Optimize My Brand

Strategy, tactics, ideas and tips from Creative Company.

Magazine ads … pretty (but lazy) … or really effective?

Lazy magazine ads cost big bucks and chew up your marketing budget.

Lazy, you say? I’m talking about full-page ads or two-page magazine ads that cost big media dollars (though never as much as a Super Bowl ad), look pretty, but don’t drive response. That’s lazy.


What makes a magazine ad lazy?

A lazy ad just lies there, oblivious, self-contained and mundane. Looks pretty (maybe) but is so easy to pass over with barely a glance. No meaning. No excitement. No reasons to read or respond in any way.

Readers will look at a big splashy ad with lovely photos and think, “oh, that’s nice.”

But will those viewers actually stop, read more, take action and respond? Likely not. Pretty magazine ads look nice, but unless they include the right copy, stand out on the page, and give people reasons to not flip past them, they won’t get response.

Why on earth are you spending big bucks on placing ads in magazines? Just to look pretty?

You want those print ads to work, right? You want them to inspire and entice your target audiences to respond in some way. Most small or medium businesses or organizations don’t have ginormous media budgets that let them “build awareness” with frequency … they need results. You’re not Absolut or Nike, after all.

“If it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative.” – David Ogilvy

The “pretty but lazy ad” syndrome seems to be most prevalent in winery advertising (called predictable and mundane in this blog post) and destination marketing campaigns to promote tourism to a particular place.

Take a look at these wine ads … and ponder.

Check out this series of print ads … what stands out? What do you remember? There are a lot of bottle shots … and vineyard vistas. So? What’s in it for me?


Oh look, it’s a bottle in front of a vineyard.


Wow, more bottles with vineyards, makes me want to run out and buy one of each!

And then a big picture of a vineyard. Or if we add lots of black it's more dramatic.

And then a big picture of a vineyard. Or if we add black it’s more dramatic, maybe people will notice.

This is downright embarrasing ... what is going on here? If I come to your vineyards (wherever it might be) will someone sing to me?

This is downright embarrassing … what is going on here? If I come to your vineyard (wherever it might be) will someone sing to me?

Sure there may be gorgeous photography. Or in some ads there’s something “creative” with a cool picture of wine splashing into a glass.

But how many shots of bottles and vineyards can you stand, especially when they’re on nearly every page of wine-focused magazines?

Just gathering these wine ads has made me chuckle even more. Sure there’s romanticism and implied elegance in the wine industry … but really?

Destination marketing …

Destination marketing ads often show glamorous photos of countryside or vineyards (if they’re about wine country) and lots of smiling people who, of course, are thrilled because they’re in this place. They’re trying really hard to make you want to be there, too.

It’s one thing if there is a recognizable landmark that tells you where you are or want to be … but another beach scene? Another vineyard vista? Another mountain meadow? Another snowy peak?

When the ads all look the same and have very little to offer, will they get the job done? I think not.

“When I write an advertisement, I don’t want you to tell me that you find it ‘creative.’ I want you to find it so interesting that you buy the product.”  – David Ogilvy

These general, pretty, bland and self-centered print ads don’t answer “why should I care?” or “what’s in it for me?” They’re so similar to one another, if you took the name off, would you know where the place is or who the wine brand is? Would the reader see something unique, enticing and think, “oh, I want to know more!”

Mmmmm … not so much.

Remember the Rainier beer TV ads we all loved and can still quote? They didn’t sell. We loved the ads and remembered them. But Rainier beer went out of business.

As marketers, our job isn’t “make it pretty.”

Our job is to persuade and entice, to grab attention then give readers an action to take … because they really really want to know more about what we offer.

To be effective, we must
  • Be distinctive, show a place or product or service as unique and special, different from all the other choices. Narrow the focus to those who want, look for and appreciate those unique qualities.
  • Identify those specific differences through image, copy and layout with enticing, vivid details. Use pictures to tell the story, but then lead the reader through, give them a next step.
  • Give people specific reasons to read more, and an easy way to follow-up or respond, a simple and compelling call to action.
  • Invite people into the story with your copy, don’t just describe and list stuff. Share the experience. Tempt, provoke, and lure. Be authentic, don’t tell your reader “we’re authentic.”
  • Encourage further inquiry, give readers reasons to take time from their busy lives to explore … because what we have told them and shown them connects, resonates and inspires them to respond.

What internet marketing has taught us.

“Half my advertising is wasted, I just don’t know which half.”  –John Wanamaker

That statement, made sometime in the 1800s, came from running newspaper and magazine ads to help grow John Wanamaker’s department store business.

These days, we have digital advertising–from websites to banner ads to blog posts like this one to PPC. What we’ve learned from these very measurable forms of advertising applies to every other channel–online and offline.

People are still people–whether they’re reading a magazine, looking at their smartphone or researching where they want to take the family on vacation. Proven by clicks and conversions, we know how the human mind works, what people respond to and how to draw browsers from “Oh, that’s interesting” to the level of interest that leads to “I’m ready to buy.”

Yet we see many designers and agencies more focused on being “creative” than building ads and campaigns that demand and provoke response.

Use this short list of tips to decide if you have hard-working, not lazy, print ads.

1. Your headline must focus on benefits for the reader.

“On average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. It follows that, if you don’t sell the product in your headline, you have wasted 80 percent of your money.” — David Ogilvy

If you can read your headline and then reasonably say, So what?”…it isn’t strong enough. This, of course, applies to an email subject line, the headline of your marketing email.

2. Each ad and each campaign has one purpose … get response.

“The only purpose of advertising is to sell. It has no other justification worth mentioning.” –Raymond Rubicam

Some people don’t like the word “sell” as it implies the old model of the slimy car salesman who is intimidating a little old lady into buying something she doesn’t really need or want. We’re not talking that kind of sales.

We’re talking response. We want people who see our ads to a) remember who we are and what we offer and b) have a reason to want to know more. They understand “what’s in it for me? why should I care?” They can put themselves in that place and see how they fit. They WANT to learn more.

3. Stand out from the rest.

As shown by the wine ads above, how do you stand out when everyone is using basically the same idea? Another bottle, another label, another glass of wine, another vineyard. What separates one ad from another, one wine from another?

“Make it simple. Make it memorable. Make it inviting to look at. Make it fun to read.” –  Leo Burnett

You must first grab the eye. Great imagery that tells the story. Bold headline. Interesting layout that doesn’t look like everyone else. Can readers tell at a glance you’re different and unique? Can they see something in layout or visuals or words that makes them think, “Wow! That’s cool!”

There are so many more channels of communication today, so many ideas being tossed in front of us that people are overwhelmed. It’s hard to get attention from distracted, time-starved audiences.

Don’t be creative to be different. Be creative and different to be seen and remembered for who you are and what you offer.

4. Specific details persuade and sell.

One of the cornerstones of powerful writing is the use of concrete details that can tell your story for you. I don’t care if you’re writing a sales letter, a blog post or a short story for The New Yorker, you need details. — Copyblogger

Whether you’re a destination or a wine, a CPA or a restaurant, you make cookies or shoes, people want the details. It’s the details that take your story from “ho hum” to “tell me more!”

Have you received awards or great reviews? (Always more believable when someone else praises you instead of talking about yourself.) Is there something special about how your food or products are made? Are there wonderful profiles of people to share? Specific, vivid, detailed stories are interesting to read and compelling. They add life and richness. More reasons to explore further.

5. Use the web to help your magazine ads work harder.

“Properly-practiced creativity can make one ad do the work of ten.” – William Bernbach

Of course, you want an attractive print ad. It must grab attention and stand out among other ads, particularly if it’s not large enough to dominate the page. Readers want to know at a glance what the ad is for and about.

Add the specific nuggets, the praise, the stories, the images that draw someone in. But these days, your ad doesn’t have to give every detail. Once you’ve captured interest, deliver the clear call to action to send someone online for more information, an enticing offer, a video. Ensure your landing page echoes the ad layout and message, then link to more content to help someone who’s interested make a decision.

“Nobody reads ads. People read what interests them. Sometimes it’s an ad.” – Howard Gossage


This is a series of ads promoting wine and culinary tourism for McMinnville, Oregon. Bold numbers (specifics) stood out and told how many spots to sip, taste and linger are in just a few blocks. Rave reviews of food, wine and the town (third party endorsement and reviews) became the copy. And the website provided extensive details to help people plan a visit. (call to action that fulfills on the ad content)

Magazine ads deliver

There’s a great review on HubSpot of magazine ads and campaigns that have stood the test of time … “Does she or doesn’t she?” or “A diamond is forever” or the always recognizable Absolut vodka or Marlboro cigarette ads. Wonderful campaigns with significant budgets behind them to build recognition.

“It’s not the ink, it’s the think.” – David Ogilvy

But if you’re not a large corporation with a hefty marketing budget, you need each print ad to work on its own. Each ad must carefully show and tell the story and capture response.

I sometimes talk to people who tell me “we ran some ads but they didn’t work.” Just placing a print ad, spending the money on the media buy, doesn’t work. Don’t waste your money and just fill space with pretty or (heaven forbid) boring. Take a look at the print ads we’ve designed that have won awards and captured response.

Put in the thinking. Understand your audiences. Search for the “wow!” that separates what you offer from the rest. Develop outstanding design that grabs the eye and pulls in the reader. Create the magazine ads that people talk about, because …

“Word of mouth is the best medium of all.” – William Bernbach

You might be interested in these posts, too:

We’ve developed useful marketing worksheets, free to download. Here’s just one. And you can find more on our website.  Use the button below to download your audience definition worksheet, that’s always a first step in defining any marketing or advertising strategy.


Any thoughts or comments you would like to share on magazine ads, print ads, marketing or how to be more effective with your ad dollars? Please share!

About the author

Jennifer Larsen Morrow

Jennifer's four decades of work in the industry, starting as a designer and adding marketing, copywriting and digital marketing, has generated response for clients since 1978.

Another blog post by Jennifer Larsen Morrow.

View Jennifer Larsen Morrow's profile on LinkedIn

Visit Author’s Website


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.