Last Updated on 1 year by Greg Noland

To define what constitutes good print advertising, we begin with what a good print ad is not:


  • It is not creative for the sake of being creative.
  • It is not designed to please copywriters, art directors, agency presidents, or even clients.
  • Its main purpose is not to entertain, win awards, or shout at the readers, “I am an ad. Don’t you admire my fine writing, bold graphics, and clever concept?”

In other words, ignore most of what you would learn as a student in any basic advertising class or as a trainee in one of the big Madison Avenue consumer ad agencies.

Okay. So that’s what an ad shouldn’t be. As for what an ad should be, here are some characteristics shared by successful direct response print ads:

  • They stress a benefit. The main selling proposition is not cleverly hidden but is made immediately clear. Example: “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”
  • They arouse curiosity and invite readership. The key here is not to be outrageous but to address the strongest interests and concerns of your target audience. Example: “Do you Make These Mistakes in English?” appeals to the reader’s desire to avoid embarrassment and write and speak properly.
  • They provide information. The headline “How to Stop Emission Problems—at Half the Cost of Conventional Air Pollution Control Devices” lures the reader because it promises useful information. Prospects today seek specific, usable information on highly specialized topics. Ads that provide information the reader wants get higher readership and better response.
  • They are knowledgeable. Successful ad copy reflects a high level of knowledge and understanding of the product and the problem it solves. An effective technique is to tell the reader something he already knows, proving that you, the advertiser, are well-versed in his industry, application, or requirement.

An opposite style, ineffectively used by many “professional” agency copywriters, is to reduce everything to the simplest common denominator and assume the reader is completely ignorant. But this can insult the reader’s intelligence and destroy your credibility with him.

  • They have a strong free offer. Good ads contain a stronger offer. They tell the reader the next step in the buying process and encourage him to take it NOW.

All ads should have an offer, because the offer generates immediate response and business from prospects who are ready to buy now or at least thinking about buying. Without an offer, these “urgent” prospects are not encouraged to reach out to you, and you lose many potential customers.

In addition, strong offers increase readership, because people like ads that offer them something—especially if it is free and has high perceived value.

Writers of image advertising may object, “But doesn’t making an offer cheapen the ad, destroy our image? After all, we want awareness, not response.” But how does offering a free booklet weaken the rest of the ad? It doesn’t, of course. The entire notion that you cannot simultaneously elicit a response and communicate a message is absurd and without foundation.

  • They are designed to emphasize the offer.

Graphic techniques such as “kickers” or eyebrows (copy lines above the headline), bold headlines, liberal use of subheads, bulleted or numbered copy points, coupons, sketches of telephone, toll-free numbers set in large type, pictures of response booklets and brochures, dashed borders, asterisks, and marginal notes make your ads more eye-catching and response-oriented, increasing readership.

Why? My theory is that when people see a non-direct response ad, they know it’s just a reminder-type ad and figure they don’t have to read it. But when they see response-type graphic devices, these visuals say to the reader, “Stop! This is a response ad! Read it so you can find out what we are offering. And mail the coupon—so you can get it NOW!”

  • They are clearly illustrated. Good advertising does not use abstract art or concepts that force the reader to puzzle out what is being sold. Ideally, you should be able to understand exactly what the advertiser’s proposition is within five seconds of looking at the ad. As John Caples observed a long time ago, the best visual for an ad for a record club is probably a picture of records.

At about this point, someone from DDB will stand up and object: “Wait a minute. You said these are the characteristics of a successful direct response ad. But isn’t general advertising different?”

Maybe. But one of the ways to make your general advertising more effective is to write and design it as a direct response ad. Applying all the stock-in-trade techniques of the direct marketer (coupons, toll-free numbers, free booklets, reason-why copy, benefit-headlines, informative subheads) virtually guarantees that your advertisement will be better read—and get more response—than the average “image” ad.

I agree with Howard Ruff when he says that everything a marketer does should be direct response. I think the general advertising people who claim that a coupon or free booklet offer “ruins” their lyrical copy or stark, dramatic layout are ineffectual artists more interested in appearance and portfolios than results.

Bob Bly


Bob Bly is a freelance copywriter with 20 years experience in business-to-business and direct marketing. He has written direct mail packages for Phillips Publishing, Agora Publishing, KCI Communications, McGraw-Hill, Medical Economics, Reed Reference Publishing, A.F. Lewis, and numerous other publishers.

“This article appears courtesy of Bob Bly’s Direct Response Letter,”

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