What are they selling?

John Foust

Jan 1, 2023

One of the first questions to ask an advertiser is, “What do you want to sell?”

My wife and I once visited with Rick and Karen, a couple who had served as missionaries overseas. As part of their work to get involved in the community, Rick was assigned to teach a class at a local school.

“For some reason,” he said, “they wanted me to teach advertising. I had absolutely no experience in advertising, but they requested that subject because they wanted their students to learn something about business.”

How in the world did he deal with such a big challenge? “I figured the best way handle it was to make the class as interactive as possible, so we could learn together,” he explained. “On the first day, I pinned some ads from newspapers and magazines to the wall. Then I asked the students to identify what each ad was selling. To put it mildly, it was a lively discussion. All of their other classes had been lectures, and they weren’t accustomed to contributing their ideas in the classroom. They really dove into it, walking around the room, studying the ads. It was interesting to hear their perspectives — and to watch them bounce ideas off each other. From the beginning, the students were attracted to the ads that clearly indicated what they were selling. Along the way, it was surprising to see how many ads were so unclear that none of us could figure out exactly what those particular ads were all about.

“The conversation progressed from ‘What are these ads selling?’ to ‘What makes some ads better than others?’ That’s when the fun started. They talked about nice-looking photographs and drawings, good headlines, and what types of people would likely buy the things various ads were selling. Their reaction was so positive that in the next few class meetings, we went into detail on the things they mentioned.”

Rick said the class was a “wow” experience, and it’s easy to see why. He discovered an excellent way to teach the basics of advertising, and the students learned a lot about how businesses promote themselves.

“Together, we learned that advertising is not some distant intellectual topic,” he said. “It’s ground-level communication.”

The point for us to consider is simple: Are our readers really that much different from the students in that overseas classroom? Aren’t readers also drawn to well-written copy, compelling photos and illustrations? Of course, they are.

One of the first questions to ask an advertiser is, “What do you want to sell?” If he or she does not provide specific information, the resulting ad or series of ads will not perform well on Rick’s classroom wall or in the paper.

Maybe they have so many products and possible audiences that they need to narrow their focus. Maybe they don’t realize that effective advertising is more than slapping their logo on the page. Or maybe no other ad person has talked to them about the value of marketing strategy.

In many ways, selling is teaching. Your client list is your classroom.

© Copyright 2023 by John Foust. All rights reserved.

John Foust has conducted training programs for thousands of newspaper advertising professionals. Many ad departments are using his training videos to save time and get quick results from in-house training. Email for information: john@johnfoust.com