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)