Book Review: Cracking the Ad Code

    By: PDMA Headquarters on Oct 04, 2013

    Book Review: Cracking the Ad Code      

    By: Jacob Goldenberg, Amnon Levav, David Mazursky, and Sorin Solomon, Cambridge, UK : Cambridge University Press , 2009 . 168+x pages . 
    Review by: Erik A. J. Johnson

    Even as they promote today's innovations, advertisements may not readily come to mind as new products themselves. Yet the authors ofCracking the Ad Code offer the advertising field, home to archetypically creative people, a system of tools a new product development (NPD) project manager could love. The book challenges marketing research-based and random insight approaches with methods that systematically heed the voices of media and messages. It suggests that Madison Avenue artistes embrace mechanistic endeavors to develop endearingly creative ads. Okay, so, what's up with that?

    The authors analyzed more than 200 award-winning creative advertisements and discovered common structural patterns among almost 90% of them. The creativity tools they developed comprise Cracking the Ad Code, a contribution specifically focused on coming up with “new ideas for creative ads” (p. 2). It presents clear step-by-step techniques for the idea generation mode in the new product development of innovative advertisements. Through mapping and manipulating elements in the message, media, and environment, identified patterns inherent to winning creative ads can help guide users to predict and construct other winners.

    The book begins with a discussion of creativity that covers business-related products including advertising and suggests the presence of general patterns analogous to the genetic instructions encoded in DNA. Unlike typical new products, advertisements deliver messages, connective concepts that demand often repeated mental purchase. The developed content of an ad should include what to say and how to say it, with both clearly connected to the product. Ad agencies as NPD practitioners need to produce ads that link a core positive attribute to its benefit and then go on to show viewers the “result of enjoying or realizing the benefit” (p. 99). The exaggeration of a promise or benefit is an advertising cliché, exemplified by the wonder product that solves all problems. The authors' creativity tools paradigm informs new product development in ads to present strengthened and better appreciated brand promises. In this process a product's elements are carefully considered, and a chosen medium is searched for creative delivery means. These variables and the environment are scoured to ensure optimal message delivery, to possibly surface other media in support of the message, or to even manufacture new messages. Key concepts include fusion, the melding “into one both the symbol for something—its story—and the product or brand you are marketing and/or the advertising message” (p. 15) and closed-world principle of constraints, which holds that successfully searching within the limited attributes of the product, medium, and message spawns products considered to be more creative.

    Creativity tools draw from closed-world elements, with enumerated instructions for uses that include (1) distinguishing the message or promise intended, (2) listing and carefully considering the product or service elements—including benefits to the customer—needed for that tool's operation, and (3) the envisioning of alternatives within that tool's purview. To introduce rigor into each tool's application, Attribute-Value (A-V) mapping is recommended, a concept fully discussed in the final chapter. In brief, attributes are about the product, and values are about the customer. This can be seen in a safe car (product) that gives owners peace of mind (value). A-V maps should determine a product's attributes, benefits, and links to ensure the strength of messages and connections.

    Explained are two “families” of inventive methods for systematically producing ad innovations. The authors describe eight creativity patterns or tools in individual chapters, followed by a closing chapter with the A-V mapping procedure intended to assist their implementation. Both groups of four tools plus the mapping process are explained and illustrated as follows:

    • 1

    The unification family: This group generally involves manipulating the various resources of a medium used for conveying a message; in this sense it deals with the medium itself as the vehicle of creative expression:

    • a.

    The unification tool: This refers to delivering the message using perhaps unconsidered existing elements of the medium or those indicated by the message. Bus doors that move can be an opportunity for some form of message delivery.

    • b.

    The activation tool: Here the viewer of the message is a necessary resource for proper delivery. Physical activation involves an immediate action by a viewer directly in front of the ad to release its message, like putting a finger on a print ad as directed. Mental activation occurs when a viewer is asked to perform an action but only imagines it and its probable results, a cognitive activity memorably different from viewing general advertisements. For example, a request of the viewer to touch a depicted hot stove in an ad could create a contrived feeling serving the message.

    • c.

    The metaphor tool: A single visual image is used to connect the message and product to known cultural symbols or cognitive frameworks. The symbol is visually manipulated in a way that subtly fuses it to the product and message, like the tennis ball in the shape of a croissant that appeared in a ad promoting the French Open tournament. This is a pattern common among creative ads.

    • d.

    The subtraction tool: Removing an essential element yet maintaining a strong message and product identification. Eliminating the text, image, or name of the product, with potentially varying emphases depending on the item removed, helps the message stand out. One instance could be the removal of a brand's labeled name from an ad while displaying its visually familiar package shape.

    • 2

    The extreme family: This grouping deals more directly with the message of the ad and specifically on telling its story while taking one of the key elements to an extreme. These patterns are a refutation of the extreme promises that common uncreative ads may make in the name of gaining viewer purchase. They rely on exaggerated circumstances and work best with category stalwarts or leaders.

    • a.

    The extreme consequence tool: The promise is replaced by the depiction of an often very negative or unexpected result of using the product and enjoying the benefit. Exaggerating a minor product attribute in one such TV ad, a man dances The Twist in front of a beverage bottle; a camera close-up then reveals the words on its cap, “twist to open.”

    • b.

    The absurd alternative tool: Highlights an obtainable yet clearly undesirable circumstance yielding a benefit that derives from a positive product attribute. Useful for public information messages and market category leaders, like the car company that pictured a child rolled up in protective cotton as an alternative to its known-to-be safe product.

    • c.

    The inversion tool: In place of a focus on how great the world is due to a specific product, the message is inverted to instead show how bad it would be without. An ad for opticians that shows a man on the beach carrying an ironing board instead of his surfboard is an inversion, humorously illustrating the importance of eye care.

    • d.

    The extreme effort tool: The group's most common pattern, useful with unremarkable or generic products, it has two different categories of application. First, the company proffering the product makes absurd efforts to please the customer, like a delivery service person surmounting all forms of obstacles to deliver. Second, a customer irrationally seeks to get hold of or protect the advertised product, like a person depicted using expensive carpets to catch splattering house paint while the advertised product, an inexpensive newspaper that commonly performs that function, sits unmolested nearby.

    • 3

    Attribute-value mapping: This form of concept mapping seeks to provide systematic creative direction in envisioning attribute-value-meaning message configurations. It assists marketers in testing a product's promises and values against the advertising message in diagramming a connective visual hierarchy. First-level general values, such as the personal security perception afforded by product attributes that culminate in a safe car, are linked to a customer's specific second-level values. Such higher-level perceptual values can include peace of mind and being a good parent. Additionally, A-V mapping can even help facilitate “renewed thinking on the entire advertising marketing strategy” (p. 148).

    Again, how much does innovation really matter in advertising NPD? A lot, at least according to industry award tallies, yet the authors themselves challenge assumptions that award-winning creative ads always deliver messages that achieve commercial objectives. The book addresses this concern, citing research and presenting its field-tested program of ad agency product development. The persuasive text triggered several thoughts begging further exploration. Without such guiding techniques, how successful can traditional group brainstorming really be? What other fields with conceptual products could benefit from similarly reverse-engineered systems? Are there limits to structurally guided creativity? And once exposed to the creativity tools paradigm, should marketing communications NPD professionals at least consider expanding their toolkits? Exercises at the end of each chapter to help facilitate teaching and learning could be useful. A fuller edition could offer further tips for learning through application and perhaps a greater account of lessons from the authors' front-line experience.

    To the end of constructing innovative advertisements that align with a product's intended message and medium or of developing different messages and recruiting fresh media that may comprise new and improved strategic complements or pathways, the authors put forth a unique and compelling NPD ideation framework. The book lays out key principles and methods in an orderly and efficient manner, and marketing communications practitioners and educators can fit this slim yet chock-a-block volume in almost any carryall. Each numbered chapter ends with pointers handy for learners and facilitators alike.

    The authors' research in new product innovation, a decade-plus of real-world client testing and iteration, and the effective organization are consequential. The book respects the reader's time. Appropriate for practitioners, it should be of great interest to theorists, facilitators, and students. It clearly and effectively presents at times complex creativity-enabling techniques that, without exaggeration, hold great promise to innovate advertising NPD.

    Released: October 4, 2013, 10:42 am | Updated: October 30, 2013, 12:43 pm
    Keywords: PDMA Blog

    You must create an account or login with your existing account to provide comments or article ratings.

    Copyright © 2018 PDMA - Product Development and Management Association. All Rights Reserved

    PDMA 1000 Westgate Drive, #252 St. Paul, MN 55114 USA   |   Phone: 651-290-6280   |   Fax: 651-290-2266

    Contact PDMA   |   Legal Policies & Agreements