The Art Of Writing Bad Ads

Anyone can write a bad ad. (I’ve written thousands.) The challenge is writing a bad ad that becomes a real, bad ad, one that makes it past the creative director, the strategist, the account supervisor— and then on the client side — the product manager, the chief marketing officer, maybe even the CEO.

There are several common types of bad ads. Here are some recent examples.

1. The Cringey Pun

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Even Cyndi Lauper would cringe.

Puns never work, unless they’re dead-on perfect. For examples, see the classic “White Out Of Red” Economist ads.

In April, Legal & General, a 180-year-old UK-based financial services company, launched an investment product called GIRL Fund “which empowers all of us to use our money to help improve gender diversity in the UK.” Good cause? Terrible headline. And the childish finger paint font doesn’t help any.

What probably happened here was the copywriter came up with the line after about 30 seconds of thought — ‘hey, it’s got the words GIRL and FUNDS in it!’ The over-extended creative director, recognizing something the unsavvy client would buy INSTANTLY, approved it and stopped all other work on the account…which leaves us with this: a pun that insults women, girls, all humans. Agency: M&C Saatchi, London.

2. The Claimless Claim

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POM truck double-parked in my neighborhood last month.

In 2016, Federal courts upheld an FTC ruling that POM Wonderful’s advertising was deceptive and misleading —specifically, claims that it treated/prevented heart disease, prostate cancer and erectile dysfunction. (Aging porn actors must have been guzzling it.)

What to do if you’re POM? You make bigger yet meaningless, unspecific unscientific claims.

Worry Less? (POM, now infused with Lithium!)

Get Crazy Healthy? Other rejected qualifying adjectives from the copywriter: Mega, Boffo, Bitchin’, Hella. Why not “Wonderfully”?

Also: note the copy is worded so as not to directly connect the “benefits” to drinking POM. Suck it, FTC.

(The Holy Grail of Claimless Claims is: Coors Light — The World’s Most Refreshing Beer.)

3. The Headline-less Ad That Looks Smart But Is Actually Stupid

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Ooh, ads without headlines — so cool, confident. The copy must by cracking! They’re from earlier this month, via Standard Chartered Nepal, selling auto loans. According to the press release, Bikes are common in Nepal. But as families grow, “there’s a need to upgrade to a car.”

So What’s Standard’s pitch? Eh, heads up, couples, coffee (above) is a sex drive spiker and steak (below) is an aphrodisiac, so you if you drink coffee or eat steak, you, eh, might soon be adding family members and, therefore, will maybe need a new car?

What the unprotected FUCK are you talking about, Standard Chartered? Are you selling groceries, birth control, or auto loans? Agency: DigitalIn, Nepal.

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4. The “We Get New Yorkers” Campaign

Many brands try this well-worn approach, almost all fail. A couple of years ago, Vitamin Water took over a few City subway stations with an all copy “#HydrateTheHustle” campaign. It was bad writing, even worse New Yorker-ing.

Hey cool NYers, we’re talking directly to you, because we’re down with you.

(L) I have no idea what the purpose of this directional poster was because approximately 0% of New Yorkers ever inadvertently go to the wrong side of the tracks for their train. The proper local response to this useless ad is “fuck off assholes”. (R) How this ad read to NY women: “vitamins, electrolytes, being hit on by drunk creepy B&T assholes.” Way to connect yourself to sexual harassment, Coca-Cola (parent).

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Midtown stupidity

“I know, said an agency creative, “let’s just senselessly combine common subway words with our two main benefit ingredients.” That’s probably exactly how these stupid billboards were born.

Vitamin Water is headquartered in Queens. These ads were created by Ogilvy NY. So, how could these two companies get New York ads so bad, so wrong?

5. The beautiful copy-free ad ruined by an unneeded intelligence-insulting copy line

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Copywriters sometimes don’t know when to leave well enough alone, don’t know when to STFU — good ads with just a visual (and usually a logo), brought down by a needless, stupid headline/copy line.

This McDonald’s billboard campaign, released in March via TBWA Puerto Rico, is an especially frustrating example. It’s tagged with the line “No se diga Más” — Say No More. Exactly. You shouldn’t have said anymore, dummies. It’s like taking a little smelly shit in the corner of the layouts.

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The blurred drying artwork is the concept. It’s fresh, enticing. Nobody doesn’t get it’s McDonald’s ads, doesn’t know that’s a Big Mac. Subtlety is such a rare thing in today’s advertising. Way to fuck it up, CW.

6. The Lowest Common Denominator “Hey Dummy” Headline

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The Burger That Burgers Would Eat.

The Car That Cars Would Drive.

The Perfume That Perfume Would Wear.

The Lawnmower That Lawnmowers Would Mow The Lawn With.

Etc. (2015 ad by kwp! Australia)

Copywriter/Copyranter. My hockey wrist shot is better than yours.

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