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The Best Ads are the Ones You Never Noticed

The Best Ads are the Ones You Never Noticed

“I have produced my share of advertisements which have been remembered by the advertising world as “admirable pieces of work” but I belong to the third school, which holds that a good advertisement is one which sells the product without drawing attention to itself. It should rivet the reader’s attention on the product. Instead of saying, “What a clever advertisement,” the reader says, “I never knew that before. I must try this product.” — David Ogilvy

People who struggle with obsessive compulsive disorder may have come across the pink elephant exercise. It’s pretty simple: after being told about pink elephants you need to spend the next 5 minutes not thinking about pink elephants.

Hoping this analogy hits close to home for a lot of readers: knowing that the majority of digital advertisers I’ve interacted with seem much more predisposed to OCD than the average person.

Regardless, this quote made me think about how much we think advertisements and intrusive thoughts (pink elephants) are analogous.

It’s generally believed that advertisements need to be intrusive: loud, aggressive, compelling, sticky; effective advertisements hook into your consciousness much like an obsessive compulsive thought cycle. Just think of a time when you had a commercial jingle stuck in your head and you just couldn’t get rid of it.

However, what Ogilvy is saying is that some of the best advertisements (especially for direct response) are actually much more subtle. They’re almost imperceptible cues that trigger thoughts and behavior in ways you never notice.

A good direct-response ad doesn’t feel like an ad. It’s likely the ads that have been the most effective to you were ones you never even noticed. They were really good at driving your focus towards the product or service and how it solves your pain, or helps you reach a specific desire.

To take this further, let’s explore further how these ads might work. First, they attract your attention as you wander on autopilot. You don’t consciously recognize that your attention has been diverted, but it has happened because some element of the ad has attracted you. Second, you stay engaged because you are either curious about the premise of the ad or you have recognized that the ad has hinted at a solution to an existing pain or desire you have. Finally, the ad reveals to you how simply and quickly you can solve this pain or reach this desire. And if the ad was successful, you performed the intended action.

Most of this engagement occurs while your brain is still on autopilot (system 1 according to behavioral economists) and you are unlikely to to really register this engagement in your waking thought. Therefore, when the moment comes to take the action the ad has prompted, you typically have some other rational reasoning for this action (I’ve been looking for a pair of sunglasses for some time now. I need to buy these now before the sale ends).

A good way of thinking about the effectiveness of truly good ads is negative space. In art, negative space is the empty space around and between the subject(s) of an image. Exceptional ads are well-crafted negative space; all your attention is centered on the subject (good/service) not the presentation of the subject.

This is why it’s so hard for people to actually generate good ads on a creative basis. They want to think of an ad based on what they believe an ad should be based on the “good ads” to which they have been exposed. However, by the above definition, the best ads aren’t registered as ads. It’s a strange paradox.

So how do you create a good ad?

This is where it gets more interesting. Technically you can’t really create a good ad deterministically. Instead you take general parameters around what is historically known to be effective (smiling faces, clear product shots, specific call-to-action, scarcity) and you mix them up to produce a batch of assumptions. You then test these assumptions iteratively and optimize towards what is producing the best results.

But you can be a little more refined in a three step process.

First, collect known elements of human psychology around what drives human behavior.

Second, identify ways to reduce friction as much as possible when attempting to drive a specific action.

Third, test variables defined by the first two steps in a process that emulates cumulative selection. If this is successfully implemented, you will have an end result that drives customer behavior to do exactly what you intended without the customers really registering that they are responding to an ad.

Let’s use a startup sunglass brand for example.

First, let’s think of some psychological pressures that we succumb to on a daily basis:

  • Authority bias: NYT’s top 10 sunglasses of 2022
  • Social proof: consumer reviews
  • Scarcity: 20% OFF summer sale ends in 24hrs

Ok, now let’s think about friction points:

  • Customer objections
  • Brand alignment
  • Brand awareness

Now, how do we test these elements?

  • Test each psychological concept with ad copy and ad creative
  • Identify the friction points and determine conversion rate metrics at each point
  • Test optimizations at each friction point in addition to creative testing

Test, analyze and iterate. Test, analyze and iterate. Test, analyze and iterate.

Repeat until you reach a profitable customer acquisition cost. Then repeat until you hit your desired level of scale.

This should be smoothed out to a point where customer behavior seems like an effortless flow. This is also when you know you’ve been successful in your goal: focusing all attention on the customer’s needs and desires while reducing any friction points along the way.

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