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What We Can Learn from These Soulful, Hilarious, and Customer-Centric Ad Campaigns

Let’s start this blog post with a statement that’s challenging for leaders in the ad tech ecosystem to digest—consumers find ads frustrating and untrustworthy. According to one recent survey, only 4% of Americans believe that the marketing industry behaves with integrity.

It’s why the IAB has seen a rise in ad blocking technology and why research studies such as the Nielsen Norman Group’s findings on “banner blindness”–that consumers are likely to ignore anything that looks like an ad. The deep underbelly of advertising—click fraud, fragmented attribution models, and untrustworthy ad networks can be tough to stomach, especially when you’re managing six to seven figure ad spends.

Many companies have turned to technology to bridge efficiency gaps in connecting audiences with messages that they care about. But what happens when that message becomes misconstrued or misses the mark, even when well-intentioned?

People get upset. They vocalize their frustrations on social media. Backlash ensues. Companies take dings to their brand equity. Nobody makes purchases. Money goes wasted. There’s no ROI happening, anywhere.


The short answer: no way.

Just think how many creative minds join forces to produce these campaigns in the first place. Writers, videographers, and production leaders all join forces to engage audiences. Not to mention, retail stores across North America are shutting down, which is driving new populations of people online to shop.

Advertising is more important now than ever. The only difference between advertising today and campaigns of digital eras past is that everything is more sophisticated. Micro-moments and attention spans are the new currency of advertising. And technology alone, isn’t enough to spark a true human connection–which brings us to the multi-billion dollar question that has ad tech leaders stumped.

Smart marketers agree: advertising should be all about understanding what it feels like to walk in an individual’s shoes and what motivates that person to give a creative concept more than just a cursory glance. David Shing, Chief Prophet & Advertising Strategist at AOL

The solution is empathy.

“What we should be doing is creating a value exchange, giving our audiences something they genuinely want and need, and then they take that, add a layer of themselves around it, and take that piece of content on a very personal journey,” Shing elaborates. “They make it their own.”

There are 3 straightforward steps to follow to accomplish this vision. For simplicity’s sake, let’s call it ACT (appreciate the cheese–it makes stuff easier to remember):

  • A – Add Value: Be helpful in the message that you deliver–before planning any campaign, put yourself in your audience’s shoes

  • C – Create Action: Aim to spark a two-way dialogue, and use storytelling for the basis of your conversation

  • T – Tinker Your Way to Growth: Use technology to build an extensible campaign, so that you can build a lasting relationship across multiple platforms

Check out this concept in action, and learn how to stick to this framework, yourself.


Cedars-Sinai, a major hospital association with a comprehensive cancer center, creates emotionally captivating ads with life-saving information.

That’s why it’s so important for care providers to share information about this debilitating disease while also communicating treatment options. The challenge? In the United States, hospital organizations face stringent laws when it comes to marketing services to consumers. But Cedars-Sinai aims to be more than a hospital. In their words, “we strive to provide hope.”

So Cedars-Sinai’s ads aren’t exactly ads. They’re short, vignette-style mini documentaries that bring visibility, optimism, and a sense of leadership to a cause that few organizations are well-equipped to tackle. The beauty of these vignettes is that they’re informative enough for a wide audience to feel engaged. The idea is to get the message out, in hopes that it will land in the hands of the right people.

Let’s see how this campaign followed the ACT principles:

  • A – Add Value: Cedars-Sinai distributes an important message, far and wide. The takeaway is that even if you’re keeping your content short, you can still deliver a compelling message. One way to streamline what you have to say is to condense your takeaway into a simple yet powerful message—”you should not die from embarrassment.” Say something bold. Make your message stand out.

  • C – Create Action: Speak to a specific pain point and offer a solution, with no strings attached. Take a lesson from hospitals that legally (and ethically) can’t bombard audiences with an aggressive sales pitch.

  • T – Tinker Your Way to Growth: Thanks to data licensing and targeting algorithms, you can reach the audiences you need with precision. As in Cedars-Sinai’s case, you can optimize your message for far-and-wide distribution.

In your narrative, stop trying to sell. Build campaigns that move your audience’s souls, instead. Offer a solution to a challenge. Tell a story. Teach something new.


If you’ve ever studied creative writing, you’ve likely come across the concept of subtext. If you haven’t studied creative writing, you’re about to learn one of the most important storytelling techniques that you’ll ever learn.

So what the heck is it? Google defines it as “an underlying and often distinct theme in a piece of writing or conversation.” In everyday speak: writers and filmmakers use subtext to communicate an idea “between the lines.”

If you’re a Hemmingway fan, you can also think of this strategy as similar to his Iceberg Theory— the idea that writing should be minimalist, with an underlying message that audiences themselves should discover through a process of introspection.

Used tactfully, subtext can be powerful. One (very hilarious) example of this concept is Poo-Pourri’s mastermind video campaign. Check it out for yourself and see if you can pinpoint the subtext in this interactive video (or scroll down past the video for an answer).

So what was the subtext. It’s “everyone should buy this product because everyone needs it, whether or not they’re willing to admit it.” If you’re interested in learning more about subject, check out the Reward Concept behind the Hooked Framework: the idea is that when there is subtext in marketing and audiences need to fill in the blank, they find the opportunity rewarding to build a stronger and more empathetic relationship.

Here’s how this strategy fits together, following Contobox’s ACT framework.

  • A – Add Value: Talk about something that your audiences can personally relate to. If a topic is awkward, use humor, and be fun.

  • C – Create Action: Ensure that your messaging speaks to a legitimate need. The story you tell should evoke the feeling of “I need this.”

  • T – Tinker Your Way to Growth: Find ways to make your storytelling go viral. Be hilarious. Challenge audiences’ comfort zones. Be unorthodox and share-worthy.


Stop creating one-dimensional banner ads-use new advertising technology to create a two-way feedback loop.

Again, you don’t need to force a sale to take place. Instead, ask your audiences to take action that is mutually beneficial. Offer widgets that allow audiences to click for more info. Offer up something free. Or just have fun with your campaign—you can even encourage your viewers to perform a random act of kindness.

The key is that you’ll want to build a strong connection with and passion for your brand. An interactive experience can help accomplish that goal.


This campaign addresses a pain point that individuals around the world face every day—the fact that applying makeup is a challenge. Audiences can choose a face shape for a customized tutorial of how to apply makeup. The kicker? The ad isn’t product-centric at all. It’s helpful.

  • A – Add Value: Feature resources that anyone can use to enhance their happiness and lives, without an aggressive sales push.

  • C – Create Action: Keep the conversation going. For instance, Maybelline hosted a contest and used a hashtag to update its ad unit using fresh content.

  • T – Tinker Your Way to Growth: Think long-term in your campaign strategy, remembering that you’ll be re-engaging audiences across touchpoints. Maybelline’s campaign, for instance, creates an audience segmentation opportunity where you can retarget with creative customized to the users face shape. Maybelline, by running this campaign, is able to collect unique 1st party data to enhance their market research and future campaigns.


So now you’re brimming with ideas of storytelling techniques to try and consumer-loved campaigns to run. The challenge now, is getting started. How do you consolidate the many different dimensions of your brand into a linear story?

The idea is to distill your story-line into a central, simple, and straightforward concept. We built a workbook to guide you and your team through the process.

Fill out the form below to download a copy.


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