Seth Stevenson was online on July 26 to chat with readers about this article. Read the transcript.
In 1978, Donald Gunn was a creative director for the advertising agency Leo Burnett. Though his position implied expertise, Gunn felt he was often just throwing darts—relying on inspiration and luck (instead of proven formulas) to make great ads. So, he decided to inject some analytical rigor into the process: He took a yearlong sabbatical, studied the best TV ads he could find, and looked for elemental patterns.
After much research, Gunn determined that nearly all good ads fall into one of 12 categories—or “master formats,” in his words. At last year’s Clio Awards, I saw Gunn give a lecture about these formats (using ads mostly from the ‘70s and ‘80s as examples), and I was fascinated by his theory. I soon found myself categorizing every ad I saw on TV. It was a revelation: The curtain had been pulled back on all those sly sales tactics at the heart of persuasive advertising.
This slide show presents some recent ads exemplifying each of Gunn’s 12 basic categories. With a little practice, you, too, will be ticking off the master formats during commercial breaks.
Click here for a slide show on Gunn’s 12 master formats. Or watch a video version of this story at Slate V.