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Wednesday, Jul. 15, 2009 at 9:26 am

Strong Copy vs. Cheeky Design

By Jeff Sexton
July 15th, 2009

Cheeky kid courtesy of ShutterstockMy previous post comparing billboards to online banner and space ads garnered positive comments and reviews – for the ads rather than my analysis!

Still, there was an unmistakable cry for more, and being the reader-pleasing whore that I am, well… here are some more innovative billboard ads ;)

So for the copywriters out there, here are a few examples where great copy/message beats clever design and visual puns:


Ouch!  Starbucks can’t be happy with that one.  Doesn’t get much more powerful that that.

And then there’s this:


I love the anti-testimonial on this one.  Compare that to the typical church billboard you might see.


What I love about this one is that it doesn’t focus on making you “aware” of the problem; you’re already aware of the problem, for crying out loud.  It focuses on making you square with your indifference as indicated by your lack of action.  This one probably won’t win any awards, but it IS very likely to spark action by those who read it.

Cheeky Ads: Harnessing the Power of (visual) Scandal

Now compare the previous “power of message and copy” examples to the following billboards and outdoor ads aimed to make maximum use of visual scandal by adding in some plain ol’ scandal into the mix.  Nothing like a hint (or more) of taboo to snag the attention of passers-by.







If you like these ads, I snagged more than a few of them over at and there’s plenty more worth browsing.

[Editor's note: the author of this post is now blogging at]

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Comments (33)

  1. This is just precious! I love good adds, though some might be a bit too cheeky for my taste, they sure seem to appeal to the sentiment they are meant for. I tend to think advertising sticks all the better when homour is involved!

  2. Great examples of thinking outside the box, Jeff.
    Have you at FutureNow done research on whether these “scandalous” type ads work as well in online media?

  3. [...] Strong Copy vs. Cheeky Design…  Conversion rate Marketing [...]

  4. Jaume,

    No research done yet. We are normally called in to optimize campaigns and ads that have already been developed, and that normally involves tweaking the landing page more than changing the ads. Also, research tends to get done on things that are easily researched/quantified and Visual Scandal is hard to quantify, so there hasn’t been any outside research done on this either.

    - Jeff

  5. I don’t doubt the “visual scandal” impact as a general rule, but from a practical standpoint, I always look to copy first for several reasons:

    * Faster, easier, cheaper to test. Re: Bryan’s recent post on the “follow me on twitter” test. How do you “tweak” (pun intended) the “cheeky” examples for the multitude of potential visual variables? Size? Complexion? Hairiness? I’ll leave it there…

    * Personally Inferential. What is more effective– the ad showing a starving child or the example you give where the “mental” picture is equally powerful, definitely more personal, and sets up the intellectual engagement rather than just a visceral response?

    * Interruption vs. Engagement. a creative visual can certainly be a more dramatic “interruption,” but much less seldom leads to “engagement,” that in turn leads to action. As a general rule, PICTURES are entertainment, WORDS are EDUCATION/INSTRUCTION.

    * Less “self-congratulatory.” Don’t get me wrong, I know plenty of copywriters who believe every one of their headlines is a mystical incantation, but the subjective “artistic” side of visual advertising is what leads to self-indugent Super Bowl ads and Clios that are amusing but not effective.

    * Targeted. Demographic (let alone PERSONA) targeting is infinitely more “squishy” visually and by its nature more subjective. Visual cultural and demographic “clues” are much more likely to be misinterpreted or lead to inconclusive results.

    As always, I apologize for the lengthy post, but I guess it’s just evidence you’re meeting what I suspect is one of your objectives– creating deeper awareness and conversation about effective marketing techniques.

    Now that I’ve stirred the pot…

  6. Kurt,

    Sincerely, thank you so much for the thoughtful comment. Of course, as a copywriter, I kind of felt like you were preaching to the choir, but you’ll still get a hearty “amen” from me, brother ;)

    I’ll only say that there are quite a few people involved with Visual Rhetoric who would argue with your third point. And I guess, I’d be somewhere between the two poles. Of course, most visuals are designed to work WITH copy, where each element contributes to a whole that’s greater than the sum of it’s parts. Here’s a perfect example of that:

    - Jeff

  7. As much as I hate McDonald’s I have been impressed with a few of the pieces of their new coffee campaigns. I think some of it has been lame, but the one at the top of this post is quite stellar. Bold and direct…something that McDonald’s can do without risking much at all.

  8. Great! Was there an underlying theme here? lol

  9. Knowing your background, didn’t think I’d get much disagreement…

    And I KNOW I overstated my third point. And definitely agree that the intelligent, RESULTS-driven synthesis of words and visuals is the best of all possible worlds as well as IMO being easier to test and tweak into an integrated campaign once you figure out what works best,

    I really enjoy all of your posts though I seldom emerge from “lurkdom” to comment. Keep it up!

  10. Hilarious list!
    Thanks for the inspiration.

  11. Please turn this into a coffee table book.

  12. Regarding the “four bucks is dumb,” rumor has it that McDonalds’s media buyer threw that billboard up across the street from SBUX headquarters in Seattle. That’s bonus points :)

  13. Flashy ads are overrated. If you put the right words in the right order in front of the right audience it sells every time.

  14. Like your post! I think catching the public´s attention is one of the most important things in advertising, as it is the entertainment. It´s a way to keep people interested and can work very well with the word of mouth. If you are not noticeable, then you have less chances of doing it right.

  15. Are you really allowed to use the word f**k on a billboard over there? Wow.

  16. Barry,

    I rather doubt that one is allowed to use that word via FTC-regulated media. Then again, I doubt that that’s a U.S. billboard as the 24,000 features a dot rather than a comma, which is more of a euro thing, if I’m not mistaken.

    But would the message be diminished that much if it said “Screw ‘em”?

  17. Another Cedar Creek billboard read, “I was robbed at Cedar Creek Church”.

    I was suprised to find out Cedar Creek Church themselves were behind the billboards.

    Story about those billboards here –

  18. Loved this post! I have to say that Cedar Creek Church missed a great opportunity: Why didn’t they purchase and create a mini-site aimed at driving traffic to their er, church?

  19. Jennifer,

    From their billboard, it looks like they did do something like that (look in the bottom left-hand corner). Obviously, the site is no longer up and working, so I can only guess that the campaign ended and they took the site down (probably should have left it up, IMHO). At any rate, you’re right that having an online place to get more info would be essential for a billboard like this.

    - Jeff

  20. Persusive or not, if attention is the primary target, they succeeded.

  21. I think the hunger almost made it and then blew it by making the website impossible to read, particularly while driving by. Or maybe it was on a low level near a street where people mainly walk by? Couldn’t tell by the pic.

    Lesson: make a great ad but be sure the desired response is in no way obscured.

  22. Still laughing/gasping at these, it’s clear most of these are NOT up in the US though, advertisers are constantly having to come up with more clever ways to grab the attention of passer bys, but how could these advertisers have gotten the same reaction here in the US I wonder? A little subtlety never hurt right? Great ads, when does part 2 come out??? Thanks!

  23. [...] Strong Copy Vs. Cheeky Design – A collection of billboard and other ads where strong copy is key, from futurenow’s marketing blog. [...]

  24. Some of these are really clever. I’ll have to check out the link. Thanks for bringing them to our attention.

  25. Is the “24,000 people die from hunger…” billboard pitching the Cedar Creek Church?

    As you described these guys are not pitching the problem, they’re pitching the solution and that’s a fresh approach that I appreciate.

    Only challenge I have with it is it’s sure enough an attention grabber but the call to action is so weak.
    Assuming the action intended is to donate, it’s not clear who we’re being asked to donate to?

    Thanks for these posts and double thanks for submitting them to Stumbleupon, I’d not have learned about your blog or agency if not for Stumbleupon.

  26. this is absolutely an insightfy article.
    in my opinion,to catch the public´s attention is one of the most important things in advertising!
    That is the key point

  27. Those billboards got my attention, lol. It would be very interesting to know HOW effective those billboards really are. I still rather drink by coffee in SB than at McDonald’s.

  28. Design a superior expectations.
    Thanks for the inspiration.

  29. I think David Bruce Jr is right. The call to action on the 24,000 people one is lacking. And the context to make 24k a real number (eg in world-wide terms this is pittance.)

    I think this is a good example of the power of call-to-action copy and how subtle it can be:

    Word of mouth as successful marketing depends on connecting the dots for people – otherwise it’s just entertainment.

    For example has anyone taken action on what they read in the ads here? I doubt it.

  30. What great ads. Surely you would get into trouble for them. Though I must say they do a good job and get your attention. Even though by a motorway could cause a crah or two.

  31. It’s a bit crazy. But I guess at the end of the day, you actually want aggressive attention.

  32. Jeff this might be your greatest post yet haha, obviously mcdonalds idea worked because starbucks just announced 1.50 house blends now. $4 for a coffee is rediculous…

  33. That is some funny stuff. I love it

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Jeff is a Persuasion Architect, Web copywriter, blogger, and instructor of FutureNow's Persuasive Online Copywriting workshop. Follow Jeff Sexton on twitter

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