Ogilvy on Advertising [Book Summary]

Ogilvy on Advertising [Book Summary]

David Ogilvy is one of the most famous advertising wizards of all time. Written in 1983, his book Ogilvy on Advertising is one of the most important reference books that we use at Binary.com to design advertising campaigns. It contains a number of easy-to-apply rules that are really well-worth learning about. You can find below a summary of the key takeaways from this important book.


How to produce advertising that sells

When I write an advertisement, I don't want you to tell me that you find it 'creative'.  I want you to find it so interesting that you buy the product.

One advertisement can sell not twice as much, not three times as much, but 19.5 times as much as another.  The wrong advertising can actually reduce the sales of a product.

  1. Do your homework.  Study the product you are going to advertise.  Study the advertising done by competitors.  Do research among the product's customers.

  2. Consider how you want to 'position' your product.  Position means 'what the product does, and who it is for'.  E.g. Is Dove a detergent bar for men with dirty hands or a toilet bar for women with dry skin?

  3. Decide what 'image' you want for your brand.  Image means personality.  It pays to give most products an image of quality.  Take whiskey: why do some people choose Jack Daniel's, while others choose Grand Dad or Taylor?  Have their tried all three and compared the taste?  Don't make me laugh.  You can't argue the customer into choosing a brand of whiskey.  You don't catch Coca-Cola advertising that Coke contains 50% more cola berries.

  4. What's the big idea?  Unless your advertising contains a big idea, it will pass like a ship in the night.  To recognise a big idea, ask yourself five questions:

  • 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?

Every Dove commercial since 1955 has promised that, "Dove doesn't dry your skin the way soap can."

  1. Make the product the hero. 

  2. You don't need to convince consumers that your product is superior to the competition.  It is sufficient to convince customers that your product is positively good.  Just say what's good about your product - and do a clearer, more honest, more informative job of saying it.  If the consumer feels certain that your product is good and feels uncertain about your competitor's, he will buy yours.

  3. Repeat your winners.  If you are lucky enough to have written a good advertisement, repeat it until it stops selling.  Research shows that readership of an advertisement does not decline when it is run several times in the same magazine.


On average, five times as many people read the headlines as read the body copy.  It follows that unless your headline sells the product, you have wasted 90% of your money.

The headlines that work best are those which promise the reader a benefit - like a whiter wash, more miles per gallon, freedom from pimples, fewer cavities.

Headlines that contain news work well (22% more than ads without news).  The news can be the announcement of a new product or an improvement in an old product.  Don't scorn tried-and-true words like amazing, introducing, now, suddenly.

Headlines that offer the reader helpful information attract above-average readership (e.g. How to Win Friends and Influence People).

Include the brand name in your headline.  If you don't, 80% of readers (who don't read the body copy) will never know what product you are advertising.

If you are advertising a product which is only bought by a small group of people, put a word in your headline that will flag them down (e.g asthma, bedwetters, women over thirty-five).

The ideal length for a headline is 10 words.

Specifics work better than generalities.

When you put your headline in quotes, you increase recall by an average of 28%.

Don't write tricky headlines (double meanings, puns).  Readers travel too fast through the jungle of a magazine.

Don't write blind headlines (that don't say what the product is, or what it will do for you).

'Headless' adverts are terrible.


The subject of your illustration is all important.  You need a remarkable idea for it.

The best photographs are those which arouse the reader's curiosity.  He thinks, "What goes on here?" Then he reads your copy to find out.

If you don't have a story to tell, make your package the subject of the illustration.

It pays to illustrate the end-result of using your product.  E.g. before-and-after photographs.

Photographs work better than drawings.

Keep your illustrations as simple as possible, with the focus of interest on one person.  Crowd scenes don't pull.

Don't show human faces enlarged bigger than life size.  They seem to repel readers.

Historical subjects bore the majority of readers.

Don't assume that subjects that interest you will necessarily interest consumers.

Photos that most interest readers are, "Babies with a heart-throb, animals with a heart-throb, and what you might call sex."

Show people of the same sex as your target consumer.  People want to see pictures of someone with whom they can identify.

Colour adverts cost 50% more than black and white, but are 100% more memorable.  A good bargain.

When you advertise products for use in cooking, you attract more readers if you show a photograph of the finished dish rather than the ingredients.

Warning:  illustrations in advertisements are often mis-understood by readers.

Writing copy

The number of people who will read your body copy will depend on (i) if they are interested in the kind of product you are advertising, and (ii) how enticed they have been by your illustration and headline.

Do not address your readers as though they are gathered together in a stadium.  When people read your copy, they are alone.  Pretend you are writing each of them a letter, one human being to another, second person singular.

Write short sentences and short paragraphsAvoid difficult words.  Copy should be written in the language people use in everyday conversation.

Don't write essays.  Tell your reader what your product will do for him or her, and tell it with specifics.  Write your copy in the form of a story.  E.g. "The amazing story of a Zippo that worked after being taken from the belly of a fish".

Avoid analogies - they are widely misunderstood.  If you write "Just as plants require moisture, so too does your skin", readers can't complete the equation.

Stay away from superlatives like "Our product is the best in the world" - it convinces nobody.

If you include a testimonial in your copy, you make it more credible.  Readers find the endorsements of fellow consumers more persuasive than the puffery of anonymous copywriters.

Testimonials from celebrities are not a good idea, because readers remember the celebrity and forget the product.  Readers also assume that the celebrity has been bought, which is usually the case.  On the other hand, testimonials from experts can be persuasive.

Markdowns and special offers are above average in recall.

Always try to include the price of your products.  You may see a necklace in a jeweler's window, but you don't consider buying it because the price is not shown and you are too shy to go in and ask.  It is the same way with advertisements.  When the price of a product is left out, people have a way of turning the page.

Long-copy sells more than short'The more facts you tell, the more you sell'.  Long copy conveys the impression that you have something important to say, whether people read the copy or not.  But you need to write it well.  In particular your first paragraph should be a grabber.  You won't hold many readers if you begin with a mushy statement of the obvious like "Going on vacation is a pleasure to which everyone looks forward."


KISS - Keep it Simple Stupid.

Readers look first at the illustration, then at the headline, then at the copy.  So put these elements in that order: illustration on top, headline under the illustration, copy under the headline.

More people read the captions under illustrations than read the body copy, so never use an illustration without putting a caption under it.  Your caption should include the brand name and the promise.

If you make your advertisement look like an editorial page, you will get more readers.  Pretend you are an editor.  Follow these editorial rules:

  • Copy has priority over illustration

  • Copy is set in serif font (easier to read than sans serif)

  • Three columns of type, 35-45 characters wide

  • Every photograph has a caption

  • The copy starts with drop-initials (they increase readership)

  • The type is set black on white (never invert, it is hard to read)

  • Adopt editorial graphics (rather than conventional graphics of advertisements)

Don't buy two-page spreads; they are self-indulgence that cost twice as much.  Better to buy twice as many ads, thereby doubling your reach.


Make your poster a 'visual scandal'.

Your poster should deliver your selling promise not only in words, but also pictorially.

Use the largest possible type.

Make your brand name visible at a long distance.

Use strong, pure colours.

Never use more than three elements in your design.

Subway adverts

Make your advert long-copy.  Passengers have nothing else to do but read your ad.


Good typography helps people read your copy.  'The eye is a creature of habit'.

Don't set your headlines in capitals.  They are harder to read.

Don't superimpose headlines on your illustration.  It makes it harder to read.

Don't put a period (full stop) at the end of the headline.  They stop the reader dead in his tracks.  Note that newspapers do not use full stops at the end of their headlines.

Don't put your copy in a measure which is too wide or too narrow to be legible.  People are accustomed to reading newspapers which are set at about 40 characters wide.

Use an easy to read typeface.  The drama should be in what you say, not the typeface.

Use serif font.  Serifs exist for a purpose: they help the eye pick up the shape of the letter.

Never set the copy in reverse (white on black background) - it is almost impossible to read.

If you set very long copy, follow these rules:

  1. A subhead of two lines, between your headline and your body copy, heightens the reader's appetite for the feast to come.

  2. If you start your body copy with a drop-initial, you increase readership by 13%.

  3. Limit your opening paragraph to a maximum of 11 words.

  4. After two or three inches of copy, insert a cross-head, and thereafter throughout.  Cross-heads keep the reader marching forward.  Make some of them interrogative, to excite curiosity in the next run of copy.

  5. Don't square up paragraphs.  Widows (short lines) increase readership.

  6. Set key paragraphs in bold face or italic.

  7. Help the reader into your paragraphs with arrowheads, bullets, asterisks, and marginal marks.

  8. If you have a lot of unrelated facts to recite, don't use cumbersome connectives.  Simply number them - as I am doing here.

  9. Use 11-point type; it's just the right size.

  10. If you use leading (line-spacing) between paragraphs, you increase readership by 12%.

TV commercials

Here are 10 kinds of commercial that are above average in their ability to change people's brand preference:

  1. Humour.  Humour can sell, but very few writers can write funny commercials which are funny, so unless you are one of the few, don't try.

  2. Slice of life.  Two actors argue about the merits of a product, and in the end the doubter is converted - your toothpaste really does give children healthier teeth.

  3. Testimonials.  Loyal users of your product testifying to its virtues - when they don't know they are being filmed.  Avoid polished performances that would make viewers think they are professional actors.  The more amateurish the performance, the more credible.  Unusual characters are best (e.g. French agency that picked an 80-year old wrinkled old woman).

  4. Demonstrations that show how well your product performs.  Demonstration don't have to be dull (e.g. demonstrate the strength of a glue by applying it to the announcer's shoes and hanging him upside down from the ceiling - from which position he delivers the sales pitch).  Don't name competing brands - it's less believable and more confusing, and viewers can come away with the impression that the brand which you disparage is the hero of your commercial.

  5. Problem solution.  Show the viewer a problem with which he or she is familiar, and then show how your product can solve it.

  6. Talking heads.  A pitchman extolling the virtues of a product (like a door-to-door salesman).

  7. Characters.  A character becomes the living symbol of your product and is used repeatedly over a number of years.

  8. Reason why. Giving the viewer a rational reason why they should buy your product (e.g. buy Maxim Instant Coffee because it is freeze-dried).

  9. News.  You can also create news by advertising a new way to use your product.

  10. Emotion.  Nostalgia, charm, sentimentality.  But don't attempt emotion unless you can deliver it.  And also include a rational excuse to justify emotional decisions.

Here are two types of commercial that are however below-average:

  1. Testimonials by celebrities.  Viewers guess that the celebrity has been bought. They also remember the celebrity but not the product.

  2. Cartoons can sell to children but not to adults.  They don't hold the viewer as well as live action, and they are less persuasive.

11 tips for designing commercials:

  1. Brand identification.  A shocking percentage of viewers remember your commercial but forget the name of your product, or attribute it to a competing brand.  Use the brand name in the first 10 seconds.  Repeat it.

  2. Show the package.  End the commercial by showing the package.

  3. Food in motion.  In commercials for food, food in motion looks more appetizing.

  4. Close-ups.  The closer you get on the candy bar, the more you make people's mouths water.

  5. Open with the fire.  You have only 30 seconds.  Grab attention in the first frame with a visual surprise.  When you advertise fire-extinguishers, open with the fire.

  6. Sound effects.  Sound effects - such as sausages sizzling in a frying pan - can make a positive difference.

  7. Voice-over or on-camera?  It is more difficult to hold your audience if you use voice-over.  It is better to have the actors talk on camera.

  8. Supers.  It pays to reinforce your promise by setting it in type and superimposing it over the video while your soundtrack speaks the words.  But make sure that the words in your supers are exactly the same as your spoken words (any divergence confuses the viewers).

  9. Avoid visual banality.  If you want the viewer to pay attention to your commercial, show her something she has never seen before.  You won't have much success if you show her sunsets and happy families at the dinner table.

  10. Show the product in use, and if possible the end result of using it.

  11. Beware of miscomprehension.  Make your commercial crystal clear.


For most people, radio has become no more than a security blanket, a reassuring noise in the background.

Radio advert tips:

  • Identify your brand early in the commercial. Identify it often.

  • Promise the listener a benefit early in the commercial. Repeat it often.

  • The first thing your radio commercial has to do is to get people to listen.  Surprise them.  Arouse their curiosity.  Wake them up.  Once they are awake, talk to them as one human being to another.  Involve them.  Charm them.  Make them laugh.

Direct mail

In direct mail, testing is the name of the game.  The most important things to test are:

  • The positioning of your product
  • Pricing
  • Terms of payment
  • Premiums
  • The format of your mailing.

Use long-copy.

Direct response advertising in magazines and television

  • Long-copy sells more than short-copy.  Only amateurs use short copy.

  • Cross-heads give breathing space to your copy and make it more readable.  They should be written in such a way that skimmers get the main points of your sales story.

  • Testimonials increase credibility - and sales (but don't use testimonials from celebrities).

  • Short words are best.

  • Set your copy in black type on white paper.

  • Readers often skip from the headline to the coupon, to find out what your offer is.  So make your coupons mini-ads, complete with brand name, promise, and a miniature photograph of your product.

  • Many readers tell themselves they will mail the coupon 'later' but never get round to it.  So mention 'limited edition', 'limited supply', 'last time at this price', 'special price for promptness'.

  • Tidy, well organized layouts increase coupon returns.

Where to advertise

Watch the media your competitors use, in particular the media they continue to use.


Here are the miracles that research can do for you:

  1. Research can measure the reputation of your company.

  2. Research can get consumer reactions to a new product when it is still in the conceptual state.

  3. Research can tell you how consumers rate your product. If they find it inferior, send it back to your R&D people.

  4. Research can tell you what formulation, flavour, fragrance, and colour will appeal to most.

  5. Research can find out which of several package designs will sell best.  Whilst you're at it, find out if people can open your package.

  6. Research can help you decide the optimum positioning for your product.

  7. Research can define your target audience.  Men or women. Young or old. Education. Lifestyle.

  8. Research can find out what factors are most important in the purchase decision, and what vocabulary consumers use when talking about your product.

  9. Research can determine what 'line extension' is likely to sell best (i.e. back-end marketing products).

  10. Research can determine the most persuasive promiseAdvertising which promises no benefit to the consumer does not sell, yet the majority of campaigns contain no promise whatsoever.  Your headline must contain the promise.  Find a promise that is not only persuasive, but also unique.

  11. Research can tell you which of several premiums will work best.  Shell tests 35 different premiums and found that steak knives won.

  12. Research can tell you whether your advertising communicates what you want it to communicate. 'When you say something, make sure you have said it. The chances of your having said it are only fair.'

  13. Research can measure the wear-out of your advertising.

  14. Research can tell you how many people read your advertisements and how many remember them.


New products.  You can judge the vitality of a company by the number of new products it brings to market.

Naming your product.  There are three kinds of names:

  1. Names of men and women - FORD, CAMPBELL - they are memorable, difficult to copy, and they suggest that your product is the invention of a human being.

  2. Meaningless names - KODAK, KOTEX - it takes many years and millions of dollars to endow them with any sales appeal.

  3. Descriptive names - THREE-IN-ONE OIL, BAND-AID - such names start with sales appeal, but they are too specific to be used for subsequent line-extensions.

Don't waste time on problem babies.  Don't spend time or money worrying how to revive products which are in trouble.  Concentrate your time, brains and advertising money on your successesBack your winners and abandon your losers.

Beware of promotions.  Sales are a function of product value and advertising.  Promotions cannot produce more than a temporary kink in the sales curve.  A cut-price offer can induce people to try a brand, but they return to their habitual brands as if nothing had happened.  Concentrate on advertising instead - building the most sharply defined image for your product.

Keep your eyes glued on the heavy users.  20% of your clients will consume 80% of your product.  They are unlike occasional users in their motivations.

The task of advertising is not primarily one of conversion (to your brand) but rather of reinforcement and assurance.  Sales of a given brand may be increased without converting the brand to any new consumers, but merely by inducing its existing users to use it more frequently.

Always hold your sales meetings in rooms too small for the audience.  'Standing room only' creates an atmosphere of success while a half-empty auditorium smells of failure.