How to Create Must-Read Ads

Free-Range Thinking | May 2001

Roper-Starch Worldwide houses the world’s largest database of print advertising. Having spent six years plumbing those files, Senior VP Phil Sawyer knows precisely why your ad will work.or why it won’t.

Your newspaper ad just ran and by all accounts the response was dismal. Nobody called the 800 number. Hits on your website didn’t spike. The mail-in coupon didn’t get mailed in. What went wrong? Given one good look at your ad, Phil Sawyer would probably know. As Director of Starch Advertising Research, Sawyer has examined literally thousands of newspaper and magazine ads, and the process he uses to evaluate their effectiveness has been refined over eight decades.

That process (known as “Starching” an ad) begins with a face-to-face interview. A Roper-Starch researcher pages through a publication such as People or The Wall Street Journal and, as each ad appears, asks the interview subject several questions: Do you recall seeing this ad? Do you remember the name of the advertiser? How much of the ad did you read? A minimum of one hundred interviews are conducted for each ad, and the responses are translated into scores quantifying how effectively the ad captured attention, pulled readers through its images and text, and established the advertiser’s identity. “We know more about print advertising than anybody in the world,” Sawyer stated confidently when I reached him in his Harrison, New York office last month. Naturally, I had to ask, “Like what?”

High-scoring ads tend to follow a pattern.
According to Sawyer, eye-catching ads “grab [readers] with the picture, intrigue them with the headline, and then give them the benefits in the body copy.” The typical reader’s eyes will go straight to the photo or illustration, Sawyer explains, and track downward from there, as if pulled by gravity. By arranging an ad with the illustration at the top, headline directly beneath, and body copy below that, you will play to these tendencies and enhance the probability that most of your ad will be read.

Emotional messages consistently score highly.
“When we see ads with something emotional happening, scores just skyrocket,” says Sawyer. He cites a client from the insurance industry who Starched four ads, “three of which were fairly straightforward, but one was this incredible ad with a woman looking really distraught. The headline was something like, ‘One of the worst things about being in a hospital is waiting for results.’ The responses to that ad were just extraordinary.” Nor is this an isolated case. At the end of each year, Roper-Starch assembles the ads with the highest scores and studies their success moving the products or services they advertised. “Invariably,” Sawyer reports, “the ones with the highest response were those emotional, dramatic ads where something powerful was happening.”

Fear is a dangerous emotional card to play.
Since so many public interest ads rely on fear to motivate readers, I ask Sawyer what his research shows about this emotional tactic. “People tend to turn away from those [ads],” he replies. “When ads talk about death or create negative stimuli of any sort – fear or horror – people don’t want to be faced with it. They turn the page. The challenge is to try to turn that emotion into a positive, something they can act on.”

Color and black-and-white images play distinctly different roles.
“Color is the way to attract the eye,” says Sawyer definitively. The human eye naturally moves to color, in part because it helps us see distinctions, the spaces between things. “You see better when you see in color,” Sawyer adds, but that doesn’t mean color is always the preferred option (assuming cost is not a predetermining factor). “Black-and-white has its power. It can take your mind off the details and let the story come through.” Black-and-white offers an abstract view of the world, compelling the reader to consider ideas and emotions more than the physical objects at hand.

The best ad is like a good conversation.
“A good conversation gets the other person to think and talk about himself. Your ad should talk about their needs, not your needs.” For commercial advertisers, the goal is to accentuate the benefits of the product or service for the end-user, not to ramble on about all the bells and whistles you’ve so carefully built in. For public interest groups, the challenge is keeping the issue relevant to the reader, as opposed to emphasizing its global scope or historic import – the aspects that tend to concern you, the advertiser. Your reader shouldn’t have to ask herself, “What does this mean to me? What can I do about this?”

There will always be elements of magic and serendipity behind truly great advertising. (Budweiser’s current “Whassup?” campaign actually evolved from a short film entitled “True.”) Nearly 80 years of audience research, however, should be proof enough on one point: when it comes to creating must-read print ads, certain rules apply. And for any organization with a limited communications budget, it’s probably not a bad idea to sprinkle a bit of Starch’s wisdom into your next campaign.

 free-range follow-up

Cease Fire Hits Their Target

Here is Phil Sawyer’s analysis of a full page advertisement placed by Cease Fire in the April 23, 1996 edition of Woman’s Day:

“The Cease Fire ad earned readership scores that are among the highest we have seen in this general category of advertising (non-profit organizations). The keys to its success? Note the ad’s basic simplicity. In a time when so many advertisers attempt to explain too much – by placing copious amounts of visual and verbal information on the page – Cease Fire offers one stark, but hard-hitting image that is very difficult to ignore, and thus cuts through the clutter. The ad also takes two risks, presenting the body copy in script and placing it at an angle. Each of these design choices, taken by itself, very often results in low readership. Yet, the considerable strengths of the ad – the power of the illustration, the size of the writing (large and legible), the compelling, dramatic story being told by the copy, and the fact that the copy is concise and to the point – easily make up for any potential problems. The lesson to be drawn from the ad: keep it simple and dramatic, and you will attract readers to the page.

To learn more about creating effective print advertising, contact Phil Sawyer via e-mail ( or at his Manhattan office (212.455.4962).