So you’re already convinced your ads should be creative?

Great! If they’re branding ads, they certainly should be creative.

Your branding ads will be speaking to a large portion of the audience that’s NOT in the market for what you sell, so without some level of creativity, your ads will end up ignored as irrelevant noise.

With branding, you’re essentially trying to win the sale before it happens, and that requires speaking to people before they need what you sell.

And that requires at least a spoonful of creativity to make the messaging go down.

This is a major reason why creativity is the second most important factor in advertising effectiveness, according to over 50 years of quantitative data.

But there’s a lot of mis-applied creativity in advertising these days, and it helps to know when the “creative” your agency or ad team came up with won’t be helpful.

So before we cover the mistakes, let’s cover the ways in which creativity can be helpful:

  1. Creativity can provide entertainment to help gain and hold the audience’s attention
  2. Creativity can help sharpen and dramatize a selling message, so that it’s felt in the gut and moves the heart, rather than rationalized away in the brain
  3. It can accelerate the creation of associations between the brand and desirable attributes (or the competition and undesirable attributes), lessening the need for repetition, a la classical conditioning.
  4. Creativity can indirectly communicate or soften a message that would be too direct,vulgar, or uncomfortable if communicated plainly.

And that’s about it.

So the first thing to look at is whether the creativity in your ads is doing any of these four things. If not, tell your advertising team to go back to the drawing board.

But let’s look at some more obvious tip offs of bad or miss-applied creativity:

1) Entertainment that’s disconnected from the brand or product / service

If the creativity in question feels like a tacked on “gag,” it probably is.

It might get people’s attention, entertain them, or make them laugh, but that attention and emotion won’t “stick” to your brand.

Famous examples of this are Nissan’s GI Joe ad and Taco Bells Chihuahua.



Both campaigns were entertaining and popular, but both sparked sales losses for the Nissan and Taco Bell. Chihuahua sales went up.

That’s what happens when the entertainment is disconnected from the brand.

And this problem is listed as #1 because it’s one of the most common failures in advertising. It’s what often happens when agencies and creatives don’t understand how to advertising non-sexy, “Ugly Duckling” businesses.

Want an example of creativity intimately connected to the brand and product?

Check out Apple’s “I’m a Mac” campaign.


Or even their iPod ads:


2) Creativity that’s disconnected from your company’s business strategy

In order for your advertising to increase sales, it has to help you overcome the chief obstacle(s) standing in the way of those sales.

In other words, your ad campaign has to be based on sound strategy.

Not too long ago a struggling Kmart came up with some potty-humor ads that did manage to grab some online buzz —and that people did connect with the brand — but that also failed to increase sales.

You can check ‘em out here:



The ads were disconnected from the sales problems at Kmart.

Their problem wasn’t that people were walking out of K-Mart without buying because they couldn’t find the right size or item in stock.

Their problem was that shoppers weren’t going to K-mart at all.

And these ads were doing nothing to lure shoppers back into the store.

If shoppers wanted to have pants or furniture shipped to them, they’d likely have shopped online with Amazon or Walmart.

So the ads tanked in their primary objective, despite getting lots of buzz.

And now K-Mart is circling the drain, with only 34 stores left.

This problem of bad strategy is listed as #2 because it’s the second most common failure point for “creative” ads, mostly because most agencies don’t spend sufficient time learning about the customer and competitive landscape before writing the ads.

Frankly, writing the ads and ‘getting creative’ should be the last thing an advertising professional does.

Want an example of creative messaging that IS connected to business strategy?

Check out Old Spice’s “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like.”


Yes, it’s funny and wildly creative, but the ad is also grounded in a key sales insight: women buy the majority of shower gels or body wash.

That’s why the ad was aimed at influencing women rather than me. That’s a campaign based on sound business strategy.

3) Symbolism, subtext, or imagery that’s off-brand or counter-message

Let’s start with an example:


Notice that the imagery of the ad was completely counter to the message? The characters’ names DID match their identifying qualities.

GoDaddy’s 2015 Super Bowl ad is another example:


The ad evokes viewer sympathy for the puppy and then showcases itself as a tool for harm to the puppy. Not good.

Or there’s this ad for a dating site that featured Ashton Kutcher:


The imagery evoked by the ad would lead one to NOT want to create an account on that dating site. Who wants to wade through a dating pool of freaks?

And one more for good measure:


Because, hey, what company doesn’t want to be associated with suicide, right?

You want the imagery, the symbolism, and the subtext all working in your favor. That should be obvious.

Unfortunately too many “creatives” are willing to sacrifice the best interests of the client in order to showcase their own originality and “edginess.” That makes this mistake — when combined with the next one in this list — the third most common failure point for creative ads.

Almost any successful branding campaign would serve as an example of aligning imagery and symbolism to messaging, but perhaps Under Armor’s recent ads illustrate this best:



4) Mistaking Creepy, Tasteless, or Tacky for “Edgy”

Burger King’s creep-tastic “King” campaign servers as a perfect example of this mistake, using imagery and symbolism intended to be ‘edgy’ but so creepy and off-brand as to render the ads harmful — which they absolutely were, judging from sales.


Why in the world would you want to associate your brand with a creepy, voyeuristic, stalker?

Further doubling down on this mistake, Burger King also launched print ads like this:

Is it any wonder that Burger King’s market share declined over the life of this ad campaign?

If your ad team is courting cheap controversy, thinking it’s edgy, then watch out.

Want an example of real “controversy” that sells? Check out Arby’s “We Have The MEATS” campaign:


This is the brand strategy that helped take Arby’s for being sold for only $130 million to produce over $3.9 Billion in revenue in 2018.

Like it or hate it, Arby’s stands for meat lovers everywhere. They’re not about healthy. Or balanced. They’re about taste for people who love their sandwiches extra meaty, tasty, and toothsome

Arby’s even going so far as to create a meat-based carrot as a way of symbolically giving the finger to fast food chains offering meatless or “impossible” burgers:


5) Leaving the audience with a powerfully negative mental image

Nationwide normally has great ads. But this 2015 Super Bowl spot was a loser.


Don’t leave an audience with a debbie-downer of a mental image. If you do, that negativity will likely stick to you.

Another example of leaving an audience with a terribly negative mental image is this 2014 ad for Life Alert:

Don’t do that. If you must go negative in the ad, leave the audience with the positive. Show how the negative fate was avoided by your product. Take a note from Hollywood and give the audience a happy ending.

This Honda ad gets it right by showcasing the danger while still leaving people with a happy ending:

6) Pushing Off-brand Social Commentary

I’m not saying that social commentary is always wrong. I am saying that social commentary that insults your core customer base is a bad advertising strategy.

And perhaps no one has proven this more resoundingly than Gillette’s toxic masculinity ad (formally titled “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be”):


As a piece of visual storytelling, that’s a brilliant ad. But it also insulted Gillette’s core customer base.

And depending on who you believe, that ad cost Gillette between $800 million to $8 Billion in lost revenue.

If you take a stand on social issues, you better be sure it’s on-brand, or it could be a severe and costly mistake.

If you want to see on-brand social commentary, check out Dove’s Real Beauty Campaign:


This campaign resonated with Dove’s core customer base and boosted sales rather than tanking them.

7) Mystery Ads That Are Too Clever By Half

We’ve all seen them: ads that leave us wondering what is actually being advertised. Or WHO the ad is for in the first place.

Or ads that leave anyone but the most focused and careful viewer scratching their heads.

It’s a cliche that the client always wants the logo bigger, but really, it should be clear WHAT the ad is about and WHO the ad is for even to the casual viewer or listener.

If an ads “creativity” is obscuring those things, then it’s hurting rather than helping.

Examples are this Super Bowl ad for Sobe:


And this ad for Ameriquest:


I’d bet you dollars to donuts that the vast majority of viewers couldn’t tell you WHO was behind those ads or even what was being advertised.

I’d offer an example of ads that are clear about these things, but they’re really too numerous to list.

The important thing for you, the business owner, to understand is to never be ashamed to insist that the ad be clear about WHO and WHAT’s being advertised.

This was a long post, but when your ad budget and sales are on the line, it helps to know when the creativity your ad team is presenting you is bound to do more harm than good.

It especially helps to be able to explain WHY you don’t like the ad or the creativity in the ad.

And if you find yourself talking to people more concerned with creativity than increased sales, you could fire those people and hire yourself an ad team capable of creativity you can count on top spike sales.