Why Bad Ads Happen to Good Causes

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August, 2002:

Why Bad Ads Happen to Good Causes
by Andy Goodman
Cause Communications, 2002.
Free for downloading at <www.agoodmanonline.com>.

Anti-hunting activists may be transiently comforted to know
that the ads designed by the anti-gun proliferation group CeaseFire
tend to be more effective, as measured by readership surveys, than
the ads of the National Rifle Association.

Otherwise, Why Bad Ads Happen to Good Causes should provoke
just about everyone who buys ads to rethink ad strategy.
“The story behind this book begins on Halloween 2000,” Andy
Goodman begins, “and it is appropriately a little scary.”
That morning Goodman read a New York Times article entitled,
“What’s wrong with dot-com ads?”
The article described a Roper Starch Worldwide report on
dot-com ad readership which in hindsight more-or-less predicted the
failure of online advertising that presaged the dot-com investment
collapse of the next few months. That collapse produced, as a
ripple effect, a nonprofit fundraising slump that began well before
the events of September 11, 2001, and has only deepened since.
“A lot of advertisers on the Internet are just not paying
attention to the basics,” Roper Starch Worldwide report author
Philip Sawyer told The New York Times–and the results showed in poor
readership scores.
Readership scores do not measure how many people see an ad.
Rather, they measure how much information people retain from it,
which is in turn provides an indication of how likely they are to
respond. A good ad can be very successful, even in a low-budget
location. A badly designed ad can flop in the best space money can
“As a communications consultant to nonprofits and
foundations,” Goodman explains, “I pay close attention to public
interest advertising. Much of what I see also appears to ignore the
basics: headlines that ramble on forever, reams of dense text,
layouts that give the eye no clue where to begin.”
Goodman learned that although no public interest organization
had ever commissioned a study of nonprofit advertising, Roper Starch
Worldwide had collected relevant data since 1990. Funded by the Pew
Charitable Trusts, Goodman ordered a study of 200 nonprofit ads
published in high-profile mass media, and confirmed his hunch that
nonprofit organizations have for at least a decade been making
essentially the same mistakes as the failed dot-coms.
Goodman does not delve deeply into why, but two
commonalities are almost self-evident: ad campaign supervisors who
lack background in results-oriented commercial advertising, and ad
design personnel whose creativity and computer skill typically far
exceeds their understanding of how to communicate specific ideas.
Goodman identifies seven principles of advertising that
cannot be ignored with any realistic hope of success: 1) Capture
the reader’s attention like a stop sign and direct it like a road
map. 2) Make an emotional connection before attempting to convey
information. 3) Write headlines that offer a reason to read more.
4) Use pictures to attract and convince. 5) If you want people to
read your text, make it readable. 6) Test before, measure
after. 7) When everyone zigs, it’s time to zag.
Goodman also notes that, “Public interest advertisers have
displayed a strong inclination to target just two emotions: fear and
shame. Despite a vast palette to choose from–joy and sorrow, love
and hate, all the complex feelings that make us human–good causes
have tended to paint with these same two colors over and over again.
Unquestionably these are strong motivators, but if they are the only
ones we use, we turn ourselves into the fear-and-shame people. And
who wants to hear from them?”
Another way to phrase that is, what works in direct mailings
is not always what will work within a newspaper or magazine.
ANIMAL PEOPLE can confirm, as a newspaper sustained in large
part by advertising, that Goodman knows what he is talking about.
We have learned through the years that we can recognize a successful
advertisement almost the moment we see it, and can also recognize an
ad account that we are going to lose soon because the ad design makes
fundamental mistakes.
Unfortunately, we have also learned that advertisers tend to
fall in love with their ads. Warning an advertiser that a bad ad is
about to happen to a good cause is usually no more effective than
warning someone that his chained dog is a heck of a lot more
dangerous than he thinks, or that feeding the bears is going to get
them shot.
The education must be done before the errant person commits
to the deed.
We recommend Why Bad Ads Happen to Good Causes to everyone
who might eventually want to advertise here, in the hope that all of
our advertisers can become as successful as the many who have stayed
with us through the years.

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