Copywriting Q&A: The Anatomy of a Good Ad

The anatomy of an effective adIn the course of a day, you’ll come across about a bazillion ads (I’ll have to cite that study later…). Many of them are good, but many are not so good. As a new copywriter, it’s crucial that you learn to tell the difference. Today, I’ll teach you how to do just that.

Today’s question is from Seth P. who asks, “I’ve been trying to take more notice of the ads and copy I see like you say to. But how can a I tell if an ad is any good?”

Being able to tell if an ad is any good is crucial since you’ll need to be able to apply that same discernment to your own work. After all, if you can’t tell if an ad is bad or good, how will you tell if your own ad is bad or good?

I’ll start first with a little disclaimer: What we’ll talk about today is what makes an ad good from the perspective of how likely it is to be effective. We’ll define good ads as those likely to make the intended audience take the action the advertiser wants them to take.

The funniness or cleverness or impact of an ad can be part of this effectiveness, but those elements themselves can often be a matter of opinion. For that reason, we’re not going to touch on them very much here.

A note: If you really want to get the most benefit from today’s post, I’d recommend grabbing an ad and following along.

First: A good ad needs to make clear how the product/service/person its selling will benefit you. If you ask “What’s in it for me?” the ad should very clearly, and immediately, answer it. If you have to ask, “Why would I even care about this?” it’s a bad ad.

Wait—one caveat to that. The ad is geared to its target audience. Just because you don’t care about something, doesn’t mean it’s a bad ad. However, if no one  would care about it or if it doesn’t convey a benefit at all, then it’s a bad ad. (Actually, if it doesn’t have a benefit, it’s a very bad ad.)

So, second, a good ad needs to speak to its target audience. Put yourself in the target audience’s shoes. Does it appeal to you? Does it resonate with you? Does the copy use words you (as the target audience) would use? If yes, great. If no: bad ad.

Third, does the ad have details to support this benefit? Do you know how the product/service/whatever creates this benefit? A good ad gives the reader exactly the information he/she needs to make the decision to take an action. (No more and no less.) Now, if the benefit is very straightforward and easy to understand, it may not need additional details. But if the details are needed…are they there?

Fourth, take a look at the copy overall. Is there any unnecessary copy? Copy that doesn’t really serve a purpose or explains things that don’t need to be explained at this point in your interaction with the product? If an ad is unnecessarily wordy, it’s definitely veering into the bad ad zone. A good ad has a specific purpose for every single one of its words.

Fifth, a good ad makes it very clear what the advertiser wants you to do next. Is the call to action clear? Are you supposed to buy now? Or visit the store? Or sign up for a newsletter? Do you know what you’re supposed to do?

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Now, some ads—like magazine ads, especially—don’t always feature a strong and direct call to action. They may leave it to be “understood” that by advertising this great product, they want you to go to a store and buy it. This might be dictated by the style of the magazine or the client’s request. I would argue, though, that the very best ads don’t make you guess what they want you to do next or where you can actually purchase their product.

Lastly, the best ads are memorable. They accomplish all of the above, but they stand out from the crowd and make their target audience take notice. And the best ads don’t just make you remember the ad, they also make you remember the brand. How times have you seen an ad and described to someone, but when they asked what company put out the ad, you couldn’t remember? Probably a lot. What’s the point of an ad if it doesn’t make you remember the company and the product?

Now, this was a pretty quick overview of what makes an ad good or not. There are certainly other elements that can contribute, but the elements above are the ones that must be part of an ad for it to be good. Starting with these basic building blocks will help you craft your own effective ad.

Your turn! Which elements of great ads did I miss? (And remember: We’re talking about elements that make them effective.) Let us know in the comments below!

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  1. says

    Nice article.
    Sometimes, I think determining a great ad, from a dud, to a complete looser, is pretty difficult.
    I heard a story about the ‘Where’s the Beef?’ Wendy’s Restaurant ad campaign from the 80’s was a complete flop. If I remember right those ads became part of pop culture. People were saying ‘where’s the beef?’ everywhere you turned.
    Something that resonated with the audience?
    Appeared to.
    I then heard that it wasn’t until Wendy’s brought Dave Thomas back as part of their new ad campaign, that the ads started working again.
    More people resonated with the integrity and honesty Dave relayed in the ads.
    Dave brought a credibility to the ads. He’s likable and has integrity.
    Winning ads are tough to spot sometimes without going behind the curtain to see the actual numbers.
    I really like reading your articles.

    • Nicki says

      Hi Kevin,

      That’s a great story — thanks for sharing! Even the most memorable ads don’t work if they don’t resonate with the target audience, right? And you’re right — much as we don’t like to admit it, it’s really the conversion and/or revenue numbers (depending on the goals, of course) that determine if an ad was effective.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Nicki & the Filthy Rich Writer team

  2. Oliver says

    Another great post!

    Regarding leaving something to be ‘understood’, I think this is fine. I’ve worked on some print ads where the reader is left without the final piece of the puzzle. Once they figure the meaning out for themselves they feel very clever and the ad/brand/message is cemented in their mind.

    Advertising is often criticised for SHOUTING! Whereas if one subtly dangles the carrot, the audience are led to their own conclusion, that magical “Ooohhhh, I get it.” moment.

    Obviously there is no hard and fast method for creating a successful ad, and we’re all supposed to break rules/ground, but I think the ‘less is more’ approach can be very powerful.

    What do you think?

    • Nicki says

      Hi Oliver,

      I think that the tricky thing about leaving something to be understood is that you’re banking on having caught the target audience’s interest enough that they will actually want to figure out that final piece of the puzzle and that can be (depending on the campaign, medium, brand positioning, audience, etc.) a risky tactic to take.

      But I do agree that “less is more” often applies to copy; many newer copywriters try to pack in much more copy than they need to. Less is more—as long as it’s enough!

      Thanks for commenting!
      Nicki & the Filthy Rich Writer team

  3. Tom McCauley says

    Remember AIDA?

    You need a good headline to get people’s attention so that they will stop to read your ad. A headline that presses one of the buttons, fear, greed, lust, pride, ambition, envy etc.

    • Nicki Krawczyk says

      Hi Tom,

      Absolutely! As you get into the nitty gritty of the actual ad format the first and, arguably, most important element is a great headline. (After all, without a great headline people probably won’t read the rest of it, right?)

      Thanks for commenting!

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