Art of the Sell: How Retailers Can Create Powerful Print Ads

Pony up for a good photographer, allow your images to breathe, choose the ideal font—and you just might create the perfect print ad. At the least, our guide will get you close.

Don Draper, the dapper protagonist on AMC’s Mad Men, once said, “Advertising is based on one thing: happiness.” The perfectly imperfect character—who possessed comically bad judgment in so many other areas—was at least right about that.

When it comes to advertising in print publications, however, too many brands, presumably caught up in their (understandably ardent) quest to impart information to consumers, forget to entertain. And in advertising, that’s a fatal error.

“You need to make the consumer smile and nod their head before they’re going to listen to a thing you say,” says Shawn Gauthier, a longtime advertising professional whose current clients include POM Wonderful and Fiji water. “You want to talk to people like they’re human, and you want to ­present yourself in a way that is memorable.”

JCK asked Gauthier and several other real-life advertising professionals to weigh in on what elements go into creating memorable, effective print advertisements—and to call out common mistakes they see brands make in print.

Don’t Discount Print

Tel-Aviv’s Draftfcb went green in this minimalist 2013 Jeep ad.

As evidenced by the doorstop-heavy magazine you’re currently holding in your hands, print advertising is still an incredibly effective tool for marketers. Yes, as a retailer your ad dollars should be split between online and print advertising, but it’s a mistake to discount the impact of ads that can be touched, ripped out, and pinned up.

“I think there’s something less ignorable about print advertising,” Gauthier says. And that’s why “100 percent of my clients are running print ads,” he says. “When you’re flipping through a magazine or you’re flipping through a newspaper, if you see something that grabs your eye it’s somehow less annoying [than when you view it online].… Digital, I think people are still trying to figure out the best way to do that. The work you see in print has more art to it and more of a voice.”

Erin Lackey, a creative director at ­Jugular, an advertising agency based in New York City, says it’s important to capitalize on the differences between print and digital. “You have many more options for presentation” in print, she says. “You can run an ad as big as a newspaper spread…or a consecutive page insert like Apple Watch did in Vogue.”

Embrace White Space

Doesn’t this make you want to dunk an Oreo into a massive glass of milk? That’s just what the creators (Belgium’s ESA Saint-Luc Tournai school) wanted!

Many print ads try to cram in excessive amounts of information—be it type or images. It’s a look that effectively screams “Advertisement!” to consumers. Dan Rosenthal, a Washington, D.C.–based advertising professional, says simplicity is rule No. 1 when creating a successful ad.

“People try to put too much into an ad; there’s too often complicated logos and too much product,” Rosenthal says. “Instead, ask yourself, ‘How can I keep it as simple as possible, using a clear concept?’ And you always want clean white [empty] space.”

Lackey, meanwhile, advises marketers to “focus on a single idea.” Then, “fuse the visual and headline into a concept that’s bigger—and more provocative—than both separate elements.”

Pick a Hero

Without even reading the small print, you know this is an ad for the candy-coated chocolates. Score one for Amsterdam agency FHV BBDO.

In any advertisement, you have to choose who the hero of the ad should be—the headline (type) or the visual (photo or illustration), Gauthier says. “There needs to be one focal point, and if you try to do more than one, you’ve got an ignorable ad.”

Want to showcase a glittering diamond ring? Let the product shot do the talking. But if you’re hyping an entire collection or an event, it might make more sense to let the type do the talking.

“People always say, ‘Can we get a little more balance between the size of the logo and the size of the headline and the size of the visual?’?” Gauthier says. “But you don’t want balance.… You can’t have that all happen. There has to be one important element and everything else can grow from there. If you express a story in a simple line or in an image that really connects with people and really impresses people, then you sign off with the logo that wasn’t jumping off the page initially. People found the logo because they were impressed with the message.”

Invest in the Visuals

Apple collaborated with Media Arts Lab for these watch ads that ran in the March Vogue.

Advertising, especially in print, is a visual medium. So invest in the artwork. “If you can do it all with a picture and no words, that’s ideal,” Rosenthal says. “That’s almost impossible to do but…remember that people respond to visuals in ­advertising more than they do words. The image is more emotional. In jewelry advertising, if it’s a big space, you can be much more emotional with your picture. It’s very hard to do anything emotional with a picture that’s the size of a credit card.”

And make sure your images feel modern and interesting—even surprising, if you can manage it. “You want to be current, you want to connect with people on what’s happening right now,” Gauthier says.

The cleaner and less busy the photo, the better. “A great photographer makes a huge difference,” adds Gauthier, who recommends hiring “somebody who knows which lens to use, knows how to light things, has a really good crew, knows how to prop a set, and knows good makeup and hair people.”

And go easy on the photo retouching—if you need to change the bone structure or hair color of your model in post-­production, you need to start over with a new model. “Personally, images that appear over-retouched put me off,” Lackey says.

Choose a Legible Font

BBDO Canada picked a fiery penguin to represent the hot-’n’-cold GE Café.

Magazine readers are scanning through pages faster than ever, so make sure the type you pick is perfectly legible. Too many ads feature jazzy, hard-to-read fonts that just slow down the reader. For messages more than a few words long, opt for a serif typeface, where the letters have little feet that easily lead the eye to the next shape.

And remember that fonts are only as effective as the graphic designer who’s using them. Take trendy slab serifs—a retro typeface group marked by serifs that are almost as thick as the strokes of the letters: “They can convey a clean, modern aesthetic that has personality,” Lackey says. “But used improperly, they could come off as…Wild West.”

Additionally, it’s extremely hard to read a headline that’s written in all caps, Gauthier says, “and it’s even harder to read a headline in initial caps—especially if it’s a long headline.”

Know Your Audience

We Are Golden went the graphic route for Nike’s “Art of Woven” campaign.

All three advertising pros agree that before pen hits paper on a print ad’s content, a brand needs to know who it’s targeting and why. Make lists, talk to your clients, and do the research on this one. Because no matter how beautiful the product, how clever the phrasing, if you’re not reaching your demographic, you’re squandering resources by creating an ad that’s communicating with no one.

“You really need to treat this ad like one little tiny moment that you have to connect with people,” Gauthier says.

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