Essentials of Good Ad Copy: Expert Tips from the Golden Age of Advertising

Legendary ad man Bill Bernbach understood the essentials of good ad copy are rooted in human instincts that have endured for hundreds of thousands of years.

Bernbach and his contemporaries David Ogilvy, Mary Wells Lawrence, and Leo Burnett, among others, were ad industry giants that ushered in the 1960s Creative Revolution.

This “Golden Age of Advertising” had its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s when three-martini-lunches were the norm, and larger-than-life personalities delivered big ideas in dramatic fashion and turned the industry on its head.

Essentials Good Ad Copy Tips from Golden Age Advertising

Bernbach said, “good writing can be good selling.” He believed effective ad copy presents a creative idea clearly and concisely to sell a product or service.

Whether it motivates a potential buyer to look online for more information, book a reservation, or visit your store, the goal of well-written copy is to inspire action.

A media copywriter transforms campaign strategy into creative scripts and taglines to produce radio, TV, and digital advertising.

Their work sits squarely at the intersection of media strategy and production.

Good ad copy relies on these essentials:

  • Know your people
  • Judge your product
  • Find your inspiration
  • Make it personal
  • Provoke feelings
  • Tell the truth
  • Simplify
  • Write for the medium
Bill Bernbach speaks to fundamentals of good ad copy

“Tear away at the unrelated. Pluck out the weeds that are smothering your product message.”

– Bill Bernbach

Photo credit: Bill Bernbach at 1964 press conference by Jack Carrick, Los Angeles Times

To write compelling ads that convert your audience into buyers …

First, know your people.

Take time to walk around in their shoes. Immerse yourself in their way of life.

Put your ear to the ground and listen to what they say and how they say it.

David Ogilvy, the Madison Avenue honcho and advertising genius, famously said, “If you’re trying to persuade people to do something or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language.”

Read consumer comments and customer reviews for both your business and your competitors.

Mirror their voice.

Pay attention not only to what they say but also to what they do.

Consumers might say what they think they should rather than how they truly feel when prompted. Check that their actions line up with the data.

Use these insights later when brainstorming to inspire your copy.

Judge your product.

Even if you’re sure you know your product inside out, bring a fresh perspective.

“Get thoroughly familiar with the product and the market,” Bernbach said.

Conduct online and in-store research to better understand how your business is perceived in the marketplace.

See your product through your customers’ eyes. Consider what they think when they first come across it.

David Ogilvy speaks about how to write good copy

“If you’re trying to persuade people to do something or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language.”

– David Ogilvy

Photo courtesy: Advertising Hall of Fame

Find your inspiration.

Look to your customer research to frame your advertising message.

Industry legend Mary Lawrence Wells, the acclaimed advertising pro behind “I Love New York” and “Trust the Midas Touch,” advised: “When copywriting, be a detective and a psychiatrist before allowing yourself to be an artist.”

Study your buyer and their habits. Understand their needs and desires—how your product will make a difference in their lives.

Dive more deeply into the problem you solve or the benefit you offer that lies at the root of their decision to choose your product.

Look for its inherent value.

Advertising trailblazer Leo Burnett, responsible for some of the most well-known characters and campaigns of the 20th century including Tony the Tiger, the Marlboro Man, United’s “Fly the Friendly Skies,” and Allstate’s “Good Hands,” said: “Don’t tell me how good you make it; tell me how good it makes me when I use it.”

While it may be as simple as a pair of running shoes, consider what your ideal customer values and identifies with most when making their purchase.

Sell the experience, not the product.

For instance, Nike sells better versions of ourselves, not shoes. Martha Stewart sells elevated everyday living, not cookbooks.

Pinpoint that distinguishing quality that strikes a chord with your customer and makes your product unique.

Find fresh, new ways to express that characteristic creatively. Then, ask yourself how you can bring that idea to life.

Make it personal.

Write your copy as though you are speaking to one person.

Even if your customer is making decisions for a group, your message is received and interpreted by an individual.

Speak directly to them. This is more impactful.

1969 Mary Wells Lawrence at her desk

“When copywriting, be a detective and a psychiatrist before allowing yourself to be an artist.”

Mary Wells Lawrence

Photo credit: 1969 Wells Rich Greene Agency Mary Wells Lawrence at her desk

Present what is most important to your buyer. If your company sells office supplies, your message to a small business owner will be written differently than one geared toward an office manager.

Provoke feelings.

Capture attention early.

But don’t resort to tricks and tropes, mindless repetition, or screaming ads. It can come across as frivolous or even worse, insulting.

Great ideas presented with context and relevance are essential to good ad copy. Place your energy there.

Bernbach said, “Be provocative. But be sure your provocativeness stems from your product. You are NOT right if in your ad you stand a man on his head JUST to get attention. You ARE right if you have him on his head to show how your product keeps things from falling out of his pockets.”

Humor can work when used correctly but can also be a slippery slope. If you choose this route, be sure you have the resources and a fine-tuned script to pull it off. If it falls flat, you’ve wasted your money.

Tell the truth.

Consumers are savvy and judge advertising scrupulously. Treat them with respect. Don’t mislead your audience or exaggerate the benefits of your product.

Use a creative idea to draw attention to those things that make your product stand out instead.

Bernbach said, “The most powerful element in advertising is the truth.”

Volkswagen Beetle Ads 1959

His team’s breakthrough Volkswagen Beetle “Think Small” campaign was clever and boldly honest. It introduced the peculiar-looking car to the U.S. market, capitalizing on its stark contrasts to American-made vehicles at the time. The campaign—ranked as the best in the 20th century by Ad Age—transformed modern advertising.

Speak honestly and directly to your customer’s needs rather than try to dazzle or suck them in.

Use specifics. If customers save 18% by shopping in your store, say so. This is more credible than claiming everyone will save like never before.

Consumers trust specifics more.

Again, Ogilvy can shed light here: “You need to tell the truth and be specific. With concrete numbers, meaningful phrases, and precise details, your copy becomes real. And when things sound real, people believe them.”

Make the facts intriguing and relevant rather than resorting to outrageous claims.

Leo Burnett speaks to how to write good copy

“Don’t tell me how good you make it; tell me how good it makes me when I use it.”

– Leo Burnett

Photo credit: Leo Burnett Worldwide

Simplify.

Too much story loses people. Too much copy drains them.

Leave room in your copy for pacing and elements that make your ad more interesting such as music changes and sound effects. Give your audience the space they need to use their imagination.

“Tear away at the unrelated. Pluck out the weeds that are smothering your product message,” Bernbach advised.

Edit ruthlessly. Scrap needless words. Focus on how to make your ad the most effective.

Write for the medium.

Whether you’re writing for TV, radio, or streaming, there are opportunities for you to put these essentials of good copy to use.

Here are some insider tips you can use when you write your ad copy:

Audio and video are intimate mediums. Write copy to personalize your message and humanize your brand when using them.

Bill Bernbach Quote

Most broadcast advertisements are fifteen, thirty, or sixty seconds.

When creating your first draft, start with a 30-second script. Once you have an outline, you can whittle it down to a 15-second script or expand it to a full 60-second script, as needed.

Write natural dialogue. If your script calls for a conversation between two or more people, read it aloud with another person to get a sense of rhythm and inflection. Then, smooth over any rough spots.

For interviews, ditch the script. As humans, we seldom speak in complete sentences. We tend to use fragments to express our thoughts. This is why scripted responses sound and look stilted or rehearsed.

Instead, prepare a list of talking points for varying responses to be captured when the interviewer poses questions differently. Then, in post-production, the producer can assemble the best clips to make your ad more natural and compelling.

For video and TV ads, be sure there will be footage to cover what viewers see, hear, and read. Your copy must accommodate all three simultaneously.

Limit the amount of on-screen text repeated in your voiceover—amounting to sensory overload. Your images and words should work in tandem, not overwhelm the viewer.

Many online platforms default to the audio switched off. Make sure your message can be understood even when the sound is muted.

Grab attention in the first five seconds for skippable in-stream video ads so that your viewer is more inclined to watch your ad all the way through.

Bonus Tips:

  • Time your copy—read it aloud several times
  • Err on the side of too little ad copy; rather than too much
  • Make sure you have a hook
  • Include your CTA
  • Direct your audience to your website rather than a phone number.

Wrapping up.

These essentials of good ad copy are grounded in advertising principles proven to achieve impact:

Know your customer and speak their language.
Understand your product and its inherent value.
Latch on to its unique difference, then make it stand out.
Present it honestly, simply, compellingly, and often.

And although the way we deliver our advertising message has evolved. As Bernbach knew so well: How we craft that message to make it powerfully creative and relevant—hasn’t changed. Good copy remains rooted in a range of feelings and experiences we all share.


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