The 12 Master Formats of Marketing

In 1978, Donald Gunn, an advertising agency creative director for Leo Burnett, took the time to research and parse the major formats of TV advertising. He identified 12 formats, and those 12 are still prevalent today not just on TV but on new media formats like YouTube and social media. Designing an ad campaign with one of these formats in mind will not only give the ad more coherence and direction, but will also increase its efficacy.

1. Demo Ads -  this is the most obvious type of ad you can produce for a physical product. A demonstration of the product’s capabilities and features. Knives that cut through steel, but still sharp and delicate enough for tomatoes. Cars with parking assist or phones with facial recognition features. All examples of demoing a feature without necessarily appealing to emotion or tackling a problem.


2. Show the Problem and Solution - differing from a demo ad slightly, these ads call out a perceived problem in life. Then they provide the product as the answer to the problem. A common ploy among cleaning products.
There’s a stain -> How do you remove the stain? -> With this product

See the example to the side; The majority of As Seen on TV products will take this approach


3. Symbolize the Problem - similar to showing the problem, these ads make exaggerations and representations for problems that would be otherwise hard to visually represent or unappealing to do so. This is most commonly found in ads involving medication. Colds, the flu, and stuffy noses are often represented by goblins and trolls. They’re then banished by taking the medication
Referencing the example; The problem is when you’re hungry, you play sports like someone twice your age. This is symbolized by using elderly celebrities. The solution is eating a Snickers.


4. Comparison -  similar to the demo; not only do these ads tout the features of the product being sold, but put it head-to-head to show why it’s better than the competition’s product.


5. Exemplary Story - a narrative, emotionally tugging ad where the product is not necessarily the center of the ad, but it is the punchline so to speak.
Someone is late for a date, so they’re speeding in their car. A deer jumps in front of their car and they’re able to stop safely because of x-brand of brake or tire.
In this example, the whiskey is very downplayed, but still considered an important part of the emotional journey.


6. Benefit Causes Story - in this format, the benefit of a product causes a story of benefits to occur. It could be a chain of events like toothpaste leads to white teeth leads to confidence leads to job promotion. Or it could be similar to this ad


7. Testimonial - usually employing a “real” person or an expert to tell you the virtues and benefits of a product. The “real” person usually also fits the demographics sought after by the product maker, or those most appropriate and relatable.

Using “Real” People


Using an Expert


8. Ongoing Characters and Celebrities - anything featuring a mascot or a recognizable face. For ongoing characters like the Geico Gecko, the AT&T Girl, and the Kool-Aid man, it requires an extended campaign to set up the character. Celebrities on the other hand can appear in a one-off ad, but it is important to make sure the celebrity doesn’t overshadow the brand being sold.

The example is a pure celebrity association ad. Britney Spears (and Bob Dole) are tied directly to Pepsi branding and imagery. There’s no problem, benefit, testimonial, demo, and very little story. This is simply about getting audiences who want to be like Britney to also associate with Pepsi.


9. Symbolic Benefit - this is similar to 3 in using exaggerated imagery to sell the benefits of a product without explicitly stating a problem.

Consider this ad for body spray; The spray doesn’t actually turn you into chocolate when you use it, but the implied and stated benefit is you’ll become desirable.


10. Associated User Imagery - the goal of this ad is to show people who look like the target audience using the product. Often the actors in ads are more idealized versions of the target audience. This encourages a desire to be like the actors.

In this ad, it’s Nintendo’s goal to advertise to every demographic across race, gender and age to overcome possible stigmas of who video gamers are perceived to be. They also idealize video games as a social activity by having the majority of the commercial feature more than one person playing and non-players enjoying themselves.


11. Unique Personality Property - this is an ad featuring a stand out identifier for a product. It doesn’t necessarily make the product a better problem solver, but it may make it desirable for other reasons. For example, “Made in the USA” is a unique identifier which doesn’t inherently make the product better or worse, but more desirable to those wanting to support American business. “Gluten-Free” on the other hand is both a unique property and solves a problem for the consumer looking for alternative food choices.

Another example, Tom’s of Maine focuses on the toothpaste being all natural as unique trait. Then doubles up by stating the entire Tom’s of Maine brand has been making natural solutions since 1970.


Parody or Borrowed - a usually humorous ad style relying on the memetic nature of pop culture to drive associations and desire to buy.

Have a look at this series of ads. Verizon initiates the first ad, Sprint then parodies Verizon’s ad in their rebuttal. T-Mobile also borrows and parodies Verizon’s original ad while Steve Harvey parodies himself from a gaff he made as host of the MIss Universe pageant.


Mixing Formats

Going through the examples provided above it’s easy to see mixing formats is not only common, they help the potency of the ad. Both the Axe Spray ad and Hyundai ad use Benefit Causes Story and Symbolic Exaggeration formats. The Hyundai ad takes it a step further by including a celebrity. The Bridgestone ad employed elements of 4 different formats in demo, celebrity, comparison and testimonial.

Here’s another to consider:

This ad features WWE pro wrestlers as celebrities to sell TapOut apparel. However, what if the audience doesn’t recognize the personalities in the ad? Then it still falls into the 10th category of associated user imagery. They’re all fit, athletic types wearing the apparel appealing to those who themselves are fit and athletic or wish to be. Creating depth through mixing formats is good, however solidifying a base format to build everything around does keep an ad from feeling muddled or confusing.