There’s a lot to be said for simplicity in advertising.
Short words, short sentences. Basic verbs and easy concepts.
But some of the most powerful and memorable messages in advertising haven’t always been so direct and clear.
Sometimes, there’s deliberate obscurity. There’s complex language.
There’s a mystery to unravel – and a little bit of brainpower to use along the way.
And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with either approach .
Simple makes things open to everyone
One of the first questions I usually ask when I’m starting a new bit of copywriting work is this:
‘Who’s your target audience?’
Unfortunately, the usual answer I get is ‘anyone who wants to buy’.
As frustrating as that answer is, it’s hard to argue with their logic.
There’s a reason why adverts are on big posters in busy places. It’s because they want as many people as possible to see it. And that means they want as many people as possible to understand it and be affected by it.
An advert that’s full of dense language or multiple layers of obscure meaning won’t be universally understood.
But an advert that’s simple can attract almost anyone.
It doesn’t matter if you’re old, young, a poor reader, or a busy person – a quick and easy-to-grasp advert can get inside your mind.
Take a look at this advert for the Nintendo 3DS:
There’s a clear product shot that shows what happens on the screen, and there’s some simple language that tells us what’s so great about the product.
There’s no mystery. No hidden meaning. There’s nothing to unravel and – importantly – there’s no real work to be done in understanding it.
If you’re a grandparent who’s never touched a computer in your life, you’ll still be able to see that this might be a good thing to buy the grandkids for their birthday.
If you’re power-walking down a tube platform on your way to an important meeting, you’ll still be able to comprehend the important parts: ‘biggest screen’ (that’s my favourite kind of screen!), and ‘90%’ (anything that’s 90% must be a good thing).
If you’re someone who doesn’t like to read, then I’ve got good news: you barely have to.
And if you’re a little kid, you’re probably sold on the brightly coloured fun alone.
It’s not clever, funny, or inspiring. It’s a simple advert that anyone can understand and be impressed by. And that means it’s done its job.
Challenging creates an exclusive club
On the other end of the scale, there are plenty of adverts that really don’t need to appeal to everyone.
Most people don’t watch anime.
Most people don’t buy diamonds.
Most people don’t play Dungeons & Dragons, and most people don’t buy Ferraris.
For these kinds of products, it’s perfectly fine to speak directly to the in-crowd – even if it makes your advert worthless to the general public.
Fans of supercars love reading about RPMs and BHPs. And fans of Dungeons & Dragons love reading about…whatever they love reading about.
Here’s a perfect example, also from Nintendo:
If you don’t know what a Game Boy is, you won’t understand this advert.
If we were to take away the discreet brand logo in the corner, a Game Boy fan wouldn’t know what this advert is about.
It’s deliberately obscure. And the benefit of the product (it’s so much fun you can’t put it down) is implied.
Even for someone who plays video games, it takes a few seconds to work out what’s happening. And once you do, you think: I’ve been there.
Not literally in that same scenario, I hope.
But in a similar situation: so absorbed in the game you’re playing that you’re giving half-arsed responses to the people around you.
If you can relate to the very specific feeling that’s implied by this advert, you’ll feel a personal connection.
By creating an advert where only a portion of the population will get it, Nintendo is reinforcing the exclusivity of its club – and that’s the sort of thing that makes people attach themselves to a brand.
Simple gets the message across in no time
Unless you’re as sad as me, you probably don’t read the adverts in train carriages out of interest.
You only give them the occasional wayward glance. You look up from your book or your phone to check which station you’re at, and your eyes pass over an advert on the way.
That advert only has half a second to give you something. And that means it needs to be simple.
It’s the same with posters in shopping centres, roadside billboards, and online banner ads.
People are walking, driving, or scrolling past. They don’t have time for a charming stream of long copy – or for any conceptual visual storytelling.
They need it quick and easy, or not at all.
Here’s an example from inside the Tube that doesn’t muck about:
By the time you’ve finished reading it, you’ve already understood it.
The image is so iconic that you don’t need to read the caption to know the location – and both the heading and the subheading stick to a simple three-word formula (‘Conquer new heights’ and ‘Challenge your body’).
It’s simple, for sure. And it only takes a second to get the message across.
But are you going to remember it two weeks later?
Challenging makes the message stick for a long time
Think about about a film or novel that’s stayed in your mind for years after just one viewing.
The kind of film or novel that people keep talking about and referring back to. The one that countless new films and books keep getting compared to for years afterwards.
Is it a rom-com? Or a superhero film?
It’s more likely a film like Inception or The Matrix. Or a book like Fight Club or Neuromancer.
These films and books force you to question the normal way of thinking about things. You need to pay a little attention and give things a little thought if you want to keep up and understand what’s going on. And that makes the process of comprehending them become a personal experience that lasts in your memory.
It’s no different with adverts.
Some of the best ads leave a little mystery in their message. You need to flex a tiny bit of your brain before you understand what they’re getting across. And this process of untangling and revelation – even if it’s small – helps to solidify your road to understanding as a mini-journey or a learning experience.
Here’s one from a life insurance company that’s been stuck in my mind for years:
At first glance, you might not notice the second shadow on the ground.
But once you do, your brain starts ticking.
This advert isn’t telling you what to think or feel. It’s giving you clues.
Your own brain is piecing together the situation, the story, and the message.
And it’s this:
With life insurance, some small part of you and your choices will be helping and supporting your kids as they grow and learn – even if you’re not there in the flesh to do it yourself.
But if they had decided to spell out that message in explicit detail, I wouldn’t be talking about it years later.
The act of decoding the message has made me think more about this advert than any direct or simple message ever could.
It represents a small mental journey of discovery – and that makes it a feeling and a sentiment that lingers.
Simple gives you instant gratification
You can’t knock an advert that gets to the point.
People have enough problems to solve in their daily lives. They don’t need a puzzle to stand between them and the benefits of what’s on offer.
But if you can get the balance just right, it’s possible to produce an advert that’s both simple and rewarding at the same time.
How? Like this:
Even a political ignoramus like me can understand the wordplay here.
All you need to know is this:
- There’s a group called Labour
- ‘Labour’ is a word used to describe work
- ‘Isn’t working’ is a phrase that means something is failing.
On one reading, there’s a direct and clear statement: that the political group is failing.
But there’s also a knowing little side-joke. The Labour Party is supposed to be focused on workers and their rights – and we can all see how ironic it is that there’s a queue of out-of-work people at the dole office.
The Labour Party isn’t working (out). But those citizens supporting and depending on the Labour Party aren’t working (in jobs), either.
The makers of this ad have ticked all the boxes.
They’ve kept it simple, so anyone can understand it.
They’ve created an in-joke for people in the know, so there’s a sense of exclusivity.
The main message comes across instantly – and it must have been memorable, because people are still talking about it forty years later.
Is it the perfect advert? Don’t be silly.
But as a quick and easy powerful message that sticks in the mind, it’s a damn good one.
Challenging unlocks a deeper reward
Some adverts don’t want to spell things out for you.
They’re willing to ask questions and challenge your beliefs – and then let you work your own way to a conclusion.
Like this anti-terrorism advert from Ogilvy:
Here’s why it’s not simple:
- It’s wordy for an advert. You wouldn’t find this on a roadside billboard, and you might have to read it twice before you can really tackle the question.
- It doesn’t actually tell you anything. No statements, no opinions, no facts.
- It’s asking you to grapple with a philosophical problem.
- It asks an open question, and offers nothing more.
Of course, we know this is an anti-terrorism advert created as part of a peace initiative.
But unlike ‘Smoking Kills’ or ‘Don’t Drink and Drive’, there’s no commandment or imperative here.
The makers of this ad want you to think through the problem for yourself, and (hopefully) arrive at a conclusion that means you won’t hurt your fellow human beings.
It’s all well and good to be told what’s right and wrong. But when people arrive at a belief through their own logic and philosophical contemplation, they’re more likely to feel a sense of ownership and satisfaction with the belief they gain – even if the conclusion they come to is the same one you could have just stated baldly.
In essence, it’s a case of ‘show, don’t tell’.
You can tell people that something is good. But if you give them the right prompts and clues that guide them to decide for themselves that something is good, you’ve helped them solve a puzzle.
They’ve unlocked a new way of thinking, they feel a psychological reward – and they feel a stronger attachment to this new way of thinking as a result.
You can’t do this with a roadside billboard that needs to be absorbed in half a second.
To create this level of psychological problem-solving, you need something that’s more than just simple. You need something that challenges, tests, and ultimately rewards your audience.
So which is best – simple or challenging?
If there were a quick and definitive answer, we wouldn’t be here discussing it.
You might think you should match simple adverts to simple features and benefits. Grandparents don’t need to know the technical specifications of a gaming system before they decide to buy it as a gift.
But simple benefits can quickly get stale over multiple campaigns. And an advert with a foot on a glass window can attract people who wouldn’t normally be interested in the direct offer of what you’re selling.
You might think you should show simple adverts to people who don’t have much time.
But an advert that makes people think has no limit on how long it keeps working inside their heads.
You might think you should match challenging concepts to long-term changes in personal beliefs and attitudes. If people have deeply held convictions that could turn dangerous, it’ll take some serious introspection before they start to unravel them.
Or you might think there’s always a way to combine the two: something that lies in a perfect balance between simple and complex, quick and memorable, and rewarding and challenging.
Labour isn’t working. But the opposition’s adverts are.