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Copywriting Basics - Advertisement Writing Tips

Updated on June 24, 2019
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Prachi has been working as a freelance writer since 2012. When not writing, she helps people with web designing and development.

This article begins by discussing the starting point for any copywriting task: taking a brief. We look at some considerations it's important to be clear about before you start any project, including positioning and demographics. We discuss the value of research to copywriters, and why every ad you write MUST have a clear goal it seeks to achieve. The article goes on to look at legal and moral aspects of copywriting, including where you should draw the line when making claims for your client. Following that, we set out our advice and guidelines for creating classified (text only) ads and display advertisements (where images are also often used). The article concludes with a mini-glossary of advertising terms. Advertisement writing is the 'bread-and-butter' work of most copywriters, and this article should equip you with all the knowledge and skills you need to get started in this field.


Every job you take as a copywriter will start out from a brief. This is the term used to describe the instructions you get from your client. A brief may be given verbally in a face-to-face meeting or over the phone, or it may be in writing (and sometimes both).

Most clients are busy people, and you will seldom have more than 15 minutes to take a brief. It is therefore important that you use both listening skills, to grasp what exactly the job will entail, and questioning skills, to clarify any points you may be unclear about. Your aim should be to ensure that you understand precisely what your client requires, and do not waste your time or his producing copy that is not going to meet his needs.

Here are some guidelines to follow when taking a brief:

  • Listen carefully to everything the client says and take plenty of notes, especially if no written brief is provided.
  • Ask as many questions as you need to confirm exactly what the client wants. Never just assume you understand this. As the old adage goes, ASSUME makes an ASS of U and ME.
  • Clarify how and where your copy will be used. Will it be in a newspaper, magazine, a trade journal, a directory?
  • And, in particular, find out who will be the ad's target audience. For example, is it young females seeking fashionable, budget clothing, or affluent over-55s planning for their retirement? This will help you judge the appropriate style and tone.
  • Establish the key benefits the client expects you to communicate in your copy, and the USP if there is one.
  • Find out the client's main goal for the ad: is it to get people to return a coupon for more information, phone a sales line, send an email, visit the company website, go to a retail outlet, buy directly off the page, or something else?
  • Ask if there are any concerns or sensitivities you need to be aware of. For example, pharmaceutical companies have a range of restrictions on what claims they are allowed to make in their advertising.
  • Narrow down, as far as possible, how many words are required, how many rewrites might be expected, and so on.
  • Ask for any background information and materials the client may have which will help you create the ad. This might include old ads, they have run before, product information sheets, leaflets, articles, photos, and even product samples.
  • Confirm the deadline by which the copy needs to be delivered.
  • Aim to get at least an idea of the budget. The client may not be willing to quote you an exact price, but they should be able to indicate the general region they are thinking of.
  • Try out any 'on the spot' ideas you have. This can help you judge the way your client is thinking and any particular approaches he may – or may not – a favor.

Be sure, also, to get contact details from your client (phone and email), so that you can get back to him with any queries that may arise during the writing process. You might also want to run a few ideas past him once you have had a chance to think about the brief or send a sample of what you have done so far, so he can let you know if the style, tone, content and so on are right. With longer jobs especially, it is quite normal to liaise regularly with your client in this way, rather than just go off and write the copy without any further communication.


In the last section, we emphasized the importance of identifying your client's target market from the brief you are given. We want to look at this in a little more detail now, and to do that we need to explore the twin concepts of positioning and demographics.

Positioning is a term that describes how a business 'positions' its product or service in the minds of consumers. Positioning is a marketing decision, and it determines the image of itself a business tries to project to the world.

So a business might, for example, want to position itself as offering great everyday value to consumers, or (conversely) the ultimate in luxury. Alternatively, it might want to position itself as trendy and 'cutting edge', or – conversely again – a reliable name that upholds traditional values. Whatever positioning it adopts, everything to do with the business, from its logo to its packaging – and certainly including its advertising – will aim to reinforce this image.

Positioning is closely linked to – and indeed depends on – the type of customer the business is trying to attract. If, for example, they are aiming to sell to a wealthy, discerning clientele, their positioning will need to be 'upmarket' to match the lifestyles and expectations of such people. Advertisements will have to be booked in the expensive, glossy magazines popular with affluent readers such as The Tatler, with even the layout and typeface carefully chosen to project the desired sense of luxury and opulence. Conversely, if a company is aiming at value-conscious consumers, the style of their advertising will need to be cheerful and unpretentious to reflect this.

Positioning is important in marketing because very few companies can successfully sell to everyone. Even the few large companies that do this will have a range of brands that appeal to different groups within the total population. This must be so, as different groups of people have different wants and needs, so products and services need to offer different benefits in order to appeal to them.

Positioning is a strategic decision for a company's marketing department. However, it is important for you, as a copywriter, to understand how any company you work for positions itself, the image it wants to present, and in particular the target group it wants to appeal to. The science of analyzing and subdividing the population into smaller groups is known as demographics, and we must now take a closer look at this from an advertising perspective.

As we noted above, few if any businesses attempt to sell to the whole population. Rather, most aim to find a segment of the population whose wants and needs they can serve profitably. Segments are groups of people with something in common. Once a company has identified a particular market segment (or segments) as their potential customers, they can prepare a strategy for turning these people from potential into actual customers.

There are many ways of segmenting markets. Some of the most common are listed below.

1. By geographical location

This will be relevant for many smaller businesses. They might decide to segment the market into potential customers living within (say) a 3-mile radius, a 5-mile radius, and a 10-mile radius. For many products and services people prefer to shop locally if they can, as this saves them time, effort and travel costs.

2. By age

This is another popular method of segmenting the market. You could divide the population into children, teenagers, young adults, parents, middle-aged people, and older people. Each of these groups will have different requirements. A supplier of women's clothing, for example, will need different approaches according to whether it wishes to appeal to young, fashion-conscious clients or to older people with more traditional requirements.

3. By sex

You could simply divide potential customers into male and female. This will be more relevant for some businesses than others – but even in the case of products and services used by both sexes, it can be useful to segment the market in this way. For example, men wanting to use a taxi service might rate speed and value for money as the most important qualities they were looking for, while women might put personal security as their top priority. This difference is not just of theoretical interest. Some taxi services have been set up in cities serving women exclusively, addressing their wish for a secure, reliable service. Their proprietors decided to launch businesses specifically aimed at meeting the needs of this particular market segment.

4. By type of customer

There are many ways of segmenting the market by type of customer. One of the most important is between trade and private customers. One way in which trade customers differ from the general public is that it is usually not their own money they are spending. They are therefore more likely to be concerned about matters such as reliability, quality of service, workmanship and so on, and (relatively) less concerned about price.

Another form of segmentation according to the type of customer is by socio-economic group. Some products and services may appeal more to members of one such group than another, and this can be relevant when a business is trying to sell to a particular market segment. For example, an office caterer providing food and drinks for a predominantly middle-class workforce might need to offer quite a different range of products from an operator of transport cafes serving mainly lorry drivers.

To repeat the main point, the purpose of segmenting the market is to identify one or more groups or market segments who will comprise the business's core customers. This, in turn, will determine how the business positions itself, and the way it plans and organizes its advertising. To write ads that meet your clients' needs, it is vital that you understand how they position themselves and the market segments they are targeting.



In all types of copywriting, it's essential to have a clear goal: a particular outcome the copy is designed to achieve. In effect, your advertisement replaces a one-to-one visit or conversation with the prospect. And just as in personal selling (when you want the prospect to sign on the dotted line), in copywriting you must always have a definite goal or target in mind, and ensure that everything in your advertisement is geared to achieving this. Some possible goals might include getting the reader to:

  • Visit the store
  • Request a brochure
  • Make a purchase
  • Join a mailing list
  • Request a free sample
  • Open an account
  • Arrange a test drive
  • Call for a quotation
  • Book a visit

The list above shows a number of possible goals for an advertisement. Of course, the ultimate aim in each case is to generate more sales for the client, but in many instances, the advertisement aims to achieve just one step in this process, e.g. getting the prospect to arrange a personal visit (where the selling process can hopefully be concluded).

As a copywriter, it's important that all your writing is goal-focused, as this is the basis your work will be judged on (in all the examples above, the success or failure of the ad to achieve the desired goal can easily be measured). In most cases, the goal will be set by the client, although its exact form may be subject to discussion. This is something you will need to establish clearly when taking the brief.

The goal-driven aspect of copywriting is something that many writers new to this profession find difficult. Most writers by nature enjoy being creative and playing with words. And that's fine unless it becomes an end in itself, and you start to focus on being clever and original, rather than (as you must do) achieving the goal agreed with your client.

A warning sign is if your own writing makes you smile and want to show it off to friends and colleagues. In such cases, it's essential to ask yourself honestly, 'Will this help to achieve the agreed goal for this advertisement?' If the answer is no, put a line through and start again. Writing tutors have a term for this: 'Murder your darlings'.

Remember that, as a freelance copywriter, all your efforts must be devoted to achieving the goal agreed with your client. The following goals, although they often appear to have been applied in published advertisements, are neither helpful nor appropriate:

  • Win advertising industry awards
  • Make readers laugh
  • Impress readers with your command of the language
  • Show readers how clever you are
  • Justify the large bill you are going to submit to your client


Researching a brief thoroughly can make all the difference between creating a good advertisement and a great one.

Research gives you the information you need to create a powerful and cohesive argument in your sales copy. It can help you discover why exactly people in your client's target market buy the product or service concerned and the benefits that are most important to them. Research can provide facts and statistics to support your case, and may also suggest different possible creative approaches. Here are just some resources that may prove useful to you when researching a brief:

  • Old advertisements run by the client
  • Advertisements run by competitors
  • Leaflets and brochures
  • Market research studies
  • Case studies
  • Testimonials
  • Newspaper articles
  • Magazine articles
  • Government statistics
  • Independent reviews
  • Encyclopedia articles

Your client will normally provide you with some of these, but others you may need to research for yourself. Obviously, as time is money, you will not be able to do an exhaustive literature search for any advertisement you write. However, some judicious, targeted research can pay big dividends. If you can find a fact or statistic that will grab your prospect's attention, for example, this may provide you with a headline, or at least a compelling piece of body copy.


Before we move on to the specifics of advertisement writing, we need to say a few words about the legal and moral aspects of copywriting.

Copywriters obviously aim to portray their clients, and the products and services they offer, in the best possible light. However, they must be careful not to overstep the line by making claims on their clients' behalf that are untrue, offensive or clearly misleading. Not only is this morally unacceptable, but it will also damage the reputation of your client if it comes to light, which can seriously affect the company's sales. You may also fall foul of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), the independent self-regulatory body for the advertising industry in the UK.

The ASA acts as a watchdog over most types of advertising in the UK. Its remit includes magazine and newspaper advertisements, TV and radio commercials, leaflets and brochures, posters, cinema commercials, handbills, direct mail (advertising sent through the post and addressed to the reader personally) and marketing on websites, including banner advertising and commercial emails. It does not cover in-store advertising or TV and radio program sponsorship.

The ASA administers the Advertising Codes produced by the UK advertising industry's Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP). There are separate Codes for broadcast and non-broadcast advertising, both of which can be viewed via the ASA website at In general, the ASA aims to ensure that all marketing communications are 'legal, decent, honest and truthful', and to stop misleading, harmful or offensive advertising,

Anyone can complain to the ASA about an advertisement, and the Authority also launches its own investigations. The results of adjudications are announced weekly on the ASA website. As a non-government organization, the ASA cannot impose punitive punishments on advertisers who breach the Codes, but they can require that they withdraw the offending ads and do not use them again. No company wants to be on the wrong end of adjudication as it can damage its reputation, and also means that advertisements will have to be canceled and rewritten, which is likely to cost the company money.

As a copywriter, most of your work will – potentially – be subject to the scrutiny of the ASA, so it is important that you aim to keep within the CAP guidelines. As mentioned, you can study these on the ASA website at, but to a large extent, they are really common sense. Basically, you should try to ensure that any claims you make in your copy can be backed up by verifiable facts and figures and that nothing you say would be likely to cause serious or widespread offense, particularly on the grounds of race, religion, sex, sexual orientation or disability. Note those two words 'serious or widespread', however. As it says in the Code, compliance will be judged on the context, medium, audience, product and prevailing standards of decency. Just because someone complains about your ad, it does not automatically mean that the ASA will rule against it.


Classified Advertising
Classified Advertising

Having covered the general aspects of advertising, it's time to get down to specifics. We'll start by looking at classified advertising. This type of advertising is, of course, more commonly used by private individuals and (very) small businesses, so as a copywriter you are unlikely to be asked to write such ads frequently. On the other hand, writing these ads is very good practice for a new copywriter. For one thing, as they are normally charged by the word, you have to be as concise as possible. In addition, you have few if any options for illustration, design, and so on. Your words are literally the only tools you have to achieve the goal you are aiming for.

At their most basic, classified ads consist of two or more lines of text under a specific heading (e.g. builders, car repairs, electrical). There may also be an option to pay extra for additional features such as bold text, 'semi-display' (where the ad is placed in a box of its own for added prominence), and so on.

Local newspapers frequently carry classified ads, as do many consumer and trade magazines. A few publications, such as Exchange & Mart, are almost entirely devoted to this type of advertising.

Classified ads, as stated above, are usually charged at a price per word. You may be allowed to give some words additional emphasis by putting them all in capitals, but that's about it. It is therefore important that the words themselves are very carefully chosen. Here are some guidelines for creating good classified advertisements:

  • Assume the reader already has an interest in buying the product or service (or why would he be reading the advertisements under that category?)
  • Tell the reader as much as possible about the product within the number of words available.
  • Show the benefits to the reader of buying the product.
  • Create some positive feeling about the product.
  • Tell the reader how to respond to the advertisement.
  • Compete effectively with other advertisements in the category.

Even though classified ads may comprise only two lines of text, notice how the guidelines above incorporate many of the principles set out earlier in the course. These include focusing on benefits rather than features, appealing to the emotions as well as the intellect, and telling the reader clearly what he must to do next (take action – the final 'A' in AIDA).

This may be more easily understood with reference to an example, so here is a successful ad which used to appear regularly in the 'Cornish' section of a national holiday magazine:

Charming waterside cottage, fully equipped for a quiet, independent, self-catering holiday, full central heating, luxury bathroom, dinghy available. Bodmin (00000) 000000.

In a few words, this advertisement gives the reader a lot of information about the holiday cottage. Warm feelings are created through the use of words with positive associations such as 'charming' and 'luxury'. The dinghy is an additional benefit which helps the advertisement compete effectively with others in the category. And prospective visitors are given a phone number to call – a more direct, personal way of making contact than an address to write to (not to mention using fewer words).

Writing a Classified Ad

All too many classified ads give the impression that they have been dashed off in two minutes on the back of an envelope. This is a waste of the potential of what – given the right product and advertising medium - can be an extremely powerful and effective sales tool.

As a copywriter, you should never dismiss classified advertising as being too trivial to bother about. Be prepared to work just as hard on a classified ad as any other copywriting job, producing a series of rough drafts before the final, polished version. Follow the seven-step procedure below.

  • List all the features and benefits you can think of for the product or service (e.g. added security, available in five colors, lower price, special introductory offer, greater comfort, etc.). This information should, of course, be available from your client.
  • Identify any points about the product or service which are unique, as these may be powerful selling points. Underline the USPs and the other benefits you think readers will find particularly attractive.
  • List any 'feelings' words which may help readers feel good or reassured about the product (charming, new, friendly, reliable, traditional, British standard, etc.).
  • Decide how many words to aim for. Your target will, of course, depend on your client's budget, especially if he is planning to run the ads across a range of newspapers and magazines. However, you do need to allow a realistic number of words to achieve your objective.
  • Write your advertisement. Then check it contains all the information and 'feelings words' which you decided were important from your list.
  • Compare your advertisement with others which are likely to appear in the same column, to ensure you are offering some benefits and feelings which they do not.
  • Re-read your effort and ask yourself: 'If I was looking for a product (or service) like this and I was to read this advertisement, would I be likely to respond?'

Bear in mind that some publications automatically put the first few words of classified ads in block capitals (whether you ask them to or not). Choose these words with particular care and attention, therefore. There is little value in having an ad begin with the words 'ARE YOU LOOKING FOR...' On the other hand an ad beginning 'CUT YOUR MOTORING COSTS' takes advantage of this opportunity to catch the reader's eye.

Don't be in too much of a hurry to write your classified ad and submit it. Advertising people have a saying: 'Give it a week.' Even if you can only afford to give it a day, with a fresh eye it is amazing how often you will spot improvements you could make.

Selling Off The Page

Can you get your Classified Advertisement noticed among thousands?
Can you get your Classified Advertisement noticed among thousands?

Can you sell a product 'off the page' from a classified ad? The answer depends very much on the price. Ten pounds or so is about the most people will pay for something advertised in this way. If your client's product costs more than this, he is likely to achieve better results from a two-stage procedure. For example, your ad could conclude, 'Phone now for a free information pack'. The objective of the advert is, of course, something you will need to discuss with your client when taking the brief.

Side note: You may have gathered by now that in copywriting you will sometimes have to 'advise' your client on how best to proceed. This applies especially with classified advertising, which is often used by people without much prior experience of advertising. As a copywriter, you will be regarded as an 'expert' in this field, and often a client will ask for your advice on matters such as media selection that are not strictly speaking part of a copywriter's job. This is something you will soon become knowledgeable about through working in this field. In this course, however, we aim to provide enough information for you to advise your client, at least in general terms, how best to implement an advertising strategy. The next two sections should help with this where classified ads, in particular, are concerned.

Where to Use Classified Ads

Whether classified advertising will work for any particular business depends largely on the trade it is in. Where such businesses regularly use classified advertising, and specialist categories exist for it in magazines and newspapers, it can be very effective. To give you an idea, the types of business which regularly use classified advertising include:

  • Hotels
  • Holiday homes
  • Hobbies
  • Introduction agencies
  • Business opportunities
  • Gift items
  • Charities
  • Mail order publishers
  • Printers
  • Collectors' items
  • Second-hand cars
  • Boating
  • Removals
  • Caravans
  • Educational courses
  • Building Trades

The best media to advertise in are those that contain a good number of classified ads for businesses of the type in question. These are the publications people are likely to turn to when they need a plumber/car dealer/holiday cottage, or whatever. Your ad will, of course, be competing with all the others in the category concerned. As a copywriter, you will have an advantage here, however, as most classified ads are written by people with no particular writing skills. With a little thought, it should not prove too difficult to write your ad in a way that makes it stand out from the others.

When is it Best to Advertise?

There is no doubt that classified (and, indeed, all) advertising is more effective at some times of the year than at others. Much depends on what you are selling. For many mail order businesses, for example, the best months are, in descending order of importance, October, November, September, January, February, and March.

The first three months of the year are good because people tend to be at home more, and have more time for reading and planning ahead. September, October, and November also benefit from this factor, with the additional advantage that people are buying gifts for the festive season. December can also be a good month for sales of giftware, but in many other areas, (e.g. business-to-business, introduction agencies, correspondence courses, and self-help books) sales decline as people become preoccupied with planning for the Christmas and New Year holiday.

It is sensible for anyone using advertising to be aware of these seasonal variations, in order to take advantage of the best times of year to advertise their product or service. It can also be a good tactic to even out demand over the year by offering extra incentives such as free gifts, price cuts and so on during traditionally quiet periods.


Display Advertisement
Display Advertisement

Classified ads work well for some products and services, and fortunes have been made on the back of them. For many businesses, however, display advertising is a more effective and appropriate medium. Although more expensive than classified ads, display ads have a range of advantages:

  1. They are more eye-catching and hence more likely to be noticed.
  2. There is more space available to put across the sales message.
  3. It is easy to incorporate visual elements such as photos, drawings, logos, and different typefaces.
  4. Display ads help to give the impression that a business is a serious and substantial concern.
  5. Where a business wants to gain the attention of casual browsers as well as people actively looking for a particular product or service, display ads are the only realistic option.

If you are asked to write a display advertisement, the brief should state the size of the ad and the approximate word count. It should also clarify whether there is any specific artwork or design the client intends to use, or if he is looking for suggestions from you. You may be relieved to know that, as a freelance copywriter, you are not expected to produce artwork yourself. Design is clearly an important component of display advertisements, however, so you will often find yourself liaising with your client's designers to produce the finished artwork ready for publication.

Writing a Display Advertisement

Even if you are asked to write only the smallest of display ads – perhaps one column wide by a few centimeters deep – there are many more elements at your disposal than with a classified ad. These include the heading, illustrations, body text and (if appropriate) order/inquiry form. We will look at each of these in turn.

1. Heading

The heading, along with any illustrations, is the first thing a reader is likely to notice in your advertisement. Five times as many people read the heading as read the rest of the ad. It is therefore important that it attracts the reader's attention (the first A in 'AIDA', remember) and impels him to go on reading. The heading should highlight the main benefit which is being offered to potential purchasers. A good heading tells readers at a glance, 'What's in this for me?'

The simplest - and often best - technique is to state your main benefit:

  • How to beat the bookmaker
  • Lose weight - the natural way
  • Windows, doors, and conservatories at 1991 prices!
  • Personal loans with guaranteed acceptance
  • A variation is to start with a question:
  • What paint do professionals use?
  • Do you want to retire in three years' time with an income for life?
  • Where can you buy a new computer for less than half the showroom cost?
  • Looking for a more exciting holiday this year?

Either way, the aim is to attract the attention of your target readers – those who have a potential interest in buying your client's product or service – and entice them to read on. Often the advert's effectiveness can be increased with a sub-heading which gives the reader a reason to believe the message in the main heading. For example:

Beat the bookmaker - combining our racing expertise with the latest computer technology

Looking for a more exciting holiday this year? – Thrilling Vacations PLC has been running adventure holidays across the world for over twenty years

2. Illustrations

A good illustration will do a similar job to the heading in capturing readers' attention.

Various options are available, including photographs, drawings or cartoons. Much depends on the media the advertisements will be appearing in. Photos reproduce poorly in newspapers, so for such media, a line drawing or cartoon is often preferred. In glossy magazines, on the other hand, photographs can be highly effective, and more convincing than drawings.

One good rule to follow with photos or drawings is that they should show the product being used. Thus, rather than show just a video camera, a more effective illustration might show a mother using the camera to make a recording of her family. All illustrations should combine well with the heading and body text, and increase the overall interest of the ad. A caption can be used if necessary to explain the picture, but avoid stating the obvious.

As mentioned above, as a copywriter you will not normally be expected to supply artwork – this is the designer's job – but you can certainly suggest the type of image that could be used.

3. Body Text

Remember the AIDA principle again. The body text of your advertisement has to arouse the reader's INTEREST in the product and stimulate his DESIRE to buy. It should follow logically from the promise made in the heading. For example, if the heading is LOSE WEIGHT – THE NATURAL WAY, the body text should make clear exactly how the product concerned will help the user lose weight naturally. This may appear to be stating the obvious, but a surprisingly large number of ads fail to deliver on the promise made in the heading.

Continue in the body text to set out the product or service's user-benefits – the more, the better. To avoid missing anything out, it can be a useful exercise before writing your advert to list all the selling points you can think of. In the case of a restaurant, for example, these might include:

  • Friendly atmosphere
  • Vegetarian choices available
  • Fixed price menu or á la carte
  • All major credit cards accepted
  • Spacious and comfortable
  • 16th Century farmhouse setting
  • Cordon Bleu chef
  • Michelin award
  • Real ales on tap
  • Extensive wine cellar
  • Separate room for large groups or parties
  • English and Italian cuisine
  • Entertainment on Friday and Saturday evenings

Look out especially for USPs (Unique Selling Propositions). These are benefits that are unique to the business concerned; they can, therefore, be powerful selling points. 'The only Belgian restaurant in Folkestone' would be a USP, as would 'Sutton's only restaurant serving emu steaks'. It is not essential to have a USP, and few businesses have more than one. If your client does have one, however, and it is likely to be attractive to potential buyers, it is well worth trying to capitalize upon it in your ad.

The style in which the body text is written bears careful consideration. Below are some guidelines:

  • Make your copy crisp and concise. No-one has to read a display ad, so they are not the place for 'purple prose'. In small ads, a list of benefits each preceded by a bullet point may be sufficient. In longer advertisements, you may need to write in sentences and paragraphs, but keep both short and snappy.
  • Write (as always) from the customer's point of view. Avoid the temptation to talk about the business – when it was founded, how large it is, how many awards it has won, and so on. This information is of little interest to customers. The text of your advertisement should address the customer's wants and needs, answering the question 'What's in this for me?' Use 'you copy' rather than 'we copy', and calculate the copy ratio to ensure you have done this.
  • Aim for a friendly, informal style. Advertising has been described as 'salesmanship in print' – and the conversational tone of a good salesman should not change just because the words are in writing rather than in speech. Short, punchy sentences usually work best. Even ungrammatical sentences (like this one).
  • Avoid words and phrases that have become stale with over-use. Examples include 'fantastic offer', 'unbelievable bargain', 'superb opportunity', 'outstanding'. People have seen these expressions used so many times that they (rightly) regard them with suspicion. Try to find something new and interesting to say about your client's product.
  • Be honest. That means avoiding making ridiculous promises on your client's behalf. Most people will not believe you; and if by chance they do, it will only lead to bad publicity, possible complaints to the ASA, and refund claims when the product or service fails to measure up to the unreasonable expectations the ad has generated.
  • Aim to appeal to the prospect's emotions as well as his intellect. Paint pictures in his mind of how much happier he will feel as a result of buying your client's product. If appropriate, remind him also of the unpleasant consequences he may suffer if he fails to take advantage of this opportunity.
  • Write in the present tense. Thus, rather than put 'This device will cut your fuel bills by ten percent a year', write 'This device cuts your fuel bills by ten percent a year'. This is more direct and encourages the customer to start to imagine that he has the product in question already.
  • Avoid talking about the price – instead, talk about value or worth to the customer. The price of an automatic dishwasher maybe $300, but its value consists of time saved over the sink and available for more enjoyable activities instead. This is, of course, really another way of saying that you should focus on the benefits of your product or service to the customer, rather than features (such as price).
  • Study other published advertisements. Some are undoubtedly too clever for their own good, but much can nevertheless be learned by examining how they are written. Look especially for ads that are repeated regularly, as this means they are succeeding in generating business for the advertiser concerned. You may also find ideas you can adapt to your own writing. Of course, you should already be collecting and keeping adverts such as these in your Swipe File.
  • Finally, try to ensure that your body text flows naturally and seamlessly from start to finish, carrying the reader along with it. Be prepared to rewrite and polish your work several times, until it is as good as you can possibly make it.

Some other ingredients worth considering for the body of your display advertisement include:

  • Endorsements - Quotes from published reviews and/or satisfied users can be effective, as readers are more inclined to trust the word of an 'objective' outsider. Avoid making up endorsements: you are likely to be found out and may fall foul of the law. On the other hand, there is nothing to stop your client soliciting favorable comments. Publishers, for example, often send out advance copies of new books to reviewers in the hope of getting good quotes for the back covers.
  • Special Offers - These can also be highly effective. If your client has a good offer (e.g. two for the price of one) it may be worth using this as a heading. At the very least your offer should feature prominently in the body text. Offers are frequently used to give the reader a reason to respond immediately (a free gift for our first 100 customers, 20 percent discount this week only). This is especially important in newspaper advertising, which is invariably discarded within a day or two.
  • Coupons - Similarly, a coupon entitling the holder to a free gift or discount can work well. The reader has to cut the coupon out, and through this physical action, your advertising message will be stamped more firmly in his mind. Restaurants, in particular, have been very successful in using coupons to increase trade during slack periods. Coupons are really a form of sales promotion: they cost the client money in the short term, but attract new customers, some of whom – hopefully – will then become regulars.
  • Humour - A note of humor can help to make an advertisement stand out from its competitors. Against this, everyone has a different sense of humor, and if readers don't share yours they may simply be confused or irritated by it. Using a cartoon can be one way around this problem. Even if some readers still don't get the joke, a cartoon will at least make clear that the intention was humorous.
  • White Space - It can be tempting to aim to fill every inch of a display advertisement. This may be a mistake, however. Densely-written advertisements can be visually off-putting and tend to blend in with the surrounding material. By contrast, if you leave a generous border around the text of your advertisement, the white space will make the ad stand out, even from a distance. Some large companies have taken this to extremes, buying a whole page of a newspaper then putting a tiny advertisement in the middle. While extravagantly expensive, there is no doubt that this technique can be visually arresting.

4. Order/Enquiry Form

At the end of the advertisement, it is important to make clear to readers what they should do next ('Ring 0800 9000 now for an instant quote', 'Return the coupon below for a free brochure', 'Visit our website at for more information' etc.). If space permits, a separate order or inquiry form which readers can fill in and send off has been proved to increase response. A Freepost address also boosts replies, though not usually to the same extent.

Whatever the size of the advertisement, you should try to make sure that the order form always comes at the bottom or – if it is not that big – the bottom right-hand corner of the page. The worst place for an order form is across the spine between two pages. No-one will bother to cut into the spine of a magazine to take out an order form.

Forms should be as large as possible, and you may need to insist on this to the designer. Tiny forms will result in illegible names and addresses and put off many potential respondents altogether. To avoid your client having to waste hours trying to decipher illegible handwriting, it can be a good idea to include an instruction to write in block capitals.

How to Save Your Client Money on Design

Once you have written your display ad, it will need to be turned into finished artwork.

As indicated above, this task will usually be performed by a graphic designer.

An important thing to understand about designers is that, compared to copywriters, they are quite expensive, typically charging $800 to $1,000 a day. Furthermore, once a job reaches a designer, they effectively have total control over it. If the heading needs to be changed at this stage, for example, only the designer can do it.

This means that any changes to an ad at the design stage – even minor ones – can be costly. To save your client money, therefore, you should always try to ensure that any changes to your copy are made before it goes off to the designer. This is something you may need to educate your clients about. Some assume, naively, that they can go on making changes to an ad even after the artwork has been produced – and then get a nasty shock later when the bill arrives. Obviously, as a freelance copywriter, this is not really your concern. However, you will want to keep your clients as happy as possible so they keep coming back to you with work, and saving them money is one very good way of doing this.

Example of Display Advertisement

To conclude our advice on writing display ads, here is an example of a straightforward but (in our opinion) effective advertisement, for a removal company. This is a simplified version of a real-life ad that was originally published in Yellow Pages.

Example of Display Advertisement
Example of Display Advertisement

There is nothing particularly 'clever' about this ad, but we like it for a number of reasons. First of all, did you notice that the second word was 'you'? Even in the heading, the advert refers to the reader and gets him involved. Contrast this with many other display ads in Yellow Pages, which simply (and to no good purpose) use the name of the business as the main heading.

The body text consists mainly of a bullet-point list. This is a common approach in display ads, and there is nothing wrong with it - it is eye-catching and easy to read. But one thing that particularly impressed us is the thought that has evidently gone into the writing. The copywriter has clearly tried to envisage what would most concern a potential customer when choosing a removal service. He has then addressed this in language designed to foster warm feelings towards the company concerned and paint a picture in the customer's mind of the excellent service he will receive. So, for example, rather than claim that the business is 'reliable' (a dull 'feature' word), the ad says, 'We turn up on time'. And in his mind the prospect can already see the removers arriving at the allotted hour, ready to start work.

In the end, the ad makes it clear what the reader should do next: 'Give us a call'. It also provides a website URL, which the reader can use (if he wishes) to find out more about the company, reassure himself about its credentials, and maybe contact them if for some reason he doesn't want to phone. Notice, incidentally, that the URL is the only place where the company name is stated.

The actual Yellow Pages advertisement (which we cannot reproduce here for technical and copyright reasons) included a bit more in the way of design, including a photograph of two smartly uniformed removers carrying boxes marked 'Fragile', and another of a happy father and son packing a vase and enjoying a moment of bonding. This all helps reassure potential buyers of the professionalism of the company and builds positive sentiment towards them. We are sure this unassuming but a well-crafted advertisement has generated plenty of business for the firm in question.


We would like to close this article with a mini-glossary of advertising terms. If you are dealing with people in the advertising business, they will expect you to be familiar with most of these terms.

  • Above-the-line-advertising - Term used to describe press, radio, TV, cinema and outdoor advertising, which traditionally paid commission to advertising agencies on media purchases (c.f. Below-the-line).
  • Advertising Agency - An agency which handles advertising on behalf of other businesses. The service usually includes strategic planning, copywriting and design, preparing the artwork, booking advertising space, and so on.
  • Advertising Cards - Cards used to advertise in newsagents' windows, or, in smaller versions, for distribution in public places or door-to-door.
  • Advertising Feature - A special feature appearing in a newspaper or magazine and designed primarily to attract advertising. Typical subjects for advertising features include Christmas, Easter, Holidays, Gardens, Weddings.
  • Advertorial - Paid-for advertising which, at first sight, looks like editorial. Advertorials usually have a high proportion of text, but may include one or two photos or illustrations as well.
  • AIDA - Acronym short for 'Attention, Interest, Desire, Action'. AIDA sums up what every advertisement should be seeking to accomplish.
  • Below-the-line-advertising - A term used to describe all types of advertising not covered by the term 'Above-the-line' (q.v.). Includes direct mail, point-of-sale advertising, leaflets and brochures, advertising cards, etc.
  • Benefits - The advantages to a consumer of buying a particular product (or service). Very important to consumers when deciding which of a range of competing products to purchase. Advertisements should highlight a product's benefits, not its features.
  • Body Text - The main text of an advertisement, usually following a heading. The purpose of the body text is to build the reader's interest and arouse his desire to buy.
  • BOGOF - Acronym for 'Buy One, Get One Free', a form of sales promotion.
  • Brochure - A short publication including more details of a product or service than there is space for in an advertisement. Many are attractively produced, including illustrations. Brochures are typically sent or given to serious enquirers only; they are normally too expensive to use in mail shots.
  • Camera-ready artwork - A Master copy of an advertisement, leaflet, etc. ready to be used for printing.
  • Circulation - The number of copies of a publication printed or distributed.
  • Classified Advertisements - The cheapest and simplest form of advertising.
  • Classified ads normally consist of a few lines of text under a particular heading.
  • Copy - Text provided for typesetting. The words - as opposed to photos, drawings, etc.
  • - in an advertisement.
  • Corporate Image - The image which a company presents to the outside world. A strong, positive corporate image can be a powerful marketing tool, and large companies go to great lengths to develop and safeguard their corporate images.
  • Cost per thousand - The cost of reaching 1000 readers by advertising in any particular publication. Provides a crude, but nonetheless useful, means of comparing advertising costs between different media.
  • Direct mail - Method of advertising in which individual customers are contacted directly using mail shots (q.v).
  • Directories - Publications listing suppliers of goods and services in various categories. Yellow Page is a well-known directory in which many businesses providing a service direct to the public advertise.
  • Direct response - A marketing method in which the manufacturer makes his offer direct to the consumer (e.g. by letter, telephone or E-mail), by-passing the traditional channels of distribution.
  • Display Advertisements - Advertisements, usually larger than classified, which incorporate design elements as well as text. A typical display advertisement includes a heading, body text, illustration and order form.
  • Editorial - Text written by journalists and supposedly objective, as opposed to paid-for advertising.
  • Endorsements - Quotes from satisfied users, reviews, celebrities, etc. which show a product or service in a positive light. Endorsements are often used in direct mail and display advertising, where they can be highly effective (people are more inclined to believe praise coming from an 'objective' outside source).
  • Features - Characteristics which are built into a product or service by the supplier, in the hope that potential customers will find them useful and attractive (c.f. Benefits).
  • Handbill - Small advertising leaflet generally was given out to people in the street or pushed through letterboxes. Also sometimes called a flyer.
  • Heading - A phrase or short sentence (usually) appearing at the top of a display advertisement. Its main purpose is to attract readers' attention, particularly those readers who may have a genuine interest in purchasing your product.
  • Insert - A separate, pre-printed advertising leaflet or flyer inserted in a magazine or newspaper and distributed with it. Inserts can provide a cost-effective way of advertising some products and services.
  • Keyring - Means of monitoring where respondents have seen an advertisement. A simple keying device would be to include a 'department' reference in the address (e.g. an advertisement in the Weekly News might include 'Department WN' in the address). Keying is used by most businesses who advertise regularly so that they can see which ads and media are performing best for them.
  • Leaflet - One or two-page advertising material used for mail shots, point-of-sale displays, exhibitions, door-to-door distribution, etc.
  • Logotype - Often abbreviated to a logo, this is a symbol or trademark used to represent a company. For maximum effect, logos need to be repeated in advertising, stationery, company vehicles and so on.
  • Mailing list - A list of names and addresses to be used in direct mail campaigns. Mailing lists may consist of past and present customers; they may be compiled from published sources such as directories, or they may be bought or rented from list brokers.
  • Mailshot - Advertising material sent by post to a potential customer. A typical mail shot includes a sales letter, brochure, order form, and reply-paid envelope.
  • Marketing - 'The management process responsible for identifying, anticipating and satisfying customer requirements profitably' - The Institute of Marketing.
  • Media Schedule - A calendar or diary showing when publications carrying your advertisements are coming out, and the latest date advertising copy/artwork has to be with them.
  • Order Form - A form in a display advertisement or mailshot for the reader to fill in his name and address and return with his order. Including an order form in advertisements has been shown to increase response rates significantly.
  • Penetration - The extent to which a publication reaches a specified target readership. For example, a magazine aimed at chartered accountants may claim an 80% penetration of its target market, i.e. 80% of all chartered accountants read it.
  • Point-of-sale advertising - Literally, advertising at the point of sale (typically a shop).
  • Positioning - Where a product is positioned in the market-place - the target market segment at which it is aimed. Positioning may be manipulated by many factors, including advertising, price, packaging, and so on.
  • Proof - Single sheet of a print job, produced before the main run so that you can check for mistakes and make any necessary corrections. Complex jobs may require more than one proof stage.
  • Prospect - person or group at which your advertising efforts are targeted.
  • Response rate - In direct mail advertising, the response rate is the proportion of people responding to your offer. It is normally expressed as a percentage.
  • Sales promotion - Activity organized by a manufacturer or retailer to promote sales in the short term by giving purchasers of the product added value. Sales promotions can include price cuts, competitions, free gifts, etc.
  • Semi-display - A form of classified advertising (q.v.) in which the advertisement is given extra emphasis by means of a border around it and possibly other design elements such as a logo or illustration.
  • Test mailing - In direct mail, a test mailing is a preliminary, small-scale mail shot conducted to assess the probable level of response to the material enclosed.
  • USP - Unique Selling Proposition (or Point). A feature which is unique to a particular business, e.g. 'the only genuine Belgian restaurant in Plymouth'.


In this article, we discussed advertisement writing – the bread-and-butter work of most copywriters. We looked at how to take a brief from a client and set out guidelines to help ensure you get all the information you need to do a good job. We examined positioning and demographics, two important concepts you must grasp before writing an ad. The article went on to explain why you must always have a clear goal for any advertisement you write.


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