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Can a teenage marketing student teach us adults a thing or two about advertising salesmanship? Does a fresh, young mind nurtured on Nike and Pepsi ads have a sharper perspective we should be listening to? A letter I received late last year from a high school marketing teacher, Beverly Spilman, gave me an opportunity to find out.
Spilman teaches at Jefferson High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and asked if I had ever run across any interesting ways for teenagers to test their advertising and marketing skills in the classroom. Nope, I said, but why don't I invent one?
I suggested the following assignment to Spilman for her class: Each student would pick out an ad in the local paper that could be improved on; then they'd do what I do in this column--give the ad a makeover. And, to add an extra incentive to the process, I told Spilman to submit a handful of the best entries to me, and I would choose one to publish in this column. Spilman reported back that the kids were pretty stoked by the prospect of having their ad in a national publication. And, for my part, I thought Entrepreneur readers might find it illuminating to see the kinds of advertising messages that fresh, young minds might think of.
Each of the ads Spilman submitted to me had some genuine appeal, though I doubt any of the students were thinking in terms of the cost of running such ads. Most produced "after" versions that were several sizes larger than the "before" ads, and some added color--alterations that might be prohibitively expensive for a small-space advertiser.
The ads ranged from a pitch for the local pizza parlor ("Great Food!" the headline shouted) to a few ads for travel agencies to an ad for psychic counseling featuring a full-sized outline of a hand to signify that palmistry was one of the offerings. But I had to pick one to showcase, and it turned out to be (drum roll, please . . .) that of 17-year-old Lindsey Marshek.
Marshek's ad was for a firm that apparently sells cars to people who are credit risks. Her headline (tweaked just slightly) "Bad Credit? No Credit? No Problem!!" is solid; plus, by marrying it to the visual of a sports car, she sends the target audience an appealing message: A car like this can be yours even if you're not a good credit risk. In the written critique I requested from each student, Lindsey said of the old ad, "There is no catchy headline to attract attention. This ad needs a lot of improvement . . . to get the message across." Right you are, Lindsey, and we'll see you down the road in the Copywriter's Hall of Fame.
Scattered, disheveled ads like this one can work because they stand out. But this one needs a focal point.
1. This ad looks a little like someone sneezed on it hard and blew all the elements in different directions.
2. To be fair, this ad was re-sized to fit in this space. But like the original, smaller version, the ad needs a graphic focus to get attention.
This ad, created by teenager Lindsey Marshek, says it short, sweet and straight to the point.
1. This headline couldn't be a faster read, and it gets an alluring message out to the target market.
2. This visual complements the headline and says rewards can still be yours even if you've had credit problems.
Q: I know you recommend working with an ad designer to make ads more professional. But where do I find one, and how do I evaluate him or her? Also, why not just use one of those ad templates I can get on a computer program?
A: Let me start with your last question. Templates you pluck off software programs are not awful by any means. In fact, I've previously recommended brochure and flier templates that provide a nice border treatment within which to fit your copy. But ads are another ballgame. They have to compete on a page with many other surrounding ads, and that calls for distinctiveness, not just in the copy but in the look as well. Ad formats you get on a disk are professionally rendered and tastefully executed, but they tend to have a "canned" appearance, as if you've seen them before. After all, with 80,000 or so other small businesses having the same templates at their disposal, your ad could have a lot of first cousins out there contributing to the mediocrity and similarity of the design.
So your advertising layout needs to be more than just prefab--more than just attractive, symmetrical and organized. It needs to be developed with only your product or service in mind. It needs to be interruptive and unexpected, if possible. And it needs to do everything in its power to make readers want to glom onto the message it contains--including using type sizes and styles that make the words easy to read. (One of my pet peeves is an ad in which the designer feels compelled to go "arty" when selecting a typeface for the headline and body copy, making it hard to read.) Satisfying those criteria is what a good designer does to earn his or her fees.
So how do you find such a designer? It sounds like a pat answer to say start with the Yellow Pages, but that's where I began recently when I moved to a new city. Look under "Advertising" or "Artists, Commercial." There, you'll likely find ads that say "Advertising Design." Call several of these studios, ask if they design the size of ad you want to run and, if they do, ask them to send you a few samples of their work, including a small-space ad--these are more of a challenge for a designer because there aren't a lot of choices in arranging the elements in a one-column-by-3-inch- or-4-inch box. But as I've said, making an ad that size leap out graphically and hook the scanning reader is what a good designer gets paid for.
As for the fee, most professional designers charge $40 to $60 per hour. Some may charge by the day. After reviewing the designers' work, meet a few of them in person, decide if there's chemistry (this is important), then choose one for your project. Request that they present at least two different visual approaches to the ad. He or she may even know a copywriter who can help you write the copy.
Q: Someone told me I could actually publish my own paperback book to use as a promotional piece. What do these books offer?
A: They look like paperbacks you'd pick up at any bookstore, with a glossy cover, a table of contents, chapters and an index--but they are, in fact, selling devices. And some are extremely effective.
What they have going for them is they enable you to say you've actually written a book on your area of expertise. That's about as impressive as you can get. And if the book is a good read and full of persuasive, useful information, it can be the ultimate selling tool. Whether you're an accountant, a car dealer or a plastic surgeon, you probably have enough valuable information to fill this typically 120-page book--without giving away the store. I've ghost-written a few of them for clients, and they are labor-intensive and require a $10,000 to $30,000 investment, depending on the quantity you want to print. But if convincing a prospect that you know your stuff is the best way to promote yourself, and if your advertising budget can accommodate it, a provocatively titled book can be one heck of a sales aid.
Jerry Fisher is an advertising copywriter, consultant and author of Creating Successful Small Business Advertising ($39.95), available by calling (800) 247-6553. If you'd like Jerry to consider your materials for a makeover in this column, send them to "Advertising Workshop," Entrepreneur, 2392 Morse Ave., Irvine, CA 92614, or contact Jerry via America Online at Jerry228@aol.com
Jefferson High School , fax: (319) 398-2112, firstname.lastname@example.org