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Worst-Practices: Anatomy of an Awful Ad

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In this article, you'll learn...

  • A classic case of an ad gone terribly wrong
  • Pitfalls to avoid when developing your next ad

When I saw this ad in a magazine, I thought it was a joke. A parody, a satire, a lampoon... anything but what it really is—totally legit and serious.

If ever there was a marketing message completely unaware of the modern zeitgeist, and offensive to boot, this ad is it!

At a back-breaking stretch, it might be suitable in a magazine catering to the dark underbelly of "enhanced" athletic performance.

But this ad appeared in Biblical Archeology Review, which has a readership composed of Christian and Jewish scholars, Near Eastern archeologists, and all others who have an abiding affinity for anything buried in Israel.

So the ad may work—if the above are also unrepentant heroin addicts. If not... these marketers are in serious need of rehab!


Here's Where the Ad Tanks

Gravity Defyer ad

1. The headline: "Shoes on Steroids?"

In a pinch, I could actually live with the concept behind the headline, if not the actual wording. Stating that something is on steroids is a common and popular way of implying that the object is powerful, strong, and unbeatable. So I really have no problem with its usage.

But why make it a question? It could be that the copywriter was trying to engage the reader—to force "reader involvement." But by not setting up the question with a thought-provoking or emotionally compelling pre-head or sub-head, it's ineffective. In other words, as is, the headline needs explaining and a context. Using an exclamation mark, on the other hand, would've made it a declarative headline, and hence more powerful.

2. The Imagery: Sticking a syringe full of steroids into a shoe...

Gimme a break! My first reaction upon seeing a needle inserted into the tongue of the shoe (and, by association, into the fleshy, vulnerable top of my foot), was to wince and groan, much as if I had swallowed a warm, rotten oyster.

And to think that (athletic or not) people of any age would be impressed, persuaded, and compelled to buy a pair of shoes that are depicted as steroid junkies... is, in my opinion, a drug-induced delusion (more on that later).

Apparently, no one who vetted this promotion understands the importance of market research, much less the effect that words and images can have on their intended market. And I won't even begin to speculate on what possessed them to use a sperm cell as a shoe logo! OK, let's not belabor these graphic missteps any further—there's far more to critique here, and learn from.

3. Weird Features and Weirder Benefits

Surrounding the shoe are snippets of copy that point to and highlight the shoe's features and supposed benefits. Some of this copy works, some of it doesn't, and some of it is absolutely inane.

For example:

  • "Slick Seed of Life Logo" (referring to the sperm shape)"because it's cool." Now that really makes me wonder whether the marketing director is, in reality, a smirking high school prankster who enjoys Biology 101 for all the wrong (and typically adolescent) reasons.
  • "Steroid Syringe? Now that we have your attention. Try Gravity Defyer FREE for 30 Days." Apparently, bait and switch carries no weight with this high schooler.
  • "Scientifically Engineered to Defy Pain, Defy Aging and Defy Gravity." In fairness, many marketers make similarly unbelievable claims of equally stupendous magnitude. A gullible and sleepy public may let this sub-head slip (though why the FTC would is another question). But who in their right mind would ever believe these shoes can actually defy gravity? I mean, come on!

By the way, if you ever make an astounding, utterly remarkable, and earth-shattering statement—emphasize it with an exclamation point. That's what they're for. Yet, the totally bewildered folks at Gravity Defyer employ a period instead, which in an ad is never used in a headline, subhead, or bullet point... because a period is akin to a stop sign. And you don't want to stop the reader from reading.

The Bright Side

Remarkably, the marketers do understand the power of a story. The ad's body copy is a story told in the first person singular, about how a person benefited from wearing the Gravity Defyer. The writer even names two doctors who recommended these miracle shoes.

All in all, a sophisticated, credibility-building approach.

But it's all ruined when in a subhead the person proclaims: "Excitement swept through my body like a drug." Why these marketers think their readers worship at the altar of illicit drugs defies all understanding.

Worse still, the person telling the story is never identified. Therefore, as an unattributed (and supposed) case study, it lacks credibility. The jaded, untrusting, and wary reader (aren't they all?) will quickly discount the entire narrative as pure fiction—as undoubtedly it is.

Note: Always place a name—even better, a face—on stories and testimonials.

The Final Sin

There's no guarantee, and no wonder, since these shoes can defy gravity. Well, actually, there's an implied guarantee—but it isn't clearly defined. Instead, there is a blue ribbon award graphic touting a "risk free 30 day trial," which is also repeated in other places, but its terms are not stated. An explicit and powerful guarantee is non-negotiable. Every promotion must have one.

And finally...

A Word of Praise for the Designer

The designer of the ad did an excellent job. The ad is easy to read (though the type size is too small in places), easy to follow, and easy to absorb. And the use of a percentage chart is a nice touch, as is the demonstrative spring-loaded leg cutaway.

Clearly, the design is not the work of a beginner looking to build a book of samples. I can only wonder, therefore, what possessed the designer to accept the assignment. I would imagine that the ad, as a whole, is not exactly something he or she would want to include in a portfolio.


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Barry A. Densa is a freelance marketing and sales copywriter at Writing With Personality. For more, visit his blog Marketing Wit & Wisdom.

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  • by Craig Michael Patrick Thu Mar 31, 2011 via web

    Interesting article.

    I would, however, offer one bit of insight that perhaps Barry may have overlooked concerning his closing remarks on the designer (as I am both a designer and marketer, I feel qualified to offer this perspective):

    While idealism with regards to integrity is a wonderful thing, do keep in mind that the designer has very real world issues with which he or she is contending.

    Making the rent or mortgage payment comes to mind.

    Make no mistake, a commercial artist should not, under any circumstances, pass on a job just because the content is questionable. The onus is on the visual communicator to clearly, creatively, and concisely expose the message to the best of his/her ability. If it's still lackluster, as Barry mentioned, don't put it in the portfolio. Take the job, do your best, learn, move on.

    After all, one cannot pay the rent with idealism.

  • by Peter Altschuler Thu Mar 31, 2011 via web

    This is an ad that direct marketing people like Rapp/Collins co-founder Tom Collins would love... unfortunately. It crams everything it possibly can into a finite single-page space (probably because a spread was not in the budget), tells an ostensibly true story, provides every imaginable feature, and offers a 30-day free trial. From a direct marketer's standpoint, it really doesn't miss a trick. Where it misses is that the personal story in the text isn't reflected anywhere in the imagery. It's a story about a person, not a shoe, but there's no one in sight.

  • by Traci Thu Mar 31, 2011 via web

    You completely glazed over the terrible logo design.

  • by Traci Thu Mar 31, 2011 via web

    Actually, no you didn't. I'm off to research your proofreading articles!

  • by Chris Donnelly Thu Mar 31, 2011 via web

    I would offer a very different opinion on the design- While the shoe graphic is nice, the typography doesn't suggest a seasoned designer. The inverse (white on dark) text is harder to read, and using so much of it (in body copy) is a no-no if you are designing with you reader in mind. (Stats show that people stop reading when there's too much white on dark text.) The columns of text are not lined up horizontally (each line within the column should be lined up the same as the column beside it) and missing things like capitals on the names of associations is not the work of a skilled designer. With the exception of the highly memorable for all the wrong reasons logo, I could read this whole add and totally miss the brand. Great design fuels brand recognition along with the brand story. It could absolutely be the work of a beginner with a decent design education under their belt.

  • by Chris Donnelly Thu Mar 31, 2011 via web

    p.s. re-reading my post it is clear to me why I employ copywriters!

  • by Barry Thu Mar 31, 2011 via web

    @ Peter, actually from a direct marketing perspective I think its probably an abject failure. The goal of direct marketing is not to use every trick and feature of the trade -- but to make the sale. And in this case, I would venture to say, it probably made very few.

    @Chris, I agree with you totally regarding reverse text -- but as long as the type size is not too small, and the story is compelling, readers will slog through it. In general though, I would restrict reverse text to the masthead only.

  • by Laura Jones Thu Mar 31, 2011 via web

    I agree with Craig. I'm sure the editors of the journal said the same thing about idealism and just held their nose when they accepted the insert order from the shoe company. However, someone should have caught the misspelled word "vynil" (should be vinyl) in the small type just below the toe of the shoe. Now, THAT is bad.

  • by Robert Rebholz Thu Mar 31, 2011 via web

    Whenever I see an add like this I'm always amazed when I think that at some point a room full of adults must have thought this was a good idea. Yikes!

  • by ChrisB Thu Mar 31, 2011 via web

    One wonders what possessed them to think a product could benefit from the sperm-like logo. "Oh look! You've got sperm on your shoes!" Not something I ever want to hear... And when you go to the website you realise they're actually serious - it's on all their athletic shoes, including the women's designs!

    On a design point - the execution of the sperm logo on the shoe is quite different to the rendition in the brand name. I can't imagine Nike letting that happen to their swoosh, can you?

  • by ChrisB Thu Mar 31, 2011 via web

    I missed mentioning the most bizarre point of this whole matter in my comment above. The media placement.

    What were they thinking?

    Was their media buyer on crack? Or is there some weird connection where the owners of Gravity Defyer know someone at Biblical Archeology Review who let them have the insert free?

    I'm intrigued - any chance of a follow-up with the company?

  • by Barry Thu Mar 31, 2011 via web

    Not a chance. For obvious reasons I don't think my inquiries would be welcome. But if you want to...

  • by Archie Thu Mar 31, 2011 via web

    This is a pretty standard ad of this style, but with many things wrong as you point out.

    The truth is there is far more bad advertising out there than good. Just watch local TV for an hour for proof of that!

    I want to pull you up on one thing though. It is wrong to say, as you did, that ads should never have periods in them. There are many, many very successful ads with periods in them - including perhaps the most famous print ad ever - the VW Lemon ad. One word and one period.

  • by Barry Thu Mar 31, 2011 via web

    When the period is used to make a symbolic statement -- absolutely.

  • by Daniel Thu Mar 31, 2011 via web

    I'm reading this on the 1st of April (april fools day) and seriously wondering if this ad is a joke.

    If I was purchasing shoes and saw this ad at POS I'd probably buy them just because it's so hilarious!

  • by Elizabeth Thu Mar 31, 2011 via web

    As a newcomer to internet marketing I have found some excellent points in this article that I will certainly keep in mind. Thank you Barry.
    One point that I would like to comment on is the comments that I've read so far. Technically speaking they are probably all correct but from a consumer point of view there is one thing that seems to be overlooked. There is so much text around the add that I, as a consumer, would most likely not bother to read it. A long story can be a great read when I want to relax but I wouldn't spend time on it with an ad.

  • by Barry Thu Mar 31, 2011 via web

    Well, here's the thing, Elizabeth. If you were in the market for a good pair of sneeks, and the ad's headline attracted your attention by entering into the conversation you were already having with yourself, I guarantee you would read all of it, twice.

    The purpose of any sales letter, is not to create desire, but to feed it, increase it and finally satisfy it.

  • by Elizabeth Fri Apr 1, 2011 via web

    Point taken Barry. I'll keep that in mind when I'm preparen copy.

  • by Rudiker Fri Apr 1, 2011 via web

    The only thing that is more offensive and a worse practice is really the writing of this article and the ensuing discourse.

    The truth is...the only measurement for an ad is "did it/does it work...what's it doing for the business". Not what will a particular copywriter/consultant think.

    To trash the piece based on personal opinion and without researching what it did for the sales needle, is an oversight for sure and I dare say a tad arrogant.

  • by Chris Donnelly Fri Apr 1, 2011 via web

    touche

  • by Ernest Nicastro Fri Apr 1, 2011 via web

    Nice critique, Barry. And a good example of bad advertising created by people who've never studied the basics. If you were to mention the names Claude Hopkins, John E. Kennedy, John Caples or even Bill Bernbach or Joe Sugarman...the folks who put this ad together would probably look at you like you had two heads and say: "Who are they?"

    But I've got to agree with Mr. Chris Donnelly about the design. It's not good, that reverse type was all I had to see to arrive at that judgement.

  • by Barrry Densa Fri Apr 1, 2011 via web

    While outrageous approaches may often achieve amazingly good results, those approaches will have method to their madness -- Dan Kennedy's "ugly copy" is a prime example.

    But in this ad's case, it's madness without method. It's just pure bad ad copy, results not withstanding.

  • by Ernest Nicastro Fri Apr 1, 2011 via web

    In every profession there are rules and best practices - and the seasoned, informed practitioner knows those rules. They have become rules over the course of many years of testing, results or lack thereof. The really talented know the rules and have a good sense of when breaking them can help them achieve breakthrough results. Dan Kennedy is one of these people.

    Every word of your criticism of this ad is warranted and the creator(s) of this ad - Mr. Rudiker, perhaps? - is well served by it. Only a rank amateur would sign off on this effort or criticize your criticism of it. It's pathetic for all the reasons you point out. And I have no doubt it was an abject failure.

  • by Aaron Fletcher Sat Apr 2, 2011 via web

    Ouch, how much did they pay for this ad? You forgot the single worst (and most difficult to correct) offense: using a sperm as a logo for a shoe!!!! :)

  • by Are Stegane Tue Apr 5, 2011 via web

    You are all missing the point. Did the ad sell? That's the question. As a left brain marketer I have to agree with David Ogilvy - “If it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative.”

  • by Jerry Skaw Thu Apr 7, 2011 via web

    This comment may have already been read but this ad is way too busy and WAY too much copy. An ad is not the place to tell a story. You just don't have that much of the readers's time. You tell your story through PR.

  • by Rudiker Mon Apr 11, 2011 via web

    Ernesto I was not the creator of this ad.

    Only a rank amateur or a non-marketer would critize an advertisments without knowing what the end result was.

    As I previously stated personal opinion is not the gauge of an advertisment.

    Answer me this, if this ad, with this copy and design ....sells enought to cover the insertion order and generate incremental revenue is it still a bad ad?

  • by Are Stegane Tue Apr 12, 2011 via web

    My point exactly. If the ad has a positive ROI it's a good ad and vice versa.

    PS! It is interesting to have the creator af the ad as part of the discussion. It takes the whole discussion to the right level.

  • by Barry A Densa Tue Apr 12, 2011 via web

    I think we're taking the notion that the ends justify means to an absurd level.

    If a marketer were to place an ad in a newspaper insulting Blacks, Jews, women and nearly everyone else -- solely in order to attract attention -- and not only that -- it was written by a misogynist, high school drop out, who's command of English was that of a 4th grader -- plus, he had no idea how ask for the order, much less list in coherent fashion the benefits of his product -- a happy pill that cures cancer -- and it is marketed to white supremacists who order these things by the boat load, despite all the ad's failures and shortcomings -- is it a good ad, because it made money?

    How about we put an end to this discussion as to whether criticism is valid absent conversions? Money is not the true arbiter or what is good and bad.

    Instead, let's just ask: could this ad have been greatly improved, if the criticisms I had leveled against it and the recommendations implied were heeded. The answer I think would be a resounding: absolutely!

  • by Vahe, MarketingProfs Tue Apr 12, 2011 via web

    Hi, Barry (and commenters).

    Barry, I think you're absolutely right about whether the true question is whether the ad could have been improved. Most people, including those who think the ad is OK so long as it converts, would agree that improvement is possible and your suggestions/criticisms are on point (more or less).

    But the initial part of your argument is, allow me to say, invalid because of a couple of logical fallacies. See "redcutio ad absurdum" and "slippery slope" here: http://www.theskepticsguide.org/resources/logicalfallacies.aspx .

    That's not to say I don't agree with your conclusion that profit is not the determinant of what is good.

    The various sides have raised their various arguments, and the readers can now probably make up their own mind based on those arguments. So I'd humbly suggest that we not extend this thread by arguing for argument's sake.

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments and input.

  • by chris Thu Apr 14, 2011 via web

    I think the best part is how they sell memory cards on their shoe site:http://gravitydefyer.com/Micro-SD-Memory-Card-2GB

    FAIL

  • by Ernest Nicastro Thu Apr 14, 2011 via web

    Can we all just admit that this is, by any standard, a really lame ad? Then again, maybe we're the ones that are lame and someday there will be a case study written that points to this ad as the break-the-rules, breakthrough advertising effort...that turned the advertising world on its head and launched this company's sales into the stratosphere. Heck, maybe we'll all be wearing Gravity Defyers and Nike will be out of business. You just never know.

  • by Rudiker Thu Apr 14, 2011 via web

    This has been a fun debate for sure...

    Lame ad yes, but my point throught the debate is....if lame makes the cash register ring, then lame is what you go with, until you figure our what makes it ring even more.

    We think it sucks but they may be laughing all the way to the bank. Who are we to criticize without knowing how it drives the business.

    Does anyone think the Sham-Wow commercials/info-mercials are great ad spots? Yet they work and the guy behind them has a billion dollar net worth.

  • by Barry A Densa Thu Apr 14, 2011 via web

    There's a lesson to be learned here, aside from the obvious.

    Controversy sells. This thread now has 33 comments -- 10 times more than the average article posted on MarketingProfs in the last 2 weeks, if not longer.

    If you want to attract readers to your ads/sales letters -- and deepen your reader's involvement -- a great way to do it is by making a controversial statement.

    Just don't put any sperm cells on it, unless your marketing a spermicide.

    BTW, I do think the Sham-Wows and the Snuggee ads are extremely well done -- not because they made a fortune. They were well done, and therefore made a fortune -- I mean, c'mon, a blanket with sleeves -- who in their right mind would wear that to a football game with their butt hanging out. Gee Louise!

    Yet, the ad made it irresistible.

  • by ChrisB Thu Apr 14, 2011 via web

    @chris Actually they have a host of 'gifts' that seem hilarious for a shoe company: http://gravitydefyer.com/Gifts

    It's interesting that Zappo's, which seems to sell virtually every brand under the sun, doesn't sell the Gravity Defyer brand. My money is still on the April Fool's Day prank for this one.

  • by Dennis Willis Mon Jun 6, 2011 via web

    Gravity Defyer has a facebook page. I just "liked it" so that I could post this article there. ;-) Maybe they'll tell us they are laughing all the way to the bank, maybe not.

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