It’s a deceptively simple question, isn’t it (the one in the headline, I mean, not this one)?
Show people an ad and they will instantly come to a decision about whether it is “good” or not.
Funnily enough, copywriters and designers often have the same sort of knee-jerk reactions as lay people do. These can be summed up, as:
“I like it.”
“I hate it.”
From these personal judgements, which are purely subjective and largely aesthetic, we move, seamlessly, to a value judgement:
“It’s a good ad.”
“It’s a bad ad.”
Does this mean, taking the positive case, for example,
“I like it and therefore it’s a good ad”?
Or does it mean, “It’s a good ad and therefore I like it”?
Both positions beg the question, “What is a good ad?”.
Suppose you see an ad that’s been posted on Twitter. No commentary, no linked blog post. Just the ad.
You were involved neither in its creation, placement or measurement.
What criteria do you have available by which to judge whether it is good or not?
You have the virtual two-dimensional representation of its surface and that’s it.
Liking/disliking something is an emotional reaction. Either it arouses a pleasurable response in our brains or one of displeasure.
If we believe that a certain way of writing or designing ads is best, then we will perceive an ad conforming to those strictures as “good”. It reinforces our beliefs.
Additionally, we may believe in a school of advertising design/writing that places emphasis on aesthetics. Perhaps the designer has employed the Golden Mean in composing the layout. Perhaps the writer has echoed the metre of Shakespeare, or Brett Easton Ellis.
Then the ad will trigger a basic pleasure response because we are wired to respond to these basic principles of aesthetics.
Even if we don’t follow an aesthetic school, there is still positive reinforcement of our beliefs.
An ad that seems to run counter to those beliefs will evoke feelings of displeasure: it will seem ugly, or even hateful.
But liking something is not the same as declaring it good.
So we are using “It’s a good ad” as a proxy phrase for “I like it”.
How, then, might we arrive at a more nuanced view of whether an ad is “good”?
We might try to understand its purpose and then assess its performance against its purpose.
Imagine we were talking about kettles, rather than ads.
A kettle that heated water to a maximum of 99 degrees Celsius would not be a good kettle. To be a good kettle it would have to hit 100 degrees Celsius. This would be true regardless of its aesthetic appeal.
So, might an ad created to sell stairlifts to elderly people, which used thousands of words in a tight, three-column grid with no white space, a tiny logo and a benefits-driven headline, be considered good if it led to increased sales of stairlifts? Yes, it might.
But even here, what do we mean by “good”? Would “effective” be a better word?
Is an ad that leads to increased sales of landmines a good ad?
If you believe that capitalism and free-market economics are morally good things then virtually all ads would be good because they contribute to the effective functioning of the market.
I have spent most of my career as a copywriter trying to wean myself, my employers and my clients off the notion that ads are good or bad. These are aesthetic judgements at best and moral judgements at worst, and neither contributes greatly to improving advertising performance.
Far better to gather evidence of how the ad performed against its stated purpose and use that as a yardstick, not of whether it was good or not, but of whether it worked.