The good, the bad, the really hard to read

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A random walk through the business press reveals a broad range of quality in b-to-b ads. On the high end of the scale was a case history/testimonial ad for Trilogy, maker of industry-specific enterprise software. One of its customers is furniture maker Herman Miller, whose chairman-CEO beams with delight in the ad. ¶ You'd be happy, too, if you were able to speed your company's time to market by 25%. CEO Mike Volkema gives credit to Trilogy for helping his company put the pedal to the metal. There's no better way to make a claim of superior performance than by way of a satisfied customer. Otherwise, an advertiser's claim of superiority is too easily dismissed as brag and boast-and nobody likes a braggart.

While Volkema bubbles with enthusiasm, the text is more sedate. But it works. It explains that "when Herman Miller wanted to create a digital network stretching from suppliers to customers, Mike Volkema and his team turned to Trilogy. With Trilogy, Herman Miller increased a single product line from 12,000 to 35,000,000 unique variations. At the same time, the Trilogy solution dramatically reduced the time to complete the project, from two years to six months."

We also liked an ad for 3M's privacy filters that can, as the brightly written text says, "help prevent confidential on-screen information from becoming everybody's business." TV is vastly superior to print as a product demonstration medium, but 3M artfully displays how its technology works with a series of three PC monitor screens. At point-blank range, the images on the screen are clear as a desert sky. But from two sidelong angles, the images are faint to completely black. Seeing is believing.

States the copy: "3M's unique privacy technology limits the field of view-without blurring or distorting images-so only people sitting directly in front of a monitor can see on-screen data." The headline nicely captures the product's unique selling proposition: "Leak-proof your computer."

Ambling more toward the middle of the spectrum is an ad for StorageTek's SL500 data storage system. We like how the art director makes a hero of the product. It's nothing more than a big, black-gray box, but it looks impressive standing tall against a white background. And the word "introducing" in the headline is a surefire way to attract reader interest.

But readers will be hard-pressed to absorb the text, the most important part of an advertiser's message. The dense column of all-caps text is about as inviting as the fine print in a legal disclaimer. Upper- and lower-case letters are much easier for readers to discern. Upper-case lettering may look dramatic, but in large doses it merely washes past the reader.

Typography also proved to be the undoing of an ad for Lawson Software. Although the text appears in upper- and lower-case letters, it, too, is daunting. The text, set justified, is tightly packed in between a thick rectangular border. Readers will likely choose to avoid it.

The image of a chief information officer communing with the muse behind a door or window with a Post-It note bearing the word "genius" on it seems abstract. The headline: "It's time for what you see is what you get" doesn't help much either. There's no compelling reason for the reader to visit the text.

At the low end of the spectrum was a spread for Degussa, a maker of specialty chemicals. Despite the vibrant and intriguing image of a movie being filmed on location, the ad requires too much work on the reader's part to appreciate Degussa's message.

It again boils down to a misapplication of typography. A series of reverse-type copy blocks calling out different elements of the scene seems to get lost amid all the action. What the copy blocks are attempting to do is show various uses of Degussa's specialty chemicals, from the celluloid on which the film is being shot to the chemical additives in the toothpaste used by the film's leading lady. It's a big production with too little impact on the reader.

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