Subscribe to Entrepreneur for $5

Why Most Ads Fail

Most ads aren't written to persuade; they're written not to offend.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Most ads are written merely not to offend. This goes back to chapter one, "Nine Secret Words," in my first book, The Wizard of Ads. What are those nine words? "The risk of insult is the price of clarity." Rare is the ad that makes its point clearly.

Are your ads not bringing in the customers? The customers who cost you money are the ones you never see, the ones who didn't come in because your ads never got their attention. Here are the four biggest mistakes advertisers make that prevent their ads from being both clear and engaging.

Mistake No. 1: Demanding "polished and professional" ads
If you insist that your ads "sound right," you force them to be predictable. Predictable ads do not surprise Broca's area of the brain, which understands language. They don't open the door to conscious awareness. They fail to gain the attention of your prospective customer.

Mistake No. 2: Informing without persuading
Don't create ads that present information without:

  • Substantiating their claims
    Example: "Lowest prices guaranteed!" Or what, you'll apologize?
  • Explaining the benefit to the customer
    Example: "We use the Synchro-static method!" Which means what?
    Example: "It's truck month at Ramsey Ford!" So, should I come to the party and bring my truck?

Mistake No. 3: Entertaining without persuading
Don't draft ads that deliver entertainment without:

  • Delivering a clear message
    Example: "Yo quiero Taco Bell." Is this saying, "Dogs like our food, you will, too"?
  • Causing the customer to imagine themselves taking action.
    Example: "Yo quiero Taco Bell." Am I supposed to buy a taco for my Chihuahua?

The best ads cause customers to imagine themselves taking action. These ads deliver:

  • Involvement--Watch a dancing silhouette ad for the iPod and mirror neurons in your brain will cause part of you to dance, as well. This is good .
  • Clarity--The white earphone cords leading into the ears of the dancing silhouette make it clear that the white iPod is a personal music machine.

Problem #4: Decorating without persuading
Graphic artists will often create a visual style and call it "branding." This is fine if your product is fashion, a fragrance, an attitude or a lifestyle, but God help you if you sell a service or a product that's meant to perform.

"Do you like the ad?" asks the graphic artist. "Yes, it's perfect," replies the client. "The colors create the right mood and the images feel exactly right. I think it represents us well." Sorry, but I disagree.

The important thing is getting your customers' attention and compelling them to take action. Worried about offending someone? Of the customers who hate your ads, 98.9 percent of them will still come to your store and buy from you when they need what you sell. These customers don't cost you money; they just complain to the cashier as they're handing over their cash.

Entrepreneur Editors' Picks