Advertising executive sits in his ivory tower, head in his hands, stressed over the failure of his latest ad.

Advertising Fails On This One Mistake

Advertising is getting a bad rap lately. Bad enough that my friend Evo Terra paired the word with the F-bomb in a recent episode of his brilliant show, Podcast Pontifications. (and bear with me, here, because although much of the focus here is going to be on the podcast space, this discussion applies to literally every medium in which you can find advertising.)

Here’s an audio version of this piece for your dining and dancing pleasure.

I’ll tell you one of the things I believe is at the root of the problem. However, it will do little to stunt the growth of my reputation as a curmudgeon. To students from my online course, Copywriting 101: Enhancement Marketing, this will be a familiar refrain. I’m a student of the legends. Claude Hopkins, David Ogilvy, Bill Bernbach, Phyllis Robinson, Dick Orkin, Mary Wells Lawrence, and on and on and on. The people who were there when the rules of advertising were brought down from the mountaintop, even though Bernbach himself would say that “rules are what the artist breaks”.

Let’s Maintain Some Distance

The artwork from the TV show "Mad Men" features the silhouette of a man - presumably a 1960s advertising executive - with a cigarette in his right hand, sitting back in a chair.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of things from the golden age where the industry needs to do a better job of leaving the past in the past. Watch enough episodes of Mad Men and the occasional glimpses of genius are overshadowed by unbearable misogyny. But the glimpses of genius are there, if you’re willing to wade through the various lapses in basic human decency.

Perhaps, in an effort to establish or maintain that distance from the past, or simply to make it seem more “hip” or more relevant, there are many who’ve come along and tried to put their own stamp on things from the golden age of advertising. To that end, my hope was that they’d maximize the modern tools available to them to make better ads. Instead, many have simply reimagined the core concepts and principles, as though they could present them in some kind of Star Trek alternate timeline where the things that have always been true, suddenly aren’t anymore. (Want to go down a rabbit hole on this point? See what they’ve done to the simple concept of a “positioning statement”.)

What’s Really To Blame For Advertising’s Bad Rap

It would be easy to point a finger at SEO. But I’m not here to start a flame war with the SEO people. (I think I’ve successfully done that elsewhere. Multiple elsewheres, actually.) Because I believe the door to SEO, and the door to AI copywriting as well, weren’t doors they created themselves.

Somewhere along the way – and I can’t pinpoint exactly when – we stopped looking at advertising as content. Instead, it became a tool to promote other content.

You could narrow it down, I suppose, to Google Search establishing itself as the ultimate gateway to everything. It no longer mattered, for example, whether your ads were good or your content was compelling. All that mattered is getting your link as close to the top of the results as possible. One article says, “the best place to hide a dead body is Page 2 of Google Search results.” I’ve seen more than one ham-fisted self-appointed guru posit that the most effective advertising strategy on Google is to bid more on a keyword than anyone else.

If your goal is to get clicks, the quality of your ad doesn’t matter. You can be a Google Ads legend and write the most horrific copy in history. That’s how Artificial Intelligence copywriting bots gained a foothold in the first place. An algorithm doesn’t look at the Mona Lisa and see remarkable art. It sees pixels arranged in a particular way. As long as it arranges pixels in a particular way, the AI believes it’s producing art. And the algorithm looking for particular arrangements of pixels will see that “art”, and recommend it to others.

The Two Examples That Prove My Point

Multiple sources have said that somewhere around 43% of people who watch The Super Bowl, watch it for the advertising.

Think about that.

Nearly half the people who watch aren’t watching it for the game. To them, the game is the interruption. What does that mean? The ads are the content. As a result, we see ad agencies from around the world strutting their stuff on the industry’s biggest stage. Many treat metrics like conversions from a Super Bowl ad as an afterthought, while the real metric appears to be whether or not your ad was entertaining. Whether it was the one that everyone was tweeting about. The one that got the most clicks on all the Super Bowl ad review sites.

When your ad is the content, your career is essentially over if that content isn’t killer.

The second example that drives this idea home? When you go to the movies, if you arrive early enough, you’re shown about half a dozen trailers and about a dozen ads, right?


Everything they show you, with the exception of the slide that reminds you not to leave popcorn on the floor, is advertising.

Because all a movie trailer is, is a commercial for an upcoming movie. And sometimes, the box office numbers will live and die by how effective that commercial is. So they don’t treat it like an ad. They treat it as content.

Normalizing Mediocrity in Advertising

You might be able to get away with a mediocre ad to get rid of a used mattress on Craigslist. Anything beyond a “curb alert”, though, requires some deftness and skill. Consider this: For those in the dating world, isn’t a Tinder profile just an ad, where the product is a human? And don’t people agonize over every word of a dating profile? Can you ever imagine a scenario where you would let an AI write your profile for you? Of course not. Why? Because you’re trying to attract a human. Not a search engine, an algorithm or a bot.

Why would you approach the ad for your auto repair shop, your software product or your cosmetics line any differently? Simple: We’ve been conditioned to do it.

That’s why, when luminaries in the podcast space – people I truly admire and fanboy over, like Evo Terra and Tom Webster – talk about the state of podcast advertising, there’s rarely a mention of making ads that don’t suck. Or doing advertising that falls in line with what we teach in our Enhancement Marketing course, the idea of giving the consumer more of what they came for. When ads are seen as a necessary evil, the natural inclination is to get the unpleasant part over so we can move on to the fun stuff. It’s why there’s a button on YouTube that says, “Skip Ads”, but there’s no button that says, “Play Ad Again”. It’s because we’ve become accustomed to the advertising being something that’s not worth watching. We just came to accept it.

People like Evo ask how we can make podcast advertising better. Sure, I could send you to my copywriting course and say that it starts with learning how to create ads that don’t suck. But it might even be simpler than that. If I’m an advertiser, I should be running a very different ad on a podcast for Harley Davidson fans than I would run on Dan Harris’ Ten Percent Happier meditation podcast. But I guarantee you that the overwhelming majority of podcast hosts who are doing host-read ads are getting virtually the same script to use on their show that the brand on every other podcast is getting.

Know where that leads us? Podcast reviews where people complain about the ads. And people talking about “f—ing advertising”.

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