All days with the same hours should be grouped together, M-Sa, as in the example on the right below.

Now look at the address - this ad requires the reader to use some other device to discover where Hudiburg Circle is. Maybe call the phone number or check a map on a computer. But, isn't it rude and inconsiderate to require the reader to do that? Since the client wants the reader to spend money at their store, make it easy. This would be a great place for a simple but appropriate map of the area, including freeway exits.
Lessons:
• Great design impacts our lives by allowing us to make decisions more efficiently - easier and quicker.
• Great designers consider the reader/viewer/user's point of view.
Tip: Think like the target audience, not the client.

The deceitful advertising enticement of Free shipping
       "We offer Free Shipping!"
How does your company get FedEx, UPS, or the
postal service to donate their shipping services?
       "They don't. We have to pay those shippers."
Then your company pays for the shipping out of your profits?
       "Yes."
Where do you get your profits?
       "From selling our products."
So, am I paying for the shipping when I buy your product?
       "Yes."
So, if I'm paying for it, its clearly not 'Free Shipping'!
Wouldn't it be more accurate and honest to say: 'Shipping included in price' or 'No extra shipping charges'.

Tweaking the lead image in an ad

The ad on the left ran in the newspaper and in an email blast. It has a nice overall look. But there are some issues with hierarchy and eye flow, and a bit of clutter busyness in the top image which distract the viewer from being able to focus on the more important words. Revised version above right. Improvements:
• Deleted stars and Bob Howard Auto Mall, they're unnecessary and too small.
• Lowered the BH letters.
• Raised the words Garage and Sale, Sale and the dates were too cramped.
• Increased the space between Garage and Sale.
• Deleted the sets of 3 parallel lines, unnecessary and distracting.
• Enlarged the banner of dates March 27-29, important info that needed more dominance.
• Tightened the kerning around the apostrophe in Don't.
Notice how much easier it is to focus on the headline with less crap in the way.

Thoughtful grabbing media placement

Above: In your face when you enter this c-store is, Grab some Buds, with an enticing picture of an ice-cold beer bottle. This is almost the last possible chance the advertiser has to impact someone's purchase decision - on the door to the store (an ad on the door to the beer fridge is probly the last chance). These are located where you cannot miss them, right by the handle you must grab to enter. The message is short and clear - grab a beer. The double meaning of grab your friends to watch the game or go out also has a positive message. Both are active requests to do something.
Below: As advertisers get more desperate to find new ways to grab a hold of our minds, someone saw the bollard at the front door as a blank canvas - a place to put yet another advertising message. Grab now, enjoy later. There is no longer a limit on what defines an advertising medium.


Muddled focus

Take a look at this ad from the New York/New Jersey area. It conveys the notion that the Instant Games in the lottery can come at any time - so be ready. In the ad, we see a guy on the train platform with a bunch of commuters. But, he's ready to go scuba diving on vacation in case he wins an Instant Game.
But, this concept relies on the dichotomy between bored commuters and the guy going to take a vacation. For the concept to work - there must be a clear distinction between the two. The snorkel and swim mask are the clues, but notice how easy they are to overlook (as you likely did when you first saw the ad). If the viewer misses them, the concept is lost. It just becomes a photo of commuters on a platform.
There is too much interference between the concept and the viewer's understanding.
Lesson: While contrasts can invite participation from the viewer, they shouldn't be so obscure as to be easily overlooked.
Tip: Increase the dichotomy between the scuba commuter and the others - position the snorkel to be more obvious. Minimize the graphic crap around the frame so the viewer can focus on the scuba commuter.

Assessing the effectiveness of an ad

Let's take an in-depth look at this ad, shown above on the left.
Every ad and piece of graphic design should meet the following 3 objectives, in this order:
Get attention.
• This ad, that ran in a newspaper, has very low contrast - light grey and medium grey (I heightened the contrast in the 3 close-up images on the right for easier reading in this post). In the medium of newspaper, it is difficult to get a solid black - the ink is not very opaque and the newsprint absorbs and spreads the ink. A black or dark background may look fine on the screen, but will be lighter when reproduced on newsprint.
• There is not much intrigue or visual interest here to grab the reader. The text copy is laid out flush left in a single column with straight baselines. The layout has little dynamism or excitement. The face illustration is small and towards the bottom of the ad. A good ad must stop us from turning the page or scrolling past the screen.
• The horizontal bracket parenthesis are a trendy design gimmick with absolutely no value or purpose here.
Convey information clearly and persuasively.
• The headline, Design Olympics 2013, has no familiar appeal - it is an unknown phrase - although we can assume it refers to a competition. But, why make the reader assume - just talk to em. Clearly. Asking the reader to make assumptions in this era of media bombardment and short attention spans can result in a loss of readership or response. This is a new event - no one that reads this newspaper is familiar with Design Olympics. A good ad 'speaks' directly and clearly to its target audience.
• The largest type is the year 2013, which is useless information. Would any reader think this ad would promote last year's event or an event next year? Nope. The least important word does not deserve the most dominant point size.
• The ad visuals do not convey Olympics, athletics, or a competition (is a competition even a good sales pitch concept to naive high school kids who probly don't really understand design well enough to feel confident competing?) The Olympic slogan (Swifter Higher Stronger) and spirit represent humans striving to be their best. None of that attitude is conveyed in this ad.
• What does that goofy expression on the blockhead represent? And the wavy noodle from the top of his head? Neither suggest the straightforward discipline of the Olympics or the creative problem solving of design.
• The copy is a bit awkward. Line breaks should occur at natural pauses or distinctions between phrases. We read in groups of words, in this case, probly one or two groups per line of copy. 'Compete with peers in design' suggests the wrong message to a non-designer still in high school. 'Fun of design school' is glossing over the rigorous discipline and demands of design school. Achieving the Eureka moment in problem solving is fun, developing strong messages that make an emotional connection is fun, but not design school. '$5 for participants to register' is not quite accurate. If one hasn't registered, one is not yet a participant.
• The copy text does not respect the reader's time. The large subhead gives the date, but no day of the week. That forces the reader to check a calendar. Why? Just include the day of the week.
• The ad does not adequately educate the reader about the event. Where will the event be held? Will there be teams? Demonstrations? Critiques? There should be more details to excite and entice people to visit the website and sign up. One advantage to the medium of newspaper advertising is that there is a captive audience who is already in the reading-for-info mindset. There is plenty of room in ad of this size for more details and specifics.
Incite action.
• This ad provides little incentive or reward for signing up. Lunch for $5 or a chance at a tuition waiver to the sponsoring university is probly not enough. A successful ad persuasively motivates the reader to do something. - sign up, vote, change a buying habit, think about an issue.
• What is the creative concept that drives the decision-making for this ad? As a new event that is unfamiliar to most readers, it needs a clever creative concept and a thoughtful design layout to break through media clutter and make an impact in the minds of the target audience.

$100 over shirt?

This full-page ad ran in The Week, a major international publication. The ad was probly very expensive. And yet, there are some errors:
The subhead Exclusive Introductory Offer - Save over $100 over shirt It should probly read, $100 per shirt.
How did that even happen? Did spellcheck take letters, maybe oer and change it to over?

Three ways to order: Online, phone, and in person at a store. On the right: Simpler and clearer text copy
Phone number: There is probly no longer a need to tell people that 800 numbers are toll-free.
See Manhattan & Washington DC stores online Quote: 'FEB24': The online Quote: 'FEB24' copy is unnecessary and probly wasn't even meant to be included on that line.
The first two options don't have verbs (Visit www or Call 1-866), so the third doesn't need one, either. The symbols convey the physical action.
Think how many different people were involved in producing the ad - copywriter, art director, creative director, account executive, client, client's ad team, and more. Yet, it made it all the way through the process with several serious errors.
Tip: Have someone knowledgeable in English grammar proofread your work before it goes to press or online.
Lesson: Work should be designed, proofed, and produced as seen through the eyes of the reader/viewer/target audience.

Before & after examples of advertising manipulation

Brand name burgers: ad photo on the left, actual burgers on the right. The photos of the actual burgers were shot from the most flattering angle. I wonder if we consumers will ever get disgusted enough with this that we ask for more honesty in advertising images. Or have we just accepted that it is normal for advertisers to deceive us and we are now just numb to such outrageous claims. The consequence of that is the line of what is acceptable is moved more towards dishonesty.
I have often wanted to order at a fast food place, point to the photo in the menu board overhead, and state, "I want my burger to look exactly like that one!"


I stood and pondered the message on this billboard photographed on The Drag in Austin. The only clue I can find to help me answer the question posed is that the sponsor seems to be the Special Olympics. I assume, then, that the 'R-Word' is 'Retarded'. This billboard asks the reader to wonder and figure it out - thereby making the word even more dominant and memorable. The result backfires - instead of encouraging the reader to erase a word, it is reinforcing the word and making it a part of our vernacular. There are also too many image messages - the eraser competes for attention with the prohibited symbol over the R - which is the dominant message? Is the content asking us to erase the word or prohibit the word? Do we really need two messages? A reader typically doesn't have much time to read the message on an outdoor billboard. Is the message conveyed here that the 'R' is prohibited, but the word 'retarded' is okay? Should we replace retarded with the R-Word? Doesn't that seem a bit R-Word? There sure is a lot of bad design around. Weak concepts. Weak messages. Weak communication of content.



Here's an ad campaign for a show on LifeTime called army wives. The foto in the upper left is of an ad on the side of a bus stop for pedestrians walking by. This ad is okay - it must grab and intrigue people who have only a second or two to scan images they pass. The other fotos are from a subway car. These are weak because the ads do not give us enough information - why should the viewer change his/her schedule to watch this show? Great ads provide benefits for the reader, some reasons why we should change our attitudes - the show is sexy, intriguing, empathetic to interesting people, something to make one go, "Hmm, that might be worth a watch." So much competes for our time and attention today that marketers need to break thru and grab us with some appeal. Because this campaign is on a subway car - LifeTime bought the entire side of the car - these ads have a captive audience: hundreds of people who are searching for something to read, something to occupy their time. These ads should have had full copy - we have the time and desire to read it. Include copy about the characters - describe them in such a way that the reader wants to get to know them better. Copy about the storyline - what neat issues will be addressed, what relationships will be messed up, etc. Anyway, poor attention to the medium and to the reader's needs; an expenditure that was not made the most of.

One reason why so much design today is weak

This is a good-looking piece. A nice column of copy, an appropriate color, nice patina in the background. Overall, a very appealing look. But, there are some minor errors:
The word 'pavilion' is misspelled.
Tip: Proofread all copy. If in doubt, get a second, or third, opinion.
In the block of copy - does it read 'No trash, no re-usable plates, no utensils, cups & napkins'. Or does it read, 'No Trash. Bring only re-usable plates, utensils, cups & napkins', or does it say 'No trash, bring re-usable plates, but any type of utensils, cups, and napkins'? Since the text is under the heading of 'No Trash', we assume the list following No Trash carries on the No request. BTW: who takes trash to a picnic? Is that a serious problem at this park? The more I read all of the requests, positive and negative, the more confused I get. I assume the copy lists what to bring, including re-usable plates, interrupted by the negative of what not to bring (trash), maybe as a caution that there will be no trash cans available. Even if my assumptions are correct, they require too much deciphering and translating and I am still not confident of what the requests are.
Tip: Read the copy as the target audience would. Advertising copy shouldn't be confusing.
There is no day of the week listed. We get April 8, but we plan our lives based primarily on days.
Tip: Include the day of the week. More info and examples.

But, those aren't the reasons why so much design today is weak.
This poster was displayed on Facebook. There were several comments commending the designer. That's thoughtful and supportive. I assumed that someone would point out at least the misspelled word. Nope. No one did. That is why design today is weak. We are too ignorant or too afraid to monitor our own colleagues and work for the betterment of the design community. The more errors that get published, the lower the bar, and the more numb we get to mediocrity. Much great design is a collaboration, with input from others. The more people that spoke up about the errors in this piece, the better the design would be for the designer, for the event, and for Oklahoma. But, no one spoke up.

www.jamesrobertwatson.com/advertisingdesign.html