What makes a great ad?

Our senses are bombarded by thousands of visual, audio, tactile, and olfactory stimuli every day, much of it commercial in nature.

On the roads, for instance, we see advertisements wrapped around buses, taxis and even bus-stops. At supermarkets, products in a myriad of colours, shapes and designs vie for attention. And when we read or watch the news – offline and online – we see all kinds of advertisements.

What works and what doesn’t?

Amid the clutter, brands have been searching for the elusive creative idea that will not only grab attention, but also double up as a sales representative to convey the brand message and persuade consumers to buy the brand.

Some creative advertisements have passed with flying colours.

Others crossed the line and come off as bizarre. A case in point is SingTel’s mRemit video earlier this year, which showed a frustrated Filipino woman having to wait in line for a long time to remit money home. Trying to be creative, the video showed a topless man with a SingTel ‘shirt’ painted on his body, telling her the ‘bare’ facts of SingTel mRemit, complete with a close-up of a bare chest pulsating while the benefits were discussed.

The video has been slammed for mindlessly creating attention through irrelevant sexual innuendos, without any thought as to how the scenes and storyline relate to the product benefits.

Be novel, meaningful and connected

Some other brands have gone with spoof advertising – a quick way to build creativity.

The Breast Cancer Foundation’s latest awareness campaign uses tweaked social media logos to remind women that they are spending more time on social media than they are in examining their breasts.

The campaign is novel, meaningful, and connected – three criteria that our research has found to be the makings of an effective, creative advertisement.

Novelty is about being different, unexpected and unique; characteristics that not only capture attention but also generate interest towards the advertisement.

It is in contrast to run-of-the-mill themes that have been used ad nauseam. While companies can save on costs for idea generation and execution with such non-creativity, one questions if there will be returns, as consumers often give such advertisements a complete miss.

The novelty that one sees in the breast cancer awareness campaign makes one take a second look – “Is this a Facebook ad? But hey, the Facebook logo doesn’t look quite right.”

The tweaks made to the familiar Facebook and Instagram icons create a ‘puzzle’ that motivates people to take a closer look, upon which people would realise that the spoof on Facebook’s logo, for instance, shows a hand cupping a breast. The message comprehension is further aided by the appropriate headline “If only you checked your breasts as often”.

Such tweaking makes the advertisements novel because one would usually not expect to see Facebook associated with breast cancer. Yet, this incongruence has easily been resolved with the illustration and headline, making the tongue-in-cheek message comprehensible.

Importantly, the reader would feel good about ‘solving’ the puzzle – great advertisements should make people feel good.

The second criterion – being meaningful – calls for advertisements to convey messages in a logical manner. The intent behind the breast cancer campaign is to make digitally savvy women realise that they have been spending too little time on something important (checking their breasts) while ironically, spending copious amount of time on social media.

This juxtaposition between breast examination and time spent online draws a stark but logical contrast, and makes women sit up and realise the imbalance. The message would have lost its resonance if it had not been meaningfully associated with relevant logos, or if the campaign had used unfamiliar icons.

The third criterion – connectedness – is about people’s identification with an issue. The breast cancer awareness campaign highlights that the time spent on self-examination can mean the difference between life and death. This is an issue that people often get passionate or emotional about.


Often, advertisements that try to be creative fail because they are not sufficiently novel. For instance, the tweaking may have been so marginal that no one realised that there was something special about the advertisement, and so did not take a second look.

Or the tweaking was so significant that the incongruence came across as bizarre and irrelevant to the brand. The result? People cannot identify with the advertisement and leave puzzled, or worse, flabbergasted about the ‘stupid’ advertisement.

Sometimes, creativity takes a tailspin and brands forget about the important messages at hand, focusing instead on glamorous but tangential matters.

In a nutshell, creativity for the sake of creativity is to be avoided. Brands and companies should hold their ad agencies accountable for delivering creatives that optimise the share of the consumer eyeball, mind, heart and purse.

The writers are Ang Swee Hoon and Lee Yih Hwai, associate professors of Marketing at the National University of Singapore Business School.

[Image by Shutterstock]

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