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Advertising 101: The "Do I Give a ****" Test

"Hey, seen that latest GM ad ... ?"

I'm standing in the train with weekend warriors, and the conversation is about ads. Usually seated, suited and sullen during their daily commute, today they're hanging off the pole in biking gear, yammering about the 30 seconds they pressed MUTE on last night.

"I know they turned themselves around, but the ad's enough to make me throw up," says Fred.

He's not talking about a wonky car ad made with switchback-cam, but the one starring Ed Whitacre walking and talking about GM. As Slate pointed out, featuring the Big Cheese is getting popular.

"Hey, what about the ad with the blonde in the suit who floats out between two panels talking about 'the new oil'?"

Collective groans.

From loitering in adland with intent I know one thing: ads are expensive. Big ass humming trailers, 500 watt lights, gourmet lunch spreads on the pavement, lots of people running around with clipboards, board meetings, claustrophobic studios, Powerpoint rationales, and loads of overwrought revisions. And lots and lots of hangers on.

What's the end result? Millions of dollars later, something roundly lampooned by consumers standing in trains.

"It's like throwing a mil off the top of a roof," said one straphanger.

Go to your laptop and Google "ads are boring."

As the hits show, people are annoyed by Blandads— bland, boring ads.

Even worse, people are annoyed by the heightened volume of ads— go and google "TV ads too loud" and marvel at the results.

Why do companies continue to commit the felony of blasting us with blandads?

I'm not sure who is in charge of the master volume control, but as far as the ad itself goes, the single most useful test I learned in adland was the "Do I Give a ****?" test.

Put more politely (for 'merican audiences), it's the "Do I Care?" test.

It's really simple. Forget research groups sitting in boardrooms plied with chip'n'dip and the lure of forty bucks. This test is best done by the CEO, and the filing clerk, and maybe one other person standing in front of you in the bagel line. How about the janitor (didn't someone in a modest role suggest an extra hole in the top of the baby powder can would sell more product?)

So, Mr. CEO, get your team to put together a typical segment of ad-smattered evening viewing with your proposed ad inserted in the mix. Put on your slippers and robe, grab a beer glass or soda.

Sit comfortably in front of TV. Hold the remote in one hand, finger poised over the MUTE or CHANNEL button—just like us, your customers. You're not the CEO. You don't work for your company.

Now pay close attention to the ads as they pop up. For each one, ask yourself,


When your own proposed ad comes up, be honest now. Ask yourself,


If the answer is no, you better believe that none of us will either. Not only will we not care, we will diss you mercilessly and mock your product while standing in bagel lines at barbecues and ballgames all over the country. We will hit the MUTE or CHANNEL button so hard it will break and Radio Shack China will be rejoicing.

Don't forget to apply the DO I CARE? test to music and voice over too—the same ole same ole sound of an ad will not make us turn to face the TV as we raid the fridge.

So what kind of ad should you be doing these days, if at all?

According to Storyworldwide, an agency that clearly understands we're all tired of ads in their present form:

Intrusion is dead. High impact, engaging content is the only way to reach ever more cynical consumers.

The clearly fed-up-with-ads CEO Kirk Cheyfitz expands on this.

So how to create "high impact, engaging content"?

I'm not talking about the zillions of lame e-articles clogging the Web, created purely for raking in as many Google Ad-cents as possible. I'm talking about content that people want to read and can't help remembering, like a song stuck in your head.

First, apply the Do I Care test.

Second, look what's happening on either side of the commercial breaks.

The wildly successful Undercover Boss is a great example. People loved seeing the boss step out of the corporate machine and Just Like Us, get down on his knees and scrub, baby, scrub.

What a story—and an incredible non-ad for that waste management company - which memorably calls itself Waste Management. Despite the formulaic tv-land delivery it is content you can believe in - especially when they included a drone or two who looked like he wasn't quite with the newly enlightened boss's program. 

Now imagine if instead, they'd featured the CEO floating out between two digital panels with hands clasped, simpering about the company's latest eco-techniques? Hello, fridge, who carpeted the cheese?

What makes great ad content these days is a whole other blog post, but suffice to say I have encountered few oddballs who relish blandads, and absolutely no one who likes them blasted at a louder volume than the surrounding program. So if you're going to shout at us, you'd better be good.

Try the "Who gives a ****?" test on your ad today. You'll be so glad—or maybe mad—that you did.

Cannes award-winning adwriter (if you happen to give a **** about awards) the Galfromdownunder insists the most convincing ads are the little anecdotes broadcast at a normal speaking volume while standing in a line for bagels or the restroom or in a subway car. The shirt touts of Asia are of course, experts at this cheap, non-intrusive, centuries-old advertising technique.

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  • Melanie Wood

    I agree fully.
    For me, the “Do I care?” comes when an ad can show me something I’ve seen before in a new way. High impact and engaging can be as simple as turning something 45 degrees the way they did back in 2008 with “New Diamond Shreddies". The campaign billboard stopped me, literally on the side of the road, the first time I saw it with its simple brilliance. It was cheeky and funny because I knew I wasn’t looking at a new product. I was looking at a new way of looking at it (the urban legend is that an agency intern thought it up). Not only were people talking about the product but they were also engaged in the whole debate of “square vs. diamond.” The whole campaign went on to win the 2008 Grand Clio Award for Integrated Campaign and served to spark a lot of conversations. And isn’t that what we really want to do?

  • Andy Heath

    I have to agree with Merl.
    Interestingly the link to World of Fire won't show here - "This video contains content from Vevo, who has blocked it in your country on copyright grounds. " but I found it somewhere else.

    What's wrong with million dollar ads ? They're about you and your product - as *you* see it, what you want to sell. The very way they have to be produced means they have to be that way. But that focus is too narrow. You want to sell to me ? Try talking with me about what I need. Merl's second link makes the same point (in my view of things). The choice is to have a narrow focus on *your* thing or a much broader focus that looks at the whole picture, the relationships we are all in, how we all feel - its about having a relationship with your customers. It *has* to be about the customers NOT just the product.

    Products, companies that design and make them, customers that consume them, the environment - all these things and everything else is in relationship not existing alone so you better think of your products AND your customers and all the other factors that way not in isolation.

    Your wealth exists in relationships. Think that way and you won't be poor in any sense.


  • Merl Ledford

    Cut the million dollar ads and invest in relationships.

    Sarah McLachlan's video of "World on Fire" sums it current attitudes toward over-the-top, slick ad "campaigns": (BTW: why is it always a war word that the marketers use to describe their programs to increase awareness of a good or service?)

    Today's marketing begins and ends with successful relationships. RELATIONSHIPS>INTEREST>INVESTMENT>COMMITMENT, multiplying the effect of a brand evangelist by thousands of fan-boy/gal buyers. Apple is a great example. Want that kind of market cap? Cut the million dollar ads and invest instead in building relationships.