101 Things I Learned in Advertising School

by Tracy Arrington with Matthew Frederick

“To some, advertising has no soul, no center… It’s the art of lying.” Advertising executive Tracy Arrington writes, “I would argue the opposite. Advertising is the art of telling the truth. An ad campaign succeeds when it brings forward an embedded truth—about the product or service, our needs or idiosyncrasies as consumers, our daily foibles, or the fixations and biases of our culture. An ad campaign resonates when it shows us, at some level, who we are.”

Here’s a sampling of the expertise shared by the author. 

Target audience. “No product and no ad campaign will resonate with everyone. Identify and target one person who is predisposed to get it—a particular type of individual with an inherent understanding of your product’s value. There will be others like him or her. If you try to reach everyone, you risk going unnoticed by your core. It’s better to reach a relative few who love your product and will pay for it than to reach a lot more people who are lukewarm about it and won’t buy it. If the core customer is especially hard to identify, learn more about the people who would never use the product and whose thoughts you otherwise would be unlikely to seek… In the gaps, you might find your target audience.”

Research. “The target audience for an ad campaign shares an attribute, interest, or behavior… If you’re a manly whiskey aficionado trying to sell whiskey… you might imagine a print campaign in Maxim, your favorite magazine. But data reveals the magazine most read by whiskey drinkers is Better Homes and Gardens. Base a campaign on insights into the audience that can be proved by data, not on what you think would work on you or people you know… Research to discover, not to affirm.”

Don’t get lost in the clutter. “A message can be distinguished from the same-category clutter by placing it in an unexpected yet logical place. If a city tourism department advertises on a travel website or in Condé Nast Traveler, for example, it may get lost mind the clutter of its competitors, who also will advertise there. But if the city is known for food and music, it might find a more effective advertising medium in FoodNetwork.com or Rolling Stone magazine.”

The campaign that killed Oldsmobile. “In 1988, Oldsmobile introduced an ad campaign meant to alter the perception of its cars. Unfortunately, ‘This is not your father’s Oldsmobile’ did not resonate with car shoppers. Postmortems faulted the campaign for selling what an Oldsmobile was not rather than what is was, and for looking backward rather than forward. The campaign left Oldsmobile in a no-man’s-land: it told existing Olds owners they were old-fashioned, while it cautioned young shoppers against buying an old person’s car. Oldsmobile had alienated its existing customers without attracting new ones… By 2000, sales were at 25% of their mid-80s peak… The last Oldsmobile was built in 2004.”

The author also explains how the federal ban on cigarette advertising increased smoking.

The book provides an interesting selection of information for prospective advertising and marketing students. The title not only refers to the number of items presented, but is also a word play (intentional or not) on the introductory course number Advertising 101.

Arrington, Tracy, and Matthew Frederick. 101 Things I Learned in Advertising School. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2018. Buy from Amazon.com

Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. I received a review copy of this book.

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