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Article: creativity and common sense in non-consumer advertising

Creativity and Common Sense in Non-Consumer Advertising

by Philip Yaffe

“I know that half the money I spend on advertising is wasted. The problem is, I don’t know which half.”

This succinct resume of the advertiser’s dilemma is often attributed to John Wanamaker, the department store pioneer. Some people prefer to give the credit to Henry Ford, the automobile pioneer, or other favourite business giants. Whoever said it first, it is certain that it has been said thousands and thousands of times since.

The significance of the observation is nothing short of astounding. These are people whose business is investing and harvesting financial assets, yet when it comes to advertising, they freely admit to wasting at least half of their money!

But the observation can be turned on its head. Viewed from this perspective, it means that these same extremely clever and resourceful marketers believe that the power of advertising is so great, even at only 50% effectiveness they still get their money’s worth. This is equally astounding!

The value of advertising can most easily be seen with mass marketed products. For example, a breakfast cereal launches a major advertising campaign; within a few days to weeks the sales figures will reflect the impact of the campaign. With technical and industrial products, the picture is not quite so clear. Few people buy a car or a piece of industrial equipment on impulse. They build up to it over a long period of time, so that the cause-and-effect relationship between advertising and sales is virtually impossible to evaluate.

Nevertheless, advertising is indispensable. So the question is, can you construct advertising campaigns that will assure the best return on investment, even when that return cannot be directly measured?

The answer is both yes and no. It is “no” if you believe that advertising by nature is more of an art than a science. It is “yes” if you believe that advertising is a combination of both art and science.

It is certainly true that advertising has a major “art” component, i.e. that people who have a “feel” for it are likely to produce better, more effective advertising than people who don’t. Unfortunately, this verity has led to the false conclusion that advertising is predominantly art, i.e. a matter of taste.

When advertising is viewed as largely a question of personal preference, the rational component of the exercise takes second importance. Worse, it often degenerates into a kind of pseudoscience of rules and regulations with no scientific justification:

  • Be positive: no one likes negative advertising
  • Avoid simple, straightforward headlines; headlines should “tease” readers into the advert
  • Use big, bold visuals; people are impressed by pictures
  • Show the solution, not the problem: this is reassuring to potential buyers
  • Never write more than 15 - 20 words of body copy; no one reads body copy anyhow
  • Make payoff lines (slogans) clever and memorable, not explicit and to the point

The summation seems to be: Advertising is entertainment. If you can attract attention and give a show, then you will sell.

One writer on the subject bluntly stated: “Advertising consists of first hitting people in the face with a pie, then delivering your message.” It is of course true that you must attract attention before you can deliver your message. But just how seriously is anyone like to take your message while he is wiping whipped cream off his face?

Advertising may have elements of show business. But if it is only show business, it will fail. On the other hand, if we are more detached in our analysis—i.e. if we put the art of advertising and the science of advertising into better balance—we many learn some valuable lesions. And gain some valuable commercial leverage.

I have done considerable work in pharmaceutical marketing. Doctors are perhaps the most difficult targets in the world, because what you “sell” them is ideas and information, which later on they may or may not turn into prescriptions for their patients. Thus, while the following examples relate specifically to doctors and medicines, the underlying principles are universally valid. Throughout this article, wherever you see the word “doctor”, mentally substitute the name of your potential technical and/or industrial customer and see how well these ideas fit.


Facing the Facts

David Ogilvy, one of the most highly regarded gurus of consumer advertising, asserts: “Very few advertisements contain enough factual information to sell the product. There is a ludicrous tradition among copywriters that consumers aren’t interested in facts. Northing could be farther from the truth.”

If this contention is valid for housewives, how much more valid must it be for doctors!

Medicine is a serious business. When a doctor reads a medical journal, he is looking for medical information. Otherwise, he would be reading something else. It therefore follows: Advertising in medical journals that gives real medical information is likely to attract more attention and achieve better results than advertising which doesn’t.

If this seems self-evident, medical journals bear witness to the opposite. The majority of adverts tend to fall into two categories:

  • Lots of words, but little real information (lack of a focused message).
  • A clever headline, a pleasing picture—and no information at all.

The excuse for the first kind of advert is often: “It is a new product; we need to create a personality for it.” It is hard to imagine how an empty personality, based solely on errant prose, will result in positive promotion.

The excuse for the second category of adverts often is: “It is a well known product; this is simply a reminder advert.” Certainly it makes sense to remind the doctor that a medicine exists. But it makes even more sense to remind him of why he is using it, if he is already using it. Or why he should be using it, if he isn’t.


The 80/20 Rule

The objection will now be raised: Doesn’t this “art + science” concept of advertising necessitate long body copy? Does it make sense to write long body copy when no one reads it anyhow?

Let’s examine this contention in reverse order.

For every 100 doctors who read the headline and look at the visual of an advert, let’s say only 20 will actually read the body. Does this represent an 80% wastage? Emphatically no.

The 80/20 rule is a fundamental tenet of technical and industrial marketing, i.e. in general 80% of sales come from 20% of customers. The same principle applies to advertising.

Readers who just look at the headline and visual, then turn the page, at that moment are not the real customers for the product. Those who remain to read the body copy are the real customers for the product. This is the ideal moment to tell them bout it, because this is when they want to know about it. Otherwise, they too are likely to turn the page and an excellent selling opportunity will be lost.

Body is important, in fact vital, because it is your only real chance to make the sale. But how long should that body copy be?

This is like asking how long is a piece of string. You don’t answer this question by counting the number of words. Rather, you consider the value of the words. The best guide is: If the body copy contains one word more than needed to deliver the message, it is probably too long; if it contains one word less than need to deliver the message, it is definitely too short, regardless of how many words are used!

Of course, it makes no sense to simply print the prescribing information. As Bill Bernbach, a legendary practitioner of consumer advertising, has written: “Be certain that your advertisement says something to the consumer; that it informs and renders a service. Then be certain that it says what it has to say in a way no one has ever said it before.”

Notice the balance in this advice.

First: “Be certain that your advertisement says something to the consumer.” This is advertising as a science. Determining what you want to say about your product and what you ought to say about it are two different things. This is why most good advertising starts with market research. And never lets anything go to press before it has been thoroughly tested.

Second:  “Be certain that your advertisement says what it has to say in a way that no one has ever said it before.” This is advertising as an art.

How the advert expresses its message, both visually and verbally, can vary dramatically depending on who is saying it. The total impact the advert will achieve intimately depends on the talents of the art director and the copywriter, the so-called “creates” of the business.


The Use and Abuse of Creativity

Introducing the copywriter and art director into the discussion raises the vexing question of creativity in advertising.

 “Creativity" is probably one of the most abused and misused words in English or any other language. As we have seen, some people think it means hitting people in the face with a pie. We have also seen the dangers of this approach. Surprising and shocking people in order to gain their attention can:

  • Undermine the credibility of the serious message you are trying to deliver.
  • Lead to rapid advertising “wear-out”. You can surprise and shock people only once; after that, you are likely to have no effect. Worse, you may have a negative effect!

Stripped of mythology, saying what you have to say in a way that it has never before been said simply means:  Putting forward the essentials of the message in such a way that they cannot be ignored—on the first exposure and on subsequent exposures.

So much emphasis is placed on attracting attention and conveying a message on the first exposure (“pie in the face”), very little thought seems to be given to what will happen, if anything, on the second, third and subsequent exposures. This is the concept of “wear-out”; after how many exposures does the advert stop having any useful impact?

The concept of wear-out is closely allied to the idea of repetition. Unlike supermarket adverts, adverts for prescription pharmaceuticals seldom appear only once (“Buy now before supplies run out; Special discount prices, stock up now”). Instead, they usually run for at least several months, and often a year or longer.

True, few doctors read the same advert more than once, but they cannot help seeing it more than once. They will certainly see it much more often than they will see the pharmaceutical representative who visits them. Advertising is the most frequent and most consistent point of contact between the doctor and the company.

A truly efficient advert should have impact each and every time it is seen—whether it is read each time or not. This is why the fundamental structure is so important. And why it is well worth spending the time and energy to get it right, i.e. concept development not only for journal adverts, but also for brochures, mailings, oral presentations, symposia, etc.

How do you create advertising with such power and longevity?

In general, any advert that communicates the product name and main sell proposition in a flash should continue to work as long as the underlying strategy remains the same. The assumption is, each exposure—even if it is only as long as it takes to turn the page—reinforces previous impressions of the message in the journals, mailings, etc. Adverts that rely on “teaser” headlines or other indirect approaches are more problematical. It is far more likely that the doctor will perceive this kind of advertising as promotion rather than information, and will turn the page with no reinforcement of the selling message.


Courage and Conviction

A truly effective long-life advert may not always appear smashingly striking at first sight; however, if it is well constructed it will grow and gain strength over time. By contrast, an advert that is extremely striking at first sight—this being its major attribute—may in fact lose power over time. Sometimes overnight.

Developing advertisements that sell on first and subsequent exposures admits of no hard and fast rules. Some times it may mean an extremely factual advert that looks almost like editorial copy; other time it may be an advert with a highly emotional content. It all depends on the nature of the product; the nature of the market, and what ideas, true or false, are already in the doctor’s mind.

There is more to good technical and industrial advertising than meets the eye. Indeed, a superficial analysis is likely to be very misleading, with very expensive consequences. To properly evaluate an advertising campaign, it is necessary to know the underlying strategy and the objectives that strategy is designed to achieve.

By way of example, here are the descriptions of the advertising campaigns I produced when I was creative director of a specialised medical advertising agency. You may not fully understand the products, but look closely at the description of each advert.


Product:  Vasodilator

Objective:  Increase prescriptions by repositioning it as the first product of a new, more effective therapeutic class

Headline: “6 Actions on the Blood and the Vessels to Combat Claudication and its Premonitory Symptoms”

Visual:  6 symbols in the form of a rectangle representing the 6 modes of action

Body copy:  factual, moderate length


Product:  Benzodiazepine

Objective:  Stabilise leadership position/market share in an anti-benzodiazepine marketing environment

Headline:  “My Conditions for Prescribing an Anxiolytic to My Patients”

Visual:  Intelligent, serious-looking general practitioner speaking the headline

Body copy:  factual, short


Beta-2 mimetic bronchodilator

Objective:  Maximise sales potential by overcoming market prejudice to using oral beta-2 mimetics in the treatment of nocturnal asthma

Headline:  “Asthma: Night Is the Enemy”

Visual:  Artist’s impression of the experience of a night-time asthma attack, painted by an asthmatic artist who actually suffers such attacks.

Body copy:  factual; extremely short


At first glance the vasodilator and benzodiazepine adverts might appear uninspired, even banal. They are unlikely to win any awards for advertising “creativity”. On the other hand, the asthma advert is exactly the type that could win a creativity award.

Despite their superficial differences, fundamentally they are quire similar. All three adverts had very high awareness and credibility scores. One of the so-called “banal” adverts was so well received—and had such an impact on sales—that when we proposed a more “imaginative” version, the product manager, originally unconvinced by it, growled: “If you touch my advert, I will break your arm.”

Conclusion:  All three adverts were extremely creative in the real sense of the word, because they:

  • Clearly reflected the nature of the product
  • Precisely addressed the needs of the market
  • Elicited the desired response (won prescriptions)

The serious advertiser would do well to bear this functional definition of creativity uppermost in mind.

It takes courage to reject an advertising campaign proposal that is striking, cute, funny, artistic, etc., in favour of one that doesn’t seem to possess these desirable characteristics. A so-called “unimaginative” campaign that clearly responds to the needs of the market and has the innate capacity to grow and develop (i.e. continue generating sales) is considerably more creative, in the true sense of the word, than one that flashes like a meteor, then dissipates its energy and loses impact before it has had a chance to do its job.


Guidelines for Producing More Effective Advertising

The following observations are based on a combination of experience, scientific research, and common sense. They are offered as guidelines to inspire genuine creative thinking, not rules and regulations to stifle it.

  • Medical (technical/industrial) advertising works. Used correctly, it can boost prescriptions; used incorrectly, it wastes time, energy, and money.
  • Advertising has elements of show business, but it is not entertainment.
  • Doctors read medical journals looking for medical information; consequently, advertising that gives medical information is likely to do a better job than advertising that doesn’t.
  • Remind doctors why a product is well-established in the market, not just its name and packaging.
  • Body copy is important. 80/20 rule: it provides information about the product when the doctor wants it and is therefore more open to its message.
  • What body copy says about the product is more important than how many words (within reason) it uses to say it.
  • Good advertising should “sell” the product on each and every exposure, whether the doctor reads it or not.
  • A good advertising concept gains power over time; a poor concept loses power over time. Some times overnight.
  • Effective advertising is not always obvious.
  • It takes courage to be effective.

About the Author

Philip Yaffe is a former writer with The Wall Street Journal and international marketing communication consultant. He now teaches courses in persuasive communication in Brussels, Belgium. Because his clients use English as a second or third language, his approach to writing and public speaking is somewhat different from other communication coaches. He is the author of In the “I” of the Storm: the Simple Secrets of Writing & Speaking (Almost) like a Professional, available from the publisher ( and Amazon ( Contact:


Reports I have written:

Measuring the impact and ROI of social media
Measuring the impact and ROI of social media - for Ark Group
Making social media work for your business
Making Social Media work for your business - for Ark Group
Social Media: the new business communication landscape
Social Media: The New Business Communication Landscape - for Ark Group
How to get started with podcasting in your organisation
How to get started with podcasting in your organisation - for Melcrum Publishing
How to use social media to solve critical internal communication issues
Contributing author to How to use social media to solve critical internal communication issues - for Melcrum Publishing

How to use social media to engage employees
Contributing author to How to use social media to engage employees - for Melcrum Publishing

Contributing author to How to communicate with hard-to-reach employees - for Melcrum Publishing



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