People don't read ads...

“People don’t read ads—they read what interests them, and sometimes it is an ad.”
-Howard Gossage

This is one of my favorite advertising quotes because it puts what we do into perspective. We're not just competing with other brands in the category, or other ads, we're competing for mind space. If your ad isn't provocative, not just as an ad, but as a thing, nobody's going to care.

There are a couple of assignments I like to give my students to hammer this point home. One is to have them do a t-shirt for their product. I like the t-shirt assignment because it requires two things: 1) it must convey some sort of message or feeling that is consistent with the brand you're building, and 2) it has to be cool enough that someone would actually wear it. It can't just be a product message on fabric.

The other assignment I like is a little more difficult. There's no brand. No required message. The assignment is below. Over the years, I've had some really interesting responses, some really bad ones, and a lot that fall somewhere in between. What would you paint on the bridge?


Several years ago, I was on a photo shoot for an Allstate ad campaign at a lake in Northern California. We were out on a boat, cruising across the lake, and we passed under a really long bridge. As we passed by, I saw, spray-painted on the bridge, in 5-foot tall letters, a message: HEY FUCK YOU MAN

Aside from the complete disregard for punctuation, what struck me was how difficult it must have been for the author to write this message. I mean, this was in the middle of the bridge, high above the water. The person had to climb the bank, then shimmy across a ledge, paint can in pocket, all the way out to the middle. They had to hold on for dear life with one hand as they painted their message. A lot of sweat. And what inspired bit of poetry did they find worthy of such an effort? HEY FUCK YOU MAN.

It had a Zen simplicity to it, but I couldn’t help but think it was a missed opportunity. The effort was there. The placement was there. The concept was just lacking a bit.

So here’s your assignment: You’ve got a can of spray paint. You’ve got a bridge. You’ve got the cajones to climb out there. What are you going to write? Remember: if you fall, you could die. So you’d better think of something good. A hell of a lot better than HEY FUCK YOU MAN.