Why most adverts fail

I remember a great piece of video from back in the days when I used to watch TV. Well, actually it was an advert and it reminded me of one of my favourite cartoons when I was a kid. 

Optimus Prime toy

Don’t over-complicate your adverts.

Do you remember the Transformers (I mean the original cartoons, not the dreadful Hollyw ood action movies)? Great stuff. My brother and I used to have a couple of transformers, and we used to fight over Optimus Prime…

Anyway – I digress.

This ad was really clever – there were cars transforming into great big robots to the backdrop of a big city and a funky sound track.

The problem is, I know the adverts were for cars, but I’ve no idea which make.

Also, I don’t know what was in it for me.

You see, the ads were really cool. Very cleverly made, great use of special effects, and I’m positive they cost at least as much as a decent-sized house in the Cotswolds. They went viral on the internet, too.

But I don’t know what the point of them was. I don’t know what they were trying to tell me about why I should choose that particular make of car. And that’s the problem.

The people making these ads made two big mistakes.

  1. They could have been advertising almost any make of car. They weren’t specific to any make or model, so there was no differentiation. No USP.
  2. There were no benefits. No reasons to buy. The ads were cool, but we all know there are no such things as cars that transform into robots (more’s the pity). So what was the company trying to sell, exactly?

Cool though the ads were, it was bad advertising. Bad advertising is advertising that doesn’t sell. Bad advertising also aims to make the creative people or the company bigwigs feel good, as opposed to making sales.

It’s a fact that most creative people seem to be more interested in awards than sales. I say it’s a fact because there was a big survey a few years ago, which I heard about through Drayton Bird, in which not one creative director mentioned sales or profits when asked about their advertising.

This is really worrisome, especially for small business owners like you.

You can’t afford to bolster the ego of creative agencies. You can’t afford to help them win awards. All you’re interested in is whether your advertising is making you money.

If you’re wondering why your stuff isn’t working, your creative agency is a good place to start. You’re probably not starting from the same place: how to solve your customers’ problems.

Most creative directors are hung up on being creative – but creativity is pointless if the advertising doesn’t sell.

Legendary adman Raymond Rubicam said, “The only purpose of advertising is to sell. It has no other justification worth mentioning”. Assuming “sell” means persuade anyone to do or believe something, it’s hard to beat that definition.

And Bill Bernbach, named Adman of the 20th Century in Advertising Age, said, “All this talk of creativity has me worried. I fear lest in seeking the creativity we lose the sell”.

So how do you avoid creating ads that fail?

Don’t be hung up on creativity. Don’t try to be clever. Simply make sure that your advertising does what a salesman would do if he were there in person, talking to your prospective customer.

And when you find a great creative agency which is more concerned with increasing your sales than winning awards, hang onto them with both hands. Listen to them. And treat them like partners, not the hired help.

The best marketers know that it’s in their best interests to increase your sales. If they don’t, they don’t hang onto their clients for too long and they don’t make the big bucks.

Beware creativity. Beware the frustrated artists of the design world. Demand results: nothing less.


PS How can you tell if your advert has worked? If it’s good or bad? Simple: it made direct sales. Or it converted prospects into customers. Or it got people to sign up to something. It made people act.

And how can you tell if that particular ad made people act? Testing. You must test everything you do, or you won’t be able to tell if it’s worthwhile.



Vicky Fraser is a copywriter, author, and entrepreneur. She really did run away with the circus… but when she’s not swinging from a trapeze, she’s showing other copywriters and small business owners how to work with better clients, make more money, and stop missing bathtimes, first words, and dinners with angry partners. In fact, she wrote the book on it. Get your copy here.

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