Jeff Zych

How to Write Effective Advertisements, according to David Ogilvy

David Ogilvy is known as the “Father of Advertising.” He earned that moniker by pioneering the use of research to come up with effective ads and measure their impact. This was decades before the internet and the deluge of data we have available to us now. I can only imagine how much more potent he would be today.

He breaks down his methods in his book Ogivly on Advertising, which is just as relevant today as it was when it was written in 1983. Since I’ve found his techniques useful, I’m publishing my notes here so I can easily refer back to them and share them.

How to Write Headlines That Sell

Headlines are the most important part of your advertisements. According to research done by Ogilvy, “five times as many people read the headlines as read the body copy. It follows that unless your headline sells your product, you have wasted 90 per cent of your money.”

  • Promise a benefit. Make sure the benefit is important to your customer. For example, “whiter wash, more miles per gallon, freedom from pimples, fewer cavities.”
    • Make it persuasive, and make it unique. Persuasive headlines that aren’t unique, which your competitors can claim, aren’t effective.
  • Make it specific. Use percentages, time elapsed, dollars saved.
  • Personalize it to your audience, such as the city they’re in. (Or the words in their search query)
  • Include the brand and product name.
  • Make it as long or as short as it needs to be. Ogilvy’s research found that, “headlines with more than ten words get less readership than short headlines. On the other hand, a study of retail advertisements found that headlines of ten words sell more merchandise than short headlines. Conclusion: if you need a long headline, go ahead and write one, and if you want a short headline, that’s all right too.”
  • Make it clear and to the point, not clever or tricky.
  • Don’t use superlatives like, “Our product is the best in the world.” Market researcher George Gallup calls this “Brag and Boast.” They convince nobody.

Ideas for Headlines

  • Headlines that contain news are surefire. The news can be announcing a new product, or a new way to use an existing product. “And don’t scorn tried-and-true words like amazing, introducing, now, suddenly.”
  • Include information that’s useful to the reader, provided the information involves your product.
  • Try including a quote, such as from an expert or customers.

How to Write Persuasive Body Copy

According to Ogilvy, body copy is seldom read by more than 10% of people. But the 10% who read it are prospects. What you say determines the success of your ad, so it’s worth spending the time to get it right.

  • Address readers directly, as if you are speaking to them. "One human being to another, second person singular.”
  • Write short sentences and short paragraphs. Avoid complicated words. Use plain, everyday language.
  • Don’t write long-winded, philosophical 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. The headline can be a hook.
  • Avoid analogies. People often misunderstand them.
  • Just like with headlines, stay away from superlatives like, “Our product is the best in the world.”
  • Use testimonials from customers or experts (also known as “social proof”). Avoid celebrity testimonials. Most people forget the product and remember the celebrity. Further, people assume the celebrity has been bought, which is usually true.
  • Coupons and special offers work.
  • Always 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 the product is left out, people have a way of turning the page.”
  • Long copy sells more than short. “I believe, without any research to support me, that advertisements with long copy convey the impression that you have something important to say, whether people read the copy or not.”
  • Stick to the facts about what your product is and can do.
  • Make the first paragraph a grabber to draw people into reading your copy.
  • Sub-headlines make copy more readable and scannable.
  • People often skip from the headline to the coupon to see the offer, so make the coupons mini-ads, complete with brand name, promise, and a mini photo of the product.
  • To keep prospects on the hook, try “limited edition,” “limited supply,” “last time at this price,” or “special price for promptness.”

Suggestions for Images

After headlines, images are the most important part of advertisements. They draw people in. Here’s what makes imagery effective:

  • The best images arouse the viewer’s curiosity. They look at it and ask, “What’s going on here?” This leads them to read the copy to find out. This is called “Story Appeal.”
  • If you don’t have a good story to tell, make your product the subject.
  • Show the end result of using your product. Before-and-after photographs are highly effective.
  • Photographs attract more readers, are more believable, and better remembered than illustrations.
  • Human faces that are larger than life size repel readers. Don’t use them.
  • Historical subjects bore people.
  • If your picture includes people, it’s most effective if it uses people your audience can identify with. Doctors if you’re trying to sell to doctors, men if you’re trying to appeal to men, and so on.
  • Include captions under your photographs. More people read captions than body copy, so make the caption a mini-advertisement.


  • 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.” This also follows the normal order of scanning.
  • More people read captions of images than body copy, so always include a caption under it. Captions should be mini-advertisements, so include the brand name and promise.

A Few More Tips for Effective Ads

These are some other principles I picked up from the book, which can be useful in many different types of ads.

  • Demonstrations of how well your product works are effective. Try coming up with a demonstration that your reader can perform.
  • Don’t name competitors. The ad is less believable and more confusing. People often think the competitor is the hero.
  • Problem-solution is a tried-and-true ad technique.
  • Give people a reason why they should buy.
  • Emotion can be highly effective. Nostalgia, charm, sentimentality, etc. Consumers need a rational excuse to justify their emotional decisions.
  • Cartoons don’t sell well to adults.
  • The most successful products and services are differentiated from their competitors. This is most effective if you can differentiate via low cost or highest quality. A differentiator doesn’t need to be relevant to the product’s performance, however, to be effective. For example, Owens-Corning differentiated their insulation by advertising the color of the product, which has nothing to do with how the product performs.

Ogilvy’s principles are surprisingly evergreen, despite the technological changes. Towards the end of the book he quotes Bill Bernbach, another advertising giant, on why this is:

Human nature hasn’t changed for a billion years. It won’t even vary in the next billion years. Only the superficial things have changed. It is fashionable to talk about changing man. A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man – what compulsions drive him, what instincts dominate his every action, even though his language too often camouflages what really motivates him. For if you know these things about a man, you can touch him at the core of his being. One thing is unchangingly sure. The creative man with an insight into human nature, with the artistry to touch and move people, will succeed. Without them he will fail.

Human nature hasn’t changed much, indeed.

Get the book here: Ogivly on Advertising

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