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  • Writer's pictureDr. Gary Witt

How to Write an Effective Ad: Part 2, the Picture

Dr. Gary Witt Marketing Psychology

In Part 1 of this series, I offered some suggestions on how to write an effective headline. The primary job of the headline is to reinforce the reader's attention and lure him/her into reading the body copy. But attracting that attention is the role of the picture.

A picture and headline are the best way to grab readers as they skim through the publication. People will generally stop to look at a picture far more readily than they will read a headline.

But how do you know what picture to use? Here are some suggestions about how to choose an effective picture for your static ad (print, electronic or outdoor.) Any type of graphic works better than no graphic.

Your pictures will be the most effective if they can do three things: (1) Attract attention. (2) Support the headline. (3) Support the sales pitch. In the Heinz ad, the odd picture (sliced tomatoes with a label) grabs attention. Paired with the headline, it conveys the clear message that Heinz ketchup is very fresh. That's all it needs to say.


Be creative, but use common sense. Try to put yourself in your customer's place. One of the best ways is to be aware of your reaction to ads as you look through a magazine or newspaper. Apply that disinterested approach in evaluating your own ad.

1. Use startling pictures. Look for a picture that is odd or amazing. A man going to work walking on his hands, a close-up of a fly's head, an aerial photo of the acres of trees

knocked down by the Mt. St. Helens' volcano are examples. You could couple that volcano photo with a headline like, "You never know when an ill wind will blow," and you've got the structure of an ad which will lead readers right into your body copy.

2. Use people. People love to look at other people. The people in your photo should be doing something interesting or puzzling or fun, rather than just standing around like they're waiting for a bus. General crowd shots without a clear focus don't work well, nor do the usual shots of a few people standing at attention and wearing a plastic smile. Closeups do work. It is hard to avoid looking at a close-up photo of a person's face staring out at you.

Try a photo of a person doing something odd or startling, such a staring at you with two pencils sticking up his nose, accompanied by a headline reading, "Got That Stuffy Feeling?" followed by body copy for a nasal decongestant. This photo of a chicken and a boy smoking is guaranteed to stop readers! Of course, you must have a reason for the photo you choose. The last example could be

3) Place a common object in an uncommon setting. A little girl on a playground may not be eye-catching, but a little girl working on an automobile assembly line will grab attention. We expect to see people and things in certain settings. When the setting is far outside that normal range, it doesn't make sense, so we stop to investigate. These pictures will show familiar objects in unfamiliar places or relationships.

4) Place a person or small animal in a dangerous situation. Imagine a small kitten alone in the middle of a busy street or on the ledge of a tall building, and you've created a picture which viewers will instantaneously recognize as dangerous. That emotion, danger, focuses their attention on the ad.

How can you tie such a picture to a headline?. Here's an example: Select a picture of a man in a suit reading the Wall Street Journal while walking along the edge of a cliff. Couple it with a headline reading, "Is your company a step away from disaster?" Together they lure the reader into the ad's sales pitch for "slip and fall" insurance policies. The picture plays its role perfectly: it attracts attention, supports the headline, and dramatizes the sales pitch.

5) Show something readers desire. All readers have desires. If you show an object of desire, or a person in a desirable situation, readers with those desires will stop. This moving

ad for candy needs no copy, the picture does the job of stimulating a desire. Or consider that many women desire a well-decorated home. It's often effective to pair your product with other desirable products for the reader, such as a lovely woman wearing a designer gown, standing on the staircase of an elegant home, and wearing your diamond jewelry. Each beautiful element helps to increase the attractiveness of the other elements, including your product.

6) Show the product in use in a novel way or in a novel setting. A car going along a mountain highway or a woman applying perfume are examples of products in use. Often these pictures are pretty dull. You can spice them up with novelty. For example, show the product being used in an odd location (such as a man shaving in the desert), being used in

an odd way (a monkey knotting a tie), being used by an odd person (a tattooed biker grooming a cute French poodle), or shown in an unexpected setting (people showing their underwear on a subway.) Be sure that you link your odd picture to your headline, or it won't make sense. For example, if you show a man drinking a beer, surrounded by miles of desert, then your headline might read, "Coors -- When You've Got a Mighty Thirst."

Don't settle on the first idea for a picture you come up with. Create or find several good pictures and try them out on your friends. See which one they like best. Your first effort will seldom be the one you select when you give yourself choices. Pictures can make or break your ad. The captivating ones will pull the reader in. The dull, common ones will let the reader zip away faster than a stone skipping on a pond.

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