12 kinds of advertisements
Gunn's first format is the "demo." This is a visual demonstration of a product's capabilities. You've seen hundreds of demo ads on late-night TV, for things like kitchen knives (watch it slice through that tin can!) and stain removers (it can't possibly erase that red wine blotch—and yet!). Some of the ads introducing Apple's iPhone are just straight-up demos, pointing out the product's features as the viewer looks on.
This spot, for Samsonite Spinners luggage, is a particularly stylish example of the demo format. We see the suitcase's four spinning wheels in action (look at them navigate that crowded sidewalk!), but along the way, we get a tasty world-beat track and some vivid streetscapes to hold our attention.
The second format is "show the need or problem." First, you make it clear that something's not up to snuff in the consumer's life. Then, you introduce the remedy—which is, of course, the product you're selling.
In this Cingular ad, we see a man suffer the dreadful consequences of a dropped cellular call. A screen then appears with the Cingular logo. The text reads: "Switch to the network with the fewest dropped calls."
The third format is a variation on showing the problem. This time, you employ a "symbol, analogy, or exaggerated graphic" to represent the problem. In this Theraflu ad, for example, the problem is that a man's flu symptoms make him feel like an ogre. Thus, the ad portrays him as a literal ogre. When the man takes Theraflu, he returns to human form.
This format has become very popular of late, as computers make it easier to create outlandish graphics, animations, and special effects. One familiar (and much-hated) ad in this category is Lamisil's "Digger the Dermatophyte" spot, featuring an animated, fungal beastie who lives under your toenail. Another example—a personal favorite—is the Levitra erectile pill ad where a guy attempts to throw a football through a tire. The football keeps bouncing out, and the poor guy's face is a portrait of futility. (When he takes Levitra, he rams the football through the hole—straight and true, again and again, with a great big smile.)
The fourth format is "comparison." Here, the spotlight's on the claim that your product is superior to those of your competitors. In this Charles Schwab ad, a man complains that he hates his current stockbroker's hefty commissions. At the end of the spot, Schwab promises a better deal.
To me, the difference between "comparison" and "showing the problem" can get a bit fuzzy sometimes. By definition, a comparison highlights the problems with your competitor. Many ads fall somewhere along a continuum between these two formats. Others are more clearly in one camp or the other. For example, a new product treating a malady you've never even heard of before—like, say, "restless leg syndrome"—is a good candidate for a pure "show the problem" approach. (In some cases, the problem is so new that there aren't yet established competitors to compare yourself with.)
The fifth format is the "exemplary story." These ads weave a narrative that helps illustrate the product's benefits. In Gunn's words, the key is to create "a situation where you'd use [the product] and be very glad for it."
With only 30 seconds to spin a yarn, many story ads end up feeling hokey. (Sissy's school play is tonight, but there's a stain on her carrot costume. What will mom do?) But a well-done story spot can be a gripping little episode.
Consider this Volkswagen ad. It's shocking and violent, but at heart it's really just an exemplary story spot. Once upon a time, some people went for a ride in a Volkswagen, gabbed about trivial matters, got into a scary accident, and emerged unscathed—thanks to the VW's excellent safety features. The end.
The sixth format is "benefit causes story." You conceive the ad back-to-front, by imagining a trail of events that might be caused by the product's benefit. In the example Gunn uses, a man on a safari screams when a lion charges him. It's then revealed, to the amusement of the man's friends (and also the viewer), that he's been looking through the powerful zoom lens of his Olympus camera. The lion is, in fact, hundreds of yards away.
In this Lynx ad, we see a series of attractive women forgiving a guy's uncouth behavior. (It's OK that you're late, it's OK that you forgot my birthday, it's OK that you cheated on me, and so forth.) In the payoff, it's revealed that the guy has been using Lynx body spray. The product's benefit—beguiling women to the point of dementia—creates the story.
By my informal tally, this is the least popular of the formats—perhaps because it requires a bit of deduction on the viewer's part. That extra work may be too much to ask of an audience in the era of short attention spans and widespread TiVos.
The seventh format is "tell it"—also known as "presenter," "testimonial," or "A-tells-B." This can take the form of a kindly neighbor or best-friend spot ("Oh, I used to get arthritis when I gardened, too—here, try my Ouch-Be-Gone pills"). It can be a "real person" testimonial ("I've never slept so well before—thanks, Adjust-o-Foam mattress!"). Or it might be a classic talking-head ad (often the talking head will wear a white lab coat—which assures us beyond doubt that he's a trustworthy expert).
This UPS spot is a presenter ad with a twist, injecting a little welcome novelty into the format. Here, the talking head spices up his presentation with a series of mesmerizing whiteboard drawings.
The eighth format is "ongoing characters and celebrities." One big challenge when making an ad is to ensure that your brand "gets credit" for the spot. The viewer may remember the ad just fine and yet forget which brand it was for. The use of a recurring character, or celebrity, can help cement a brand's identity into the viewer's brain.
Think Jared for Subway. Or the Energizer bunny. Or, my favorite, shown here: the Geico cavemen.
The ninth format is the "symbol, analogy, or exaggerated graphic" demonstrating a benefit of the product. (Recall that earlier we saw this technique used to demonstrate a problem that the product solves.)
A Starbucks spot from a few years ago used the '80s band Survivor to symbolize the invigorating effects of a double-shot espresso drink. In the spot's formulation, sipping the espresso makes you feel like the band is trailing you around all day, shouting out your name to the adrenaline-pumping chords of "Eye of the Tiger."
The promised benefit of Metamucil is, of course, egestive regularity. In the rather cringe-making ad shown here, the geyser "Old Faithful" becomes a symbol of that benefit.
The 10th format is "associated user imagery": The advertiser showcases the type of people it hopes you'll associate with the product. Often these will be hip, funny, or good-looking people. But sometimes the associated users are goofy or geeky—it depends on the target market.
This Nike spot is one of my favorite ads ever. I love its brilliant editing (watch the cuts accelerate), its ass-kicking AC/DC track (I air-drum each time I hear it), and its inspirational vibe (it makes me want to just, I don't know ... do it). It's also classic associated user imagery. Who wears Nike? Dedicated, hardworking athletes, like Tom Brady, Alex Rodriguez, that kid practicing soccer, and that gray-haired jogger lady. Those sprinkled shots of everyday people are key to the ad's genius. In some ads, we just see the star jocks on screen and are expected to make the associative leap on our own. (Hey, I'll be like Tom Brady if I buy Nike stuff.) This ad helps make the leap for us.
The 11th format is "unique personality property." These spots highlight something indigenous to the product that will make it stand out. It could be the country of origin (a sports car boasting about its German engineering). It could be the product's unusual moniker ("With a name like Smucker's, it has to be good").
Or it could be the company's founder. In this ad for Dyson vacuums, founder James Dyson describes how he carefully designed his product. By putting Dyson front and center, the spot adds a memorable dimension to the brand: "Oh, that clever British chap invented it."
Note that this ad (like many others on TV) might be considered a hybrid of multiple formats. Besides the unique personality property, it also throws in elements of showing the need. And it even has some associated user imagery. Yes, Dyson is the company founder. But he also comes off as a smart, vaguely hip, functionality-obsessed fellow—just the sort of person the Dyson consumer imagines himself to be.
The 12th and final format is the "parody or borrowed format." This is a popular approach these days, perhaps because pop-culture references have become our common language. Recent ads have parodied movies, TV shows—and even other ads.
At its worst, a parody is a lazy way to gin up some tepid humor. Done well, however, a parody can be both memorable and hilarious. My favorite parody ad (and another of my favorite ads of all time) is Geico's "Tiny House." This spot plays on the endless proliferation of reality TV shows, and the parody is so perfectly executed that it actually fooled me more than once.
You might think the new advertising landscape—with viral videos and branded Webisodes—would render Donald Gunn's theory obsolete. But in fact, I find the theory still holds strong. The famous BMW films series was just associated user imagery, with some demo elements tossed in. Burger King's "Subservient Chicken"? A symbol of the product's benefit: Your chicken sandwich is made to order, however you like it.
Gunn has always viewed his theory as a useful crutch for the desperate ad writer. When stuck for an idea—late at night, with the client expecting a presentation in the morning—the crazed creative can run through the 12 formats in hopes that one will strike a spark of inspiration. (What if I try this spot as a demo? Or wait—it might be perfect as a parody!)
To me, the 12 formats serve equally well as a weapon of defense for the consumer under assault from endless advertising messages. It's like learning how a magic trick works: Once the secret's revealed, the trick loses all its power.