When I write an advertisement, I don’t want you to find it ‘creative.’ I want you to find it so interesting that you buy the product.”

Those are the words of advertising legend David Ogilvy, right out of his book Ogilvy on Advertising first published in 1985.

Lately, I’ve been spending some time on reading the advertising classics and discovered that what the agency gurus told 40 or 50 years ago is still relevant today. Even more so, it seems like many modern marketers have forgotten some of the core principles of great advertising.

ogilvy on advertising

These cult ads would still work today

According to R. Reeves, out of 78 biggest package-goods advertisers in the US, some ads were recalled by 78% of people while others by a mere 2%.

If your advertising fails to get the message to the heads of people, your money’s wasted. And this is happening to millions of advertisers every day.

Having worked through two cult marketing books – Ogilvy on Advertising by David Ogilvy and Reality in Advertising by Rosser Reeves, I feel like I’ve been to the best marketing conference of my life – there are so many applicable takeaways.

All the best practices, research findings, and recommendations by the two advertising legends are still relevant today. Even more so, many marketers seem to have forgotten the core principles of marketing.

Just take a look at these 18 golden rules of advertising and remind yourself how to create ads that do not fail.

1. You need to know your USP

USP, a term coined by Rosser Reeves, signifies the Unique Selling Proposition. Both Ogilvy and Reeves believed that having a strong USP is the key to successful advertising.

According to Ogilvy, writing a good advertisement starts by studying the product – you need to know what makes it beneficial to its users and different from the competition.

Reeves explained that your USP has three parts:

  1. Each advertisement must make a proposition to the consumer.
    Not just words, not just product puffery, not just show-window advertising. Each advertisement must say to each reader: “Buy this product, and you will get this specific benefit.
  2. The proposition must be one that the competition either cannot, or does not, offer.
    It must be unique – either a uniqueness of the brand or a claim not otherwise made in that particular field of advertising.
  3. The proposition must be so strong that it can move the mass of millions.
    Your advertisements should pull over a large number of new customers to your product.
Ogilvy ad example

This ad was written by Ogilvy himself

For example, the ad above proposes a clear value offer: Save money by shopping at Sears.

So how can you find the best USP?

2. Research your product and users

The way Ogilvy came up with the advertising copy for Sears was by researching what people thought about the company.

When research reported that the average shopper thought Sears Roebuck made a profit of 37 per cent on sales, Ogilvy headlined an advertisement Sears makes a profit of 5 per cent.

This specific number was more persuasive than saying that Sears’ profit was “less than you might suppose” or something equally vague. Sometimes, it’s worth mentioning specifics.

With all the modern surveying tools, asking for your users’ feedback is easier than ever before. Use that opportunity to learn what makes people buy your product.

3. If you don’t have a strong USP, do this

Most advertisements have interchangeable parts – you could just as well insert a competitor’s name in your ads.

This means that you don’t have a USP that’s limited to only your product.

If that’s the case, Reeves suggested two solutions:

  1. The product could be changed/improved to have a USP.
  2. If the product can’t be changed, it’s possible to tell the public something about that product that has never been revealed before.

Here’s one of the advertisements that Ogilvy created for the Campbell’s – it’s showing the product from a completely new side.

Ogilvy on advertising

Look for new angles

Do not forget that your Unique Selling Proposition has to be relevant to the audience.

Sometimes, a cool product feature that seems amazing to you does not appeal to your customers.

You could argue that Ogilvy’s ad is focused on an irrelevant USP. However, if you give it some more thought, the USP is not that the soup can be served cold. The core USP of the advertisement is that the product’s easy to consume – and that’s relevant to millions of consumers.

4. Your advertisement needs one big idea

I recommend that you read the following quote at least twice.

“Be cautious, in the course of adding secondary claims, that a distraction claim does not suddenly crystallize, i.e. a second claim which sucks power away from your USP.”

– R. Reeves

A consumer tends to remember just one thing from an advertisement – one strong claim, or one strong concept.

If you’re advertising more than one benefit, chances are that people don’t either remember any of them or develop their own reaction.

Focus on one main USP

Focus on one main USP

As Reeves put it:

“The advertisement may have said five, ten, or fifteen things, but the consumer will tend to pick out just one, or else, in a fumbling, confused way, he tries to fuse them together into a concept of his own.”

So instead of listing three or more product benefits, find the one that truly matters to people and advertise the hell out of it.

5. How to recognize a strong USP?

How to tell a strong USP from a week one?

For one, a strong USP will sell your product times more than any irrelevant message.

Ogilvy also suggested that your advertisement has to contain a big idea. Ask yourself:

  • Did it make me gasp when I first saw it?
  • Do I wish I had thought of it myself?
  • Is it unique?
  • Does it fit the strategy to perfection?
  • Could it be used for 30 years?

For example, the legendary Lucky Strike ads used USP “It’s toasted” – and used it in consecutive campaigns for many years.

However, don’t focus on minuscule differences. Reever called this “The Deceptive Differential.”

unique selling proposition example

Simple yet strong USP

Another interesting fact about “It’s toasted” message is that back then, Lucky Strike wasn’t nearly the only cigarette company selling toasted tobacco.

Which leads us to the next point…

6. You can “acquire” any general USP

According to R. Reeves, the advertiser to first use a Unique Selling Proposition will own that USP.

“Can those USPs be stolen by competitors? – No. Studies of great numbers of brand histories show that the first big advertiser can pre-empt the USP. He is the pioneer, and, protected by his penetration bulwark. Thus, the USP becomes his property.”

R. Reeves

Lucky Strike owned a general USP. And so did Colgate with their ads saying “Cleans your breath while it cleans your teeth.”

Colgate vintage advertisement

Colgate owned a simple value proposition

Some time later, one of Colgate’s competitors ran an advertising with the message “Freshens your breath while it cleans your teeth – because it has a special mouthwash built in!”

Here’s what happened:

ogilvy on advertising

The competitior’s campaign failed miserably

Now may also be a good time to reflect on your advertising messages and think whether they truly belong to your brand or you’re just repeating your competitors’ USP.

7. If you find a USP that works, keep repeating it

If you’re lucky enough to write a good advertisement, repeat it until it stops selling.

According to Reeves, research shows that the readership of an advertisement does not decline when it is run several times in the same magazine.

Readership remains at the same level throughout at least four repetitions. “You aren’t advertising to a standing army; you are advertising to a moving parade.”

In fact, changing your USP too often can have a damaging effect on your brand recognition and sales.

Take a look at the case study below.

rosser reeves book

Don’t mess around with a USP that works

Look at this way: You shouldn’t change your USP while it’s working, but this doesn’t mean that you can’t change your advertisements.

You can create different ads, both in design and copy, until they all reinforce your core USP.

8. Your competitors using a consistent USP will outgrow you

According to Reeves, three great basic principles of advertising reality emerged from their research:

  1. Changing a story has the same effect as stopping the money, as far as penetration is concerned.
  2. Thus, if you ran a brilliant campaign every year, but change it every year, your competitor can pass you with a campaign that is less brilliant – providing he does not change his copy.
  3. Unless a product becomes outmoded, a great campaign will not wear itself off.

“Recently, we watched the drama of an advertiser who had 65% penetration on a powerful, sales-winning theme. Then he changed campaigns. In eighteen months his hard-won 65% penetration had dropped to 2.2% – in other words, had almost vanished entirely.”
R. Reeves

If the campaign has really worn itself out, one of two things will happen:

  • People’s awareness of your USP will drop.
  • The public would cease to respond to the message, and your sales volumes will fall.

Often, when a new brand with a strong USP enters the market, leading competitors panic and start changing their own campaigns. That’s the worst idea.

9. There’s only so much room in people’s heads

Or, if you wish, there’s only so much love in people’s hearts for brands in the same vertical.

Reeves’ research team found that as your branded message becomes increasingly known, the USPs of your competitors fade from people’s minds.

“There is a finite limit to what a consumer can remember about 30,000 advertised brands,” Reeves said. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of brands advertising.

reality in advertising book

If more people like your product, they’ll forget about competition


“It’s as if he [the consumer] carries a small box in his head for a given product category. This box is limited either by his inability to remember or his lack of interest.”
– R. Reeves

10. Ogilvy on creating great advertisements

According to Ogilvy, the easiest way to get new clients is to do good advertising.

Easier said than done.

Here are some key takeaways from Ogilvy’s research into what makes some advertisements succeed while others fail.

  • Images of finished dishes consistently attracted more readers than photographs of the raw ingredients. In a study of 70 campaigns whose sales results were known, Gallup did not find a single before-and-after campaign that didn’t increase sales.
  • Images with an element of “story appeal” were far above average in attracting attention.
  • The kind of photographs that work hardest are those which arouse the reader’s curiosity.


Ogilvy vintage ad

A legendary Paco Rabanne ad


  • Create ads that people can relate to. When you show a photograph of a woman, men will ignore your ad.
  • Most copywriters believe that markdowns and special offers are boring, but customers don’t think so. They are above average in recall.

READ MORE: 12 Hidden Facebook Features 95% of Marketers Don’t Know

11. Make your ads effortlessly readable

One of the golden rules of advertisement design is: Don’t capitalize your headlines.

If you look at the ads in the magazine next to you, you’ll be surprised how many marketers mistake against this rule.

A professor at Stanford established that capitals retard reading – capitalized words tend to be read letter by letter.

Here’s another important rule: Don’t put a period at the end of headlines – they’ll stop the reader from reading more.

Don’t set your copy in reverse type – with white letters on a black background. It’s more difficult to read.

advertising rules

Black on white or white on black?

Black type on a white background is easier to read than copy set in reverse type. So think twice before you set your ad copy on a colourful background.

12. Make your product the hero of your advertising

Often, advertisers make the mistake of creating a vampire video – a video that takes away attention from your USP.

According to Reeves, “One wrong picture can steal a hundred words.”

Here’s a best practice that applies to all types of advertisements: Make sure your message and visuals match.

If the message says: “This tablet dissolves into 10,000 tiny bubbles,” show the tablet dissolving into 10,000 tiny bubbles. Make sure your videos interpret your USP.

Do not create ads that steal the attention from your USP.

example of bad advertisement

Advertisement gone bad

Here’s another interesting takeaway from Ogilvy: Advertisements with testimonials by celebrities tend to underperform.

Viewers will know the celebrity has been bought and they will remember the celebrity instead of the product advertised.

Here’s another important thing to keep in mind: Do not advertise your competitor’s USP, not to spean of their brand names.

If there’s a comparison with the competitor, they do not mention their name, but say “another leading detergent,” etc.

13. Headline is the most important part of your ad

A Harvard professor used to begin his series of lectures with a sentence that took his students by the throat: “Cesare Borgia murdered his brother-in-law for the love of his sister, who was the mistress of their father – the Pope.”

– A passage from Ogilvy’s book

On average, five times as many people read the headlines as read the body copy.

Unless your headline sells your product, you have wasted 90% of your money. The headlines that work best are the ones that promise the reader a benefit.

If you have any news to tell, don’t hide it in the body copy. Say it in the headline.

Include your brand name in the headline – otherwise, 80 per cent of people who won’t read your body copy will never know what product you’re advertising.

Ogilvy ad example

Headlines don’t necessarily have to be short

According to Ogilvy, some copywriters write “tricky” headlines – double meanings, puns, etc. This is counter-productive. Your headline should telegraph what you want to say.

Moreover, your ad copy should be written in the language people use in everyday conversation. Avoid analogies as they are often misunderstood.

14. Use the right advertisement layout

Ogilvy’s research showed that readers first look at the illustration, then at the headline, then at the copy.

So put these elements in that order – illustration at the top, followed by bu the headline.

On average, headlines below the illustration are read by 10 per cent more people than headlines above the illustration.

correct ad layout

First image, then copy

Here’s another interesting takeaway from Reeves:

Two-spread magazine ads cost twice as much as single pages, but seldom get twice the readership, or pull twice as many coupons.

You could double the reach or frequency of your campaigns by using single-page ads. So think twice before creating two-spread magazine ads.

15. How to create video ads that sell

In his book, Ogilvy has devoted an entire chapter to video advertisements.

Here are the key takeaways from his years of practice and research:

  • When doing video ads, mention your product multiple times to make people remember it.
  • Show the packaging and the product. Commercials which end by showing the package are more effective in changing brand preference than commercials which don’t.
  • Try to grab the viewer’s attention during the first seconds of your ad.
  • Research shows that it’s more difficult to hold your audience if you use voiceover. It is better to have the actors talk on camera.

16. How to succeed in B2B advertising

If you’re in the B2B marketing space, you’ll love the following guidelines:

  • Promise what is important to the customer – a supplier of computer software was proud of the size of his company and wanted to make it the feature of his advertising, but research found that his customers were not interested in size. They were looking for responsiveness, support, service – and a good product.
  • Make your promise specific. Instead of generalities, use percentages, time elapsed, dollars saved.
b2b advertising rules

Make your B2B ad USPs highly specific

  • Testimonials work well, as long as they come from experts in reputable companies.
  • Even if you think your product boring, it’s not boring to your potential buyers – there’s no need to advertise irrelevant images.
  • Don’t be afraid of long copy – if that’s what it takes to explain your product.

Fun fact: Ogilvy was running content marketing ads to get new customers. 60 years ago!!

Ogilvy's version of content marketing

Ogilvy’s version of content marketing

17. How to advertise like TOP consumer brands

Here are Ogilvy’s key takeaways from analyzing big advertisers’ campaigns, e.g. Procter & Gamble.

There’s a lot you can learn from them.

  • They always promise the consumer one important benefit.
  • They believe that the first duty of advertising is to communicate effectively, not to be original or entertaining.
  • They measure communication in three stages: before the copy is written, after the commercials are produced, and in test markets.
  • All their commercials include a “moment of confirmation.” E.g. a demonstration how a cleaning product absorbs more liquid.


Vintage ads by Tide

Vintage ads by Tide

  • Their commercials talk straight to the consumer, using language and situations that are familiar to them.
  • Often, they also show their users some emotional benefit derived from the product – “You’ll be more appreciated if you use Dash.”

18. How to reach the largest audience for your budget?

Is it better to reach a smaller audience, yet reach it more times? Or is it better to reach a bigger audience – yet reach it less often?

Here’s Reeves’ answer – buy dispersion. Try to reach more homes, not the same homes.

Reach your audience less often, but make it as large an audience as you can. (This is especially relevant for consumer products that have a wide potential user base.)

This also applies to digital advertising – e.g. try to reach a wider audience with your Facebook ads rather than show the same ad to the same people for more than 3 times.

Final takeaways

Here are five more amazing quotes from Ogilvy and Reeves that you should remember whenever creating new advertisements.

Don’t create ads that are window dressers – the ads that merely show your product without the USP. – R. Reeves

If the product does not meet some existing desire or need of the consumer, the advertising will ultimately fail. – R. Reeves

If it doesn’t sell, it’s not “creative. – D.Ogilvy

The most dangerous word in advertising is… originality. – R. Reeves

Advertising is the art of getting a unique selling proposition into the heads of the most people at the lowest possible cost. – R. Reeves

– – – – – – –

Ogilvy’s book was first published in 1983 and Reeves’ even sooner, in 1961. It is amazing how the best practices in use back then have made their way into modern advertising.

Everything you read in this article can be applied to your Facebook advertising campaigns, Instagram ads or email marketing funnels. So take one hour and go over all your current advertisements, looking if they have a clear USP and whether they follow the basic best practices.

You might be surprised by your findings.

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