Three Things You Should Know About Print Ads That Sell

What Matters Is Context, Price and Brand Perception

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NEW YORK ( -- The strategic goal behind every print advertisement is probably a bit different. Some ads are designed to build an image, some are written to drive readers to a website and some announce limited-time offers. But most marketers hope the time, money and creativity that goes into developing their advertising campaigns moves the needle in terms of sales.

Print ads that sell
Print ads that sell

MRI Starch Communications set out to learn exactly what makes a print ad sell. We're in a unique position to make this evaluation, since during our surveys we ask print readers: "As a result of seeing this ad, did you purchase the product/service?" One caveat: The research purist in me needs to point out that common sense tells us that viewing an ad is only one of several factors that drive purchase. Nonetheless, this analysis is based on the number of consumers who told us they did just that -- read the ad and, as a result, bought the product or service.

We looked at 297 magazine issues measured by Starch between October 2008 and April 2009. For each product category, we looked at the top-performing ad in terms of driving purchase. Moreover, the top-performing ad needed to have driven at least 15% of readers to purchase to make the cut.

Here's what we learned:

Context matters. Many of the ads that drove purchase were of natural interest to the readers of the magazines in which they appeared. Ads for America's Milk Processors (purchased by 55% of ad readers), Vaseline Clinical Therapy Body Lotion (purchased by 26% of ad readers) and Lipitor (purchased by 18% of ad readers), for instance, all stress wellness and healing, and all appeared in Health magazine. The Discovery Channel's "Dirty Jobs" ad appeared in Maxim, whose audience is largely male. Let's face it -- dirty jobs may be more interesting to men than women; 21% of ad readers said they watched the show as a result of seeing this ad. So, too, with the James Bond-themed Swatch ad in Wired, another male-oriented title. It was the top ad in the watch category -- and I think it's safe to say that, in general, more men than women wish they were James Bond. Moreover, the TurboTax ad in Us Weekly appeared a mere five weeks before the dreaded April 15 Tax Day -- and 27% of ad readers said the ad sparked their purchase.

Price may matter. None of these purchase-driving ads promote expensive products, such as automobiles, vacations or home appliances. Much time and consideration typically go in to those kinds of purchases, so it's less likely that a single ad would be the driver to purchase. However, that is evidently not always the case for lower-cost purchases. After all, if the purchase turns out to be a mistake, the financial harm is slight.

Brand perception matters. Before MRI Starch asks readers about individual ads, we ask their opinion about the brands advertised. What we found is that if the reader is favorably disposed to the brand, there is a much greater chance that they will purchase the product or service being advertised. In fact, in four of the nine categories looked at, more than 90% of readers said they were favorably disposed to the brand, with some saying it was one of their favorites. Clearly brand advocates and brand enthusiasts are more likely to read the brands' advertising messages.

With this in mind, click through the slide show above to see what print ads were best at driving purchase.

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Michal Galin is senior VP at MRI Starch, part of the GfK Group, which specializes in measuring print-ad effectiveness. For more information MRI Starch and ad effectiveness, please visit MRI Starch.

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