What Makes an Ad Successful?

With over 30 years of experience in the industry, John Adams shares what it takes to make a great Super Bowl advertisement

The Martin Agency has created the jingles for Freecreditreport.com, "Peggy," the worthless customer service agent for Discover Card and the caveman, shown here, for Geico. (Courtesy of The Martin Agency)

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But, we went through the typical process. A message goal is set for the commercial, and that is done in collaboration with a client. Very often these days the goal is “I want to be more noticed. I want to be ranked highly in the polls. I want to be one that people talk about.” Once the goal is established, then a communications strategy is established. In order to achieve that goal, to whom do we need to direct the commercial? What target audience? Of course, the Super Bowl audience is so huge that it encompasses just about any target audience. And within that target audience, what is the behavior or attitude change that we want to make for the individual?

From there, a writer and an art director are charged with coming up with a creative idea that is responsive to that strategy and that is compelling and that has a style and tone that is reflective of the personality of the brand being advertised. That idea has to be inextricably connected to a particular brand. We have all had the experience of recounting a television commercial that we liked, but we can’t remember who it was for. That is a failure. Once the idea is submitted and approved, then production begins. The stages in production are casting, location scouting, filming, editing, voice over and all the things that go into that.

One thing that a good Super Bowl commercial can do, I realize, is recast a brand’s image. Is there a commercial that comes to mind that best accomplished this?

I think there are two. One is the commercial titled “1984,” which was done for Apple computer in the Super Bowl that year. All the things that are suggested by that commercial had a dramatic impact on the emerging view of Apple. It was less a question of changing and it was more a question of pronouncing and demonstrating an attitude or ethos of that company. This is a computer that is for people who aren’t going to just march along with the crowd.

One that was done last year did a very good job at introducing a new view of an old brand that we all know, and that is the Chrysler brand. It was all about the notion that this car emerged from an amazing, iconic, authentic American place called Detroit. The phrase that was used at the end of the commercial was “Imported from Detroit.” It sought to completely reframe our view of Detroit, which in the view of so many people is a wasteland and a city that is just so deeply troubled, and in doing so, reframed our view of Chrysler. I remember being struck by it and have continued to be struck by it as I see that advertising unfold.

What is your favorite Super Bowl ad of all time?

My personal favorite is a simple, little commercial. It ran in a Super Bowl several years ago, and it was for this wonderful product called Tabasco sauce. You have an archetypical Southern guy sitting on the porch of his very modest house in the evening, and he is eating something, a slice of pizza. He reaches over, picks up the Tabasco sauce and just kind of douses his pizza in the sauce, and takes a bite. At this moment, we conclude that his little house is somewhere in the Louisiana bayou or something. We see in very close-up form, undoubtedly computer assisted, a little mosquito land on his arm. We see it in almost microscopic detail, and the mosquito proceeds to bite the guy. You actually hear a little slurping sound by the mosquito, which sounds gross but it was very entertaining. The mosquito then takes off. We are now at the point of view of the man who is watching the little mosquito fly away. The mosquito gets about ten feet off of the porch and explodes.

It was a bone simple and very entertaining way to say this stuff is really hot. I thought it was so simple, so direct and so unmistakable in its communication. You couldn’t miss the point. And, it was rendered in a way that just had a lot of craft to it. It is a strange little commercial, but I love it.

In your opinion, what are the key components to a successful ad?

The ability to attract positive attention—that’s key—and to communicate clearly an interesting idea about a product or service. We are selling the products and services of clients, but if you look at it through the other end of the lens, what are we doing for consumers? Are we just annoying them, or are we doing something useful? I think what we are doing is introducing people to potentially better choices in their lives.


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