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Millions wasted on ineffective advertising

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Ten criteria for a successful advertisement

Image: Millions wasted on ineffective advertisingNo one will disagree that millions are wasted on ineffective advertising. It could be argued all other business functions waste money, so why pick on advertising? For example, wrong choices are made in personnel selection, sales forecasts are often wrong, new products are developed and fail – and so on. But most failures are eventually discovered and this knowledge leads to more effective operations.

This is not so with advertising. Many campaigns are launched without quantified objectives, and the attempts sometimes made to measure results are inadequate.

In order to counter this, a scorecard methodology was developed by Norman Hart Associates, a UK-based marketing communications consultancy. This scorecard system has met with wide acceptance by the managers using it.

Looking across the whole range of media, some are more difficult than others to assess. Poster advertising and sponsorship are examples, and even television and radio. The most likely medium for accurate and reliable measurement is the press, and this applies equally to direct mail. Variations of the technique can also be used to evaluate sales literature and exhibitions.

While any pre-testing is going to be approximate, certain criteria can be applied with confidence to achieve the best possible result. After all, it doesn’t require a sophisticated and expensive piece of research to see, in the proof of a proposed ad, the body copy is difficult to read simply because it is set solid in a typeface too small to read easily, or the action element has been left out.

The following criteria have been used over a number of years to evaluate industrial or business-to-business ads, but they seem to apply also to consumer ads.

Over and above the spark of genius which can never be satisfactorily measured, a number of quite obvious factors can stop an ad being really effective. Ten such factors are listed below, with the possible score shown in brackets.

1. Attention value (9)

Extensive research has shown the majority of industrial or business ads are seen by only a few percent of the readers of a publication, and read by even fewer. Thus, the first requirement of an ad is to have stopping power. Some ads will be passed by simply because the subject matter is not of interest, but even if it is of potential interest, the ad may not be noticed, for instance, because it is too flat and grey or, at the other extreme, to cluttered. The headline, the body copy, and the picture must all be laid out in such a way as to attract the eye.

2. Instant message (5)

For a fraction of a second, providing an ad has attention value, there is the opportunity to hold a reader’s attention for long enough to get across the subject matter of the ad, the incentive to read on. The test here is to hold up the ad for a second and judge whether in this time it communicates a message. Is the headline clear, short, and to the point? Does the illustration show the benefit as opposed to, or at least as well as the product? Beware the excessively creative headline and illustration obscuring the essential single selling idea. The vital purpose is first to communicate the chosen message, and second to pull the reader into the ad.

3. Impact (2)

It is no use projecting an instant message if it is then instantly forgotten. So, will the ad achieve an impact on readers’ minds so they will retain the message for subsequent action? Is it memorable and distinctive? This will be determined partly by its attention value and instant message, and also by the overall impression the ad achieves before the reader moves on to the next page.

4. Writing style (2)

The style of writing is important. Always use short and simple words and short sentences, leaving out any advertising clichés and unnecessary jargon. The terminology must be in a form familiar to the reader. While it must be persuasive, the slick hard-sell and hype associated with some FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) products is likely to be counterproductive. Familiar copy also extends to familiar illustrations. The picture should be in a setting to which the reader can relate.

5. Single selling proposition (4)

A product or service is likely to have a number of attributes to be expressed in terms os customer benefits. Does the ad clearly get across one specific promise or benefit, or is it a jumble of messages leaving the reader confused about just what it is getting at. A good rule is to pinpoint the single selling idea, but ensure it is presented so it remains in the mind of the reader after reading it.

“All ads, corporate and product, contribute to both corporate image and brand image, whether they are designed to do so or not.”

6. Credibility – is it believable (3)

All the advertising claims are of little use if they are not believable. So to what extent does an ad ring true? Is there any hard evidence to support the claims, such as a picture of the product in operation, or a case history or, even better, a third-party endorsement? Facts are more believable than generalities and exaggerations.

7. Logical progression of the argument (2)

Look at the positioning of the components of an ad, and the sequence of the headline, subhead and body copy. Do these ad up to a logical series of statements which together support the basic selling proposition? In short, is the ad easy to understand?

8. Legibility (8)

So many otherwise excellent ads are ruined simply by incompetent typography. Starting with the most dominant features, how readable are the headline and subhead? Quite apart from the words themselves and whether they communicate a convincing message, what about the typography? Is it simple and clear? In the body copy, does the combination of typeface, point size, leading, measure and general layout and presentation make the copy easy and inviting to read?

Basic facts of legibility are continually ignored, maybe in an attempt to be modish or avant-garde. For instance, people over the age of 40 have difficulty reading 8 point type or smaller. On top of this, leading helps legibility, whereas reverse type reduces it. Capitals make body copy more difficult to read, and serif faces are more legible than sans serif. Leading between the lines helps, as does the measure (length of line). These simple rules must not be ignored.

9. Action-response mechanism (7)

All ads have a purpose, and apart from corporate ads, this usually involves the reader taking some action. It sure makes sense to indicate to the reader what action is intended. The actual offering itself is important, since research shows to offer something tangible will generate a larger response than a vague invitation to write for further information. It needs to be spelled out so the reader is really motivated to act. And then visually, the action element must stand out.

10. Corporate benefit (8)

An ad may fulfil its primary purpose very well, i.e., to sell a product or service, or to contribute to brand image, or to generate inquiries. But all ads also have an opportunity to influence corporate image or portray a company’s personality – that makes a company liked, respected and admired. A messy ad tends to indicate a messy company; a small ad, a small one; and a dull ad suggests a company with not much to get excited about. So all ads, corporate and product, contribute to both corporate image and brand image, whether they are designed to do so or not.


To evaluate an advertisement from the ten criteria given above, award a rating against each up to a maximum of the score shown in brackets, i.e., (8) award any figure between 0 and 8 depending on your judgment of how effective the ad is against that particular point.

Then add all the scores together and double the result. This is the percentage rating of the advertisement. The following groupings give suggested evaluations based on experience of using this system:

  • 82 – 100 per cent Outstanding

  • 72 – 80 per cent Very good
  • 62 – 70 per cent Acceptable
  • 0 – 60 per cent Send it back

July 2011.