How to design an ad no one will read

Direct response design is all about getting people to READ the text. If no one reads the words, why bother running the ad?

While flipping through some magazines recently, I came across this ad for a laser sighting device. I know what the ad is about because of the photo, but certainly not because of the text. This ad ignores virtually every convention for designing readable copy.

Gun Ad

Notice that it wants to be a direct response ad. There’s an offer for a DVD at the bottom, but the Web address and phone number are tiny and hard to read. There is no headline. The text is “justified,” meaning it’s stretched to line up with both margins. Copy is set in all caps. The background is dark. And the main text is framed as if it’s artwork.

If you want to design an ad no one will read, this is how it’s done. I’m writing a blog post about it and I’ve still not read it!

Now here’s another ad from the same magazine. The product is grass plugs. It’s not going to win any design awards, but notice the difference.

Grass Ad

Here you have an ad that IS designed to be read. Not only is there a headline, there’s a headline with benefits. The text is a bit small, but it’s legible and set in three columns, which makes text lines short and scannable. Subheads spell out benefits and organize the copy. There’s a clear, highlighted call to action and an order form. The designer was even smart enough to use black type on a yellow background, which is a high-contrast combination in print.

If you want people to read an ad, you must follow the conventions of readable type. If nothing else, look at a newspaper or high-circulation magazine for ideas. There’s a reason popular publications are popular: people READ them.

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11 Responses to “How to design an ad no one will read”

  1. Michael Kelberer on February 18th, 2009 5:00 pm

    All too true. And what amazes me is how many (expensive) ads are out there that don’t even follow the How To Do An Ad 101 rules.
    About which:

  2. Ted Grigg on February 18th, 2009 8:27 pm

    The first layout was controlled by a designer who was more concerned about design “quality” than response ability.

    The second one works hard to show the product benefits by supporting the copy.

    These key benefits are instantly magnified in the four graphic elements at the top left.
    1. Less watering
    2. Less mowing
    3. Less weed pulling
    4. Less fertilizing

    Wow. I’ve got to get this grass because it requires personal less work for me and saves me money over the long term.

    I think I see your point.

    Now for you artists out there… the learning provided in to this example is that great design SELLS first and only rarely wins awards.

  3. The Direct Marketing Voice Links: 2-19-2009 | The Direct Marketing Voice on February 19th, 2009 10:34 am

    [...] DirectCreative: How to design an ad no one will read [...]

  4. Janice Cartier on February 19th, 2009 12:14 pm

    Totally bad integration. I love that you did this. Design IS communication. If the components are fighting each other-fail.

    Form and Function. Cannot be said enough. Good design functions beautifully when its form achieves the results you are after.

    I like this a lot Dean.

  5. Dean Rieck on February 19th, 2009 12:20 pm

    Yeah, I’m wanting that grass too. I know it’s probably not all it’s cracked up to be … but that’s the power of a good ad.

    My father came up with the idea of “loop grass.” It grows to a given height and then loops back down into the dirt so you never have to mow. Where can I find THAT?

  6. Mark on February 20th, 2009 4:48 am

    Whenever you see justified text, all caps, small phone numbers and contact text, you just know the designer has had complete sway over the project.

    Also, the marketing director or client has unfortunately never heard of David Ogilvy who wrote a book on what not to do and what to do.

    Whenever I mention Ogilvy to a designer they just roll their eyes and then look at me with distaste, by which time I’m walking out the door looking for another agency.

    Now, I did read the copy, and I don’t know about you, but it made me cringe horribly.

    It seems to be encouraging people to equip themselves to kill other people

    Maybe it’s because I’m Downunder and I don’t live in a gun crazy culture like the US, but it’s a scary ad.

    Any of you US guys find the copy scary?

  7. Dean Rieck on February 20th, 2009 12:33 pm

    Really, there are three possibilities. 1) The designer doesn’t have a clue. 2) The company management wants to play “advertising” with a cool looking ad. 3) An agency is trying to win an award. Or all three.

    As for whether the ad is “scary,” I don’t think so. But we’re not going to have a political discussion on this site.

  8. Cynthia Maniglia on February 28th, 2009 9:10 pm

    I dunno. The gun is a strong visual you don’t see in ads every day. Without even reading it, I think “public service message” about gun laws or something of the like. I think the copy at the bottom gets lost totally.

  9. Nancy on March 11th, 2009 1:41 am

    Hey guys- I bought that grass- it isn’t all it’s made out to be! I like their ad though and obviously it worked for me and that was about 9 years ago!

  10. Barb on August 14th, 2009 10:49 am

    I bought that damn grass too! About killed myself trying to plant it. Thank god it was cheap at least. Never again…

  11. Gregory Smith on September 19th, 2013 11:40 am

    Your points are valid, and although I could argue that the words in red are the headline, I won’t make that argument.

    However, you seem to forget one thing, gun owners are passionate about guns. Some of us study our gun magazines with the passion of a woman reading the bible (Vogue).

    So even if the ad is imperfect, it will be read. That doesn’t mean I don’t wish the ad had better design, of course I do.

    P.S. The Zoisa ad has way too much copy, I’m always suspicious of advertising with wall to wall copy. Why do they need so much? Why not just send me to a website and then you can have all that copy distributed in neat categories? That ad reminds me of penis enlargement and HGH ads, if you need too much copy, your product probably doesn’t work, that’s my impression.

    The crimson ad has bad design, but the copy is relevant and doesn’t bore me.

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