Walking a Fine Line with Creative Advertising

September 22, 2013

When it comes to promoting a product, marketers usually have two routes they can take: either hype the item’s notable features or draw the audience in with something creative. Choosing the latter option is a much riskier endeavor, though. After all, it’s easy to forget a boring commercial. Advertising backfires worst when a company miscalculates the level of their own wit and unleashes a high concept disaster. For instance, last year a Pop Chips ad featuring Ashton Kutcher as a stereotypical Indian man went viral for all the wrong reasons. The company tried to pull the spot only to discover that nothing truly disappears on the Internet.

Still, when creative advertising works right, it can create iconic images that are forever associated with the brand. So how do companies know if they have a hit or a flop on their hands? A recent study by the University of Cologne in Germany attempted to answer this question by measuring the creativity in German ads between 2005 and 2010. The researchers asked participants to rank ads on five dimensions of creativity: originality, flexibility, elaboration, synthesis and artistic value. The first and the latter categories are relatively clear, which may explain why many advertisers rely on making unique, visually stimulating spots.

But according to the research, ads that elaborate on unexpected details in common situations have a more important impact. In one commercial cited by the study, a woman eating yogurt licks her lips with a tongue that looks just like a strawberry. This deepens the idea of the yogurt’s fruitiness by literalizing the person’s sense of taste. Interestingly enough, the study revealed that elevating these small aspects of life to an almost surreal degree has a greater impact on product sales than long, story-driven ads. As for the other categories, ads that flexibly link a product to a range of different uses didn’t correspond as well with real world sales. Nor did weird spots like Wrigley’s ad for its Juicy Fruit Squish gum, which synthesized normally unrelated objects by featuring rabbits corralled like cattle eating a variety of fruit. When it comes to getting creative with ads, simplicity might be the safest policy.



  1. When creating advertising what key points must advertisers remember?
  1. Do celebrities help or hinder when used in creative advertising?


Source: Werner Reinartz and Peter Saffert, “Creativity in Advertising: When It Works and When It Doesn’t,” Harvard Business Review, June 2013. Photo by Sandra Falkevik.