Ads you remember for the right reasons are rare: This is what it takes to be memorable

memorable advertising

While driving to an appointment recently, a radio ad broke past my thoughts about the week ahead and what I was going to make for dinner.

At first, it was annoying. Over and over it repeated: “A faulty airbag can kill you. A faulty airbag can kill you. A faulty airbag can kill you.” Then it got to the pay-off and action. “How many times do we have to tell you. Go to ‘is my airbag safe‘, find out and don’t die wondering.” I was impressed.

The campaign, ‘don’t die wondering’, is about Takata airbag recalls.

The ‘don’t die wondering” radio ad works because it marries a well-honed message (“a faulty airbag can kill you”) repeated just long enough to get your attention ⁠— we need to hear or see something seven times for it to sink in. Then it adds a simple call to action (“visit this website and make sure your airbags are safe”). 

The whole package is then delivered while I’m sitting in front of the airbags in my car. No wonder it stayed with me.

Now think about other ads which interrupt your day. Even though I go out of my way to avoid and ignore them, the memorable ones use the same formula. A clear message and a call to action repeated. All the better when delivered in the appropriate location.

Forget big-name, big-budget campaigns for a minute and instead focus on the thousands of bread-and-butter ads vying for our attention every day. Ads which instead of engaging us, land somewhere between borderline forgettable and outright offensive.

All of which begs the question. Why are so many ads atrocious?

I think it’s a fair question given the amount of money people spend to make ads. There’s an inherent responsibility on the professionals who provide those services. A responsibility it feels like people often take lightly, or at worst, don’t even recognise.

I sometimes get asked for comment when an ad lands in the laps of the advertising watchdog for crossing the boundary of propriety or poor taste. I invariably respond with some version of ‘don’t be lazy’.

Cheap humour at others’ expense. Lazy. Shouting about your product. Lazy. Profanity presented as edgy. Lazy. Jumping on the bandwagon. Lazy.

Behind the scenes of any ad, there is heaps of unheroic work. It starts with really understanding the audience ⁠— not just broad demographics, but who the people are. Next, marry them with what is most important to share (usually more than 30 seconds can easily contain). Then try and inject some emotion. All while capturing the organisation’s distinctive nature.

The ‘don’t die wondering’ ad successfully mines every element. It understood who it was talking to (drivers of cars with airbags), it focused on a single message (is yours safe) and it effectively used urgency and fear ⁠— and did it all using a direct, unadorned approach the website reflects.

Ads you remember for the right reasons are rare. Most are just noise. But every once in a while, one gets it right. I wish there were more. 

Good advertising is possible. So, do the work.

See you in two weeks.

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