Seth Stevenson talks with readers about the 12 basic ad formats.

Seth Stevenson talks with readers about the 12 basic ad formats.

Seth Stevenson talks with readers about the 12 basic ad formats.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
July 26 2007 4:46 PM

Ad It Up

Seth Stevenson takes readers' questions about the 12 categories of commercials.

Seth Stevenson was online at Washingtonpost.com on Thursday, July 26, to talk about Donald Gunn's theory of the 12 basic ads  and the methodology of advertising. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.

Munich, Germany: I wasn't able to watch the video presentation of your article, but it reads as though you're saying that if you know the strategies, then you'll be able to withstand the psychology behind the pitch. I'm wondering, though, if that would make TV watching or Internet surfing more or less pleasurable for someone who isn't an advertising professional like yourself.

Seth Stevenson: Well, I'm not sure I'm an advertising professional so much as someone who watches lots of ads and then makes fun of them. But to answer your question: For those who still watch ads (as opposed to DVR'ing past them), I think knowing the tricks makes the experience MORE pleasurable. You're smarter about what's going on in those devious sales pitches, and you can sort of get inside the heads of the ads' creators and think about why they framed the ads in a certain manner.

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Worcester, Mass.: Is the parent company of Slate hosting an online chat a thirteenth type of ad?

Seth Stevenson: Hello, Woostah! Hmmmm... I would say this is more a promotion than an advertisement. But perhaps you could think of this as Format 1: "demo" ad. I'm giving you a demonstration of the sort of hilarious and trenchant commentary you'll find at Slate.com. How much would you expect to pay for that? $50? $100? Hold onto your hat, because it's COMPLETELY FREE!

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Accokeek, Md.: How do you see the popularity of YouTube and other amateur-friendly video formats affecting or transforming the 12 types of ads? And do you think CNN's choice to use presidential debate questions submitted through YouTube lends that format more credibility?

washingtonpost.com: What's Up?: Questions From the People, Sharp to Strange(Post, July 24)

Seth Stevenson: I don't think YouTube really affects the 12 formats. It's just another way to publish ads. Those ads will still fit into the same categories. I suppose it's possible that by opening up broadcasting platforms to a much larger population, someone will eventually invent some novel sales technique. But I doubt it: Advertising has been around for a long time and seen the adoption of all kinds of new platforms, and the techniques at the heart of persuasion have remained the same.

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St. Louis: Seth, David Shenk just wrote an article for Slate looking back at the book he wrote ten years ago called Data Smog. He goes on to discuss in the article his theory at the time that the proliferation of information would push "marketers to become increasingly outrageous in order to capture our attention." If this is true, how do you see this trend shaping the 12 different types of ads?

Seth Stevenson: I do think ads have become increasingly provocative and wacky in an effort to cut through the clutter. Look particularly at the ads made by the agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky, which handles accounts for Burger King, Ask.com, and Volkswagen. They've really tried to push the taste and normalcy envelope on occasion. Or look at candy ads for brands like Skittles and Starburst, which of late have become fonts of bizarre, absurdist humor with little connection to the product.

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Frederick, Md.: Seth, very interesting article—reminded me of the "subliminal seduction" theories of advertising that were floating around when I attended college (back in the 1980s). I admit I am hooked by the Sonic Drive-In ads that show huge closeups of their ice cream shakes and slushes. There's not one near here, and often when I go to a new town I find myself checking to see if they have a Sonic!

washingtonpost.com: Sonic Drive-In Ad(YouTube)

Seth Stevenson: Those Sonic ads with the comedians waiting in a drive-thru are an example of "associated user content"—people who eat at Sonic are funny and down to earth.

But appealing shots of food don't really fit into the 12 categories, as there's no particular selling idea involved. Donald Gunn refers to these as "bite and smile" ads. You've seen millions of these for chewing gum.

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Charlotte, N.C.: Can you talk about "best" without talking about ads' impact on behavior? When I do focus-group workshops, I always use the example of Alka-Seltzer's ads from the '70s—the "I can't believe I ate the whole thing" campaign, which won awards at the same time that sales actually went down. People loved the ads but didn't buy the product, so as original and entertaining as they were, they were far from the best.

On the other hand, there are campaigns we hate—PBS fund drives, while technically not ads, come to mind—that continue because they work. In fact, I speculate that they work because, in fact, they seem amateurish and we'd be skeptical of a slick organization asking for money. But I also point to the repetitive headache ads that no one is going to list as memorable ... except that when you're in the pharmacy looking for something to cure that pounding head, their annoying little jingle will come to mind. So how does impact factor into these types?

Seth Stevenson: This is always an issue for an ad critic. Am I reviewing the ad based on how entertained I was by it, and how good a piece of art it is? Or am I assessing how effective I think it is as a sales pitch or branding effort? I try to do a little of both. It can be very hard to know how effective an ad campaign is, as so many other factors go into the success of a product (the quality of the product itself, the customer service offered by the company, etc.). And to completely ignore the artistry and humor of ads is silly—sometimes an ad can be downright brilliant, and stick in the popular imagination for decades, regardless of how effective it was. That may not be much solace for the company behind the product, but it adds a little sunshine into the TV viewer's life. It's worth noting that and handing out kudos where they're due.

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Washington: My generally antagonistic stance on commercials tends to make me fascinated with the workings behind them. Thanks for a really interesting read. It prompted a question, though: Under what category would the famed Sony Bravia advertisements fall? I mean, I think these are beautiful short films, but fail as advertisements because there is no real connection between the brand and the ad at all. To find the link, I had to look up the ad by the song I knew was used in it, rather than the product, as I'd completely forgotten it. Is difficulty of classification in these "12 ads" a good indicator that an ad maybe isn't doing its job?

Also, thank you for pointing out that our new, all-Internet-all-the-time culture really hasn't change the fundamentals of how advertising works. We seem to think (just as we've thought with every change of communications tech) that we've changed core human interaction by changing the medium, but I really don't think that's the case. Thanks, and I really enjoy reading your Ad Report Cards on  Slate.

Seth Stevenson: The Sony Bravia "Balls" ad (in which thousands of colorful superballs bounce down a San Francisco street) is an example of one of the formats: Exaggerated graphic demonstrating the benefit of the product. The idea is that when you watch a Sony Bravia TV, you will see colors as rich and intense as you would if you were surrounded by a flood rainbow-hued superballs.

I agree that the ad is not so strong on "getting credit" (that is, having the viewer remember which brand it was for). How could they have done this better? One facile way (I wouldn't actually recommend it) would be to have the balls roll to a stop and spell out "Sony," or somesuch.

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Washington: Donald Gunn, the guy with the theory about the 12 different kinds of ads, sounds a bit like Robert McKee, the screenwriting guru who's lampooned in the movie "Adaptation." (Did you know that there hasn't been a new genre since Fellini invented the mockumentary?) Which brings me to my question. My genre is thriller. What's yours?

Seth Stevenson: I agree—were Gunn to become as well-known as McKee, I think you'd start to see warring camps arguing over the merits and usefulness of his guidelines.

My favorite genre? I like mash-ups. Like "The Big Lebowski" is half stoner comedy and half Raymond Chandler mystery, with just a dash of western thrown in with the Sam Elliott bits.

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Columbia, S.C.: Where do you see presidential campaign ads falling into your 13? Have you seen much change, other than the negative-type ads?

Seth Stevenson: Most campaign ads that come to mind are either "show the problem" ads (we're stuck in this war/recession/era-of-cultural-depravity, but Candidate X knows how to fix things) or "comparisons" (Senator X wants to kill your pets and children, but I want to give them economic opportunities and affordable health care). I haven't seen many changes since I've been voting, except that I've noticed the amateur-produced YouTube ads frequently format themselves as parodies.

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Philadelphia: Hi Seth. A bit off-topic, but I just wanted to let you know that you are the most consistently excellent writer I have read recently. I look forward to reading your witty and incisive articles, and I've learned a lot about advertising from your pieces in  Slate. Any tips for a beginning writer? I'm a couple of years out of college and have been writing a bit, but most serious internship opportunities are for students only. Thanks for any thoughts and for the great reads.

Seth Stevenson: Hey, thanks much for the kind words. Very nice of you to say.

In terms of breaking into journalism: I think the best strategy is to beg and plead for some publication (perhaps a local alternative weekly?) to take you on in an entry-level position. Keep at it and with luck and time something should come through. The easiest way to become a good journalist is to surround yourself with talented, experienced writers who can show you the ropes.

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Washington: How do the advertising strategies differ, at all, for kids advertising? What nefarious tactics are used to get 2-year-olds begging for sugary cereals, etc., beyond annimated hobbit creatures?

Seth Stevenson: Most kiddie ads that come to mind are either "demos" (watch how this toy truck can transform into a toy machine gun) or "associated user content" (if mom and dad buy you this toy, you'll soon be having fun just like the happy kids in this ad).

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Southern California by way of Western Pennsylvania: I've tried to resist ads my whole life, but I can't do it. How can I resist like you?

Seth Stevenson: I don't think I've put up a very effective resistance. I can be turned into a covetous consumer just like everybody else. But to answer your question: DVR's help. (Of course, I try not to abuse that capability. Given that my job is ad critic, I can't very well be fast-forwarding through all the ads I see.)

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Seth Stevenson: Gotta go. Thanks for all your questions.