Nobody Reads Ads


The famous advertising master of the “Mad Men’ era, Howard Gossage, also known as the “Socrates of San Francisco,” once said: “Nobody reads ads. People read what interests them. Sometimes it’s an ad.”

When I got my first agency job as a junior copywriter, one of the senior writers had this quote hanging on the wall in front of his desk. This insight is very crucial to keep in mind whenever you are writing copy either for traditional media advertising or for the web.

It’s surprising how many companies fail to remember this sound advice. Instead, brands often end up making the foolish mistake of talking “at” their target audience rather than “to” them. Nowhere is this error made more often than on social media where the conversation is supposed to be just that – a conversation. Not a one-way communication, but a real connection between brands and consumers.

This golden Gossage-ism is even more relevant now than it was then. And I think in the digital age it has taken on a slightly new meaning that is perhaps more poignant now than it was originally intended.

In today’s fast-past world of media bombardment we are totally saturated with content vying for our attention both on traditional mediums (e.g. billboards, print, television, and radio) and on the internet which has predictably come to dominate how we access information.

How many promotional emails did you delete just this morning?! Are you even still reading this?!?!

If so, congrats.

Today, we mostly tune out advertisements with rare exceptions. When you are writing copy, it is not about how funny or cute or creative you can be nearly as much as it is how well you respond to the needs and wants of your audience. Just as in offline interpersonal relationships, one of the most important things you can do is listen, the same goes for any kind of marketing copy. And digital analytics programs as well as social media networks have opened up new avenues that make listening much easier for marketers to do. It is the smart brand who will put in the time to figure out where her audience is hanging out and what are its fears, concerns, questions, and needs.

Nobody will read your ad.

Get over it.

But if you talk about what interests your audience and you speak to its needs, then sometimes your copy will be read. And way more importantly, it will inspire your reader to take the desired call to action.