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What Makes a Good Ad?

By David Berry: It's perhaps the most subjective, divisive topic in the entire ad industry, and its centered around a question that's been asked since the dawn of the industry - what makes a good ad? (And more recently, the question is 'how do you make something go viral?')

The New York Times pointed out that many people, when probed with this question, tend to argue that "sticky ideas and products tend to be simple, unexpected and credible, with concrete details, an emotional undertow and a memorable story line." 

But it's not quite that simple - or consistent. If funny and cute were truly the way to go, for example, then you'd never see a Party City 'Thriller' commercial like, ever.

The better answer to the question is a bit more layered. A few weeks back, I read a book called Contagious by Jonah Berger, an associate professor of marketing at the Wharton School of Business at Penn.

The Times said that "Berger, for his part, asserts that six principles help make things go viral":

  • Social Currency (making people feel that they are cool insiders)
  • Triggers (everyday reminders of an item or idea)
  • Emotional Resonance (making people want to share the experience with friends)
  • Observability (that is, a highly visible item advertises itself)
  • Usefulness (people like to share practical or helpful information)
  • Storytelling (embedding a product or an idea in a narrative enhances its power).

Without summarizing the book, Berger goes on to explain case study after case study that supports those six principles. And it goes so far as to explain how Cheerios (yes, Cheerios) gets more word of mouth buzz than a gargantuan fun land like Disney.

But why? No one thinks of Cheerios as a sexy brand, but it never has to be. A good brand doesn't need its ads to be cute or funny; ads are reinforcements for brands that are already ideally suited to drive sales (and that's the only true measure of a good ad).

Winning brands do their winning by embedding themselves into the day-to-day fiber of our lives, both in how we interact with the brand/products themselves, but also in how they fit into our compulsions to connect, share and tell stories with one another.

It's why Party City's Thriller ad is a good ad, despite the fact that it's annoying. Social currency doesn't always have to be based around a good thing; saying 'ugh, did you hear that annoying Party City Thriller commercial - again? Must be Halloween again' is exactly what Party City needs you to think. And now you've told the brand story for them and they've triggered an emotion in you. Sure, the emotion seems negative on the surface, but are you really not going to shop at Party City because the ad is annoying? No. 

Hell, you could hear the song Thriller out of season and not even think of Michael Jackson. You're just thinking of costumes. In Party City's world, Thriller is perhaps one of its most known triggers - annoying or not.

The best ads don't need to be polished or high in production value. They just need to get people talking. And if it has several of those six principles, your odds of 'going viral' just got a major boost.

- DB