Ugly ads don’t mean bad ads: Try these expert tips for high-intent ads
Listen to this article:
Have you ever come across an ad while scrolling through TikTok that feels just like any other video on the platform—so much so that it hardly feels like you’re watching an ad?
Do you know what makes these ads work so well? They’re engaging, follow popular trends, and, most importantly, feel as authentic as other online videos we see from our favorite creators.
Unfortunately, many marketers avoid creating this type of content because it “appears ugly,” discounting the ad’s effectiveness.
Before you decide if you agree to disagree with avoiding “ugly content” for your brand, we want to introduce you to a friend specializing in ad campaigns for ecommerce brands.
“Ugly ads come from my long experience in the industry of conventional wisdom and legacy thinking always being wrong. We just do things because that's the way they've always been done. And we don't question these things or try to improve them. But, in reality, the people I see doing well are innovating and trying new things,” Hott shares.
In the case of social ads, Hott says marketers need to do a better job of looking at what type of content consumers are actually consuming.
Kudos to the brands that are pulling this off. It’s not easy to break free from traditional advertising methods. You know, the lessons that tell you your ads must be beautifully branded, made with 4K video quality, and produced with thousands of dollars.
“I've struggled with this when working with overly design- or brand-minded clients and coworkers for years. They don't understand or care how small aesthetic changes can directly impact the performance of ads in a negative way.”
So what is an ugly ad, and how can it be used to engage consumers in a way that makes them less likely to skip your ad?
Keep reading to learn Hott's tips.
Disclaimer: an ugly ad doesn’t mean bad content
Before diving in, we want to explain that when referencing an “ugly ad,” we’re not saying the content or the brand’s products are ugly. An ugly ad means the ad itself is created without an extremely high production quality and budget. But there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with the brand’s products.
“People's interpretations of ‘what is ugly is’ has confused and surprised me. Ugly is in the eye of the beholder! I'm hoping this interview helps clear up some confusion around this.”
So, what IS an ugly ad?
Like an onion, ugly ads have many layers. The camera can be shaky, the lighting can be natural from the sun, the audio can be imperfect, and the video can be low resolution.
Sounds like user-generated content, right? These aren’t your standard user-generated content either—they’re memes, news-style content, or anything users want to see on the platform you’re creating content for. The goal is to meet consumers where they are in the content style they expect to see.
Ugly ads mean not being afraid to put branding aside, so the ad feels relatable.
“People think I’m anti-brand, but deep down, I care a lot about brand. I also know that focusing too much on the visual branding, especially early on, isn’t what customers want,” explained Hott. “I’m not talking about completely removing your branding—that’s a terrible idea. I’m talking about minimizing it and not making everything about your brand.”
The goal of an ugly ad is to get customers to pay attention.
If you throw a logo at people right off the bat, you lose them immediately. Barry suggests thinking about how you can make your ad “super relevant and worthwhile.”
In return, ugly ads should then help brands
- Break free of the traditional marketing legacies that confine creative ideas and styles from even being tested.
- Make ads that consumers hate watching less. In doing so, the ads perform better.
- Make ads that drive a positive long-term impact on the brand.
“You still need to make a good ad. It still needs to have a beginning, middle, and end. It still needs to have a good hook and a story. It still needs to sell. Many people get riled up by me saying these things, but when I say ‘make ugly ads,’ I’m not saying make the ugliest-looking ad. I’m saying we’re all trained to think we need the nicest camera, the perfect lighting, a nice setting, and a steady video. But you don’t need to focus on these things that much. Instead, focus on getting people to pay attention to the problem.”
We can keep explaining the concept, but seeing an example is likely easier. Here’s one from OneBlade:
People don’t want to see perfect. They want to see real
Hott’s methods are tried-and-true. For example, when he helped launched Lone Ranch Water, he tested various ads. Some were pretty, some were “ugly” (to Barry’s definition of an ugly ad).
Comparing about 10 ads against each other, the ones that performed better were not the more polished ads.
“After running the ads for months, we ran a Facebook brand lift study. We found we had a massive lift in numbers. It was around a 30% lift in action intent. This is exactly what we’re trying to do—share ads that make people pay attention and take the action we want,” he said.
Barry’s ugly ad sniff test
We can show you many ugly ads, but how can you tell the difference between a highly branded ad and an ugly one? Here’s what Barry looks for during a sniff test:
- Heavy branding immediately in the first frame of the ad is a dead giveaway. This could be a logo, customized fonts, and strong brand colors immediately telling viewers they’re watching an ad.
- Perfect lighting that you can tell isn’t natural.
- White or blank backgrounds versus a natural landscape or someone’s house.
- High video quality that is clearly not shot from someone’s phone.
- Heavily scripted reading versus working with a creator who can speak authentically about the product.
But as Barry points out, “This doesn’t mean you can’t make ugly or good ads with these elements, but they tend to be perceived differently and often negatively by viewers.”
Why is this important?
Social media users are being fed tons of content and are only interested in paying attention to relevant and worthwhile content. If they immediately sense something is irrelevant or an ad, their subconscious blockers trigger and skip it.
“The entire goal of an ugly ad is to sacrifice traditional branding and polished design to make a more authentic version of the ad for the platform it's being displayed on.”
PSA: Ugly ads can still be bad ads
Creating an ugly ad doesn’t mean it will be successful. Any ad can be bad—pretty or ugly. It’s the content that matters most, “but making uglier ads can help make content get more attention on the right platforms and placements.”
So if ugly ads are good ads, you’re probably wondering…
What’s the difference between an ugly ad versus a bad ad?
Plain and simple: a bad ad doesn't get attention, is irrelevant, is unrelatable, and doesn't sell.
These ads tend to be too focused on a brand and its products, and they don’t tell a story that gets the viewer to change their perception or take action.
Any ad can fail in these ways—whether pretty or ugly.
Barry shared an example of a “pretty ad” from Burger King that he feels is ineffective. In the ad, Burger King partnered with popular YouTube food creators to make a video of them talking about a Whopper deal while sitting in the drive-thru.
Seems genuine enough, right?
It’s clear to viewers right away that the entire video is staged. Professional lighting is used, a professional camera is used, and there are video cuts between the YouTuber in the drive-thru and sitting in front of the Burger King restaurant. In every video, the shots are the same between YouTubers, meaning the background was also staged.
“It’s super inauthentic. It’s shot perfectly, and it doesn’t look or feel real. The average viewer won’t know that they used studio light or shot the videos in the same spot, but subconsciously they know this is not real,” explained Hott.
We have to agree with Hott on this one… In under one minute, this ad mentioned “Whopper” three times and “$5 deal” five times in an unrealistic-sounding script.
The difference between this ad and an ugly ad is that an effective ugly ad may not look like thousands of dollars were spent to produce it, but there’s a strong story and hook that gets viewers engaged with the content.
Want your ads to be ugly? Try these tips
When asked to spill his secrets on how brands can make ugly ads, Hott shared these 6 tips:
- Start with a small budget to show the value of these ads
Ugly ads go against many traditional branding methods, so it’s difficult for some executives to agree with the concept.
If you struggle to get buy-in from your manager, Hott suggests asking them to agree to a small budget to spend on the ad. “You can almost always get someone to agree to a tiny budget for learnings from running that ad,” he said.
Once your team agrees, he suggests putting yourself in the customer's shoes: don’t look at ads as a marketer, but as a consumer who doesn’t care about your brand or product.
- Authenticity is key
Consumers will easily sniff out content that feels “salesy.” A lack of authenticity is a dead giveaway you’re about to be sold to.
Think back to the Burger King example we mentioned earlier. The content, especially the script, feels forced and very inauthentic. Despite partnering with popular YouTubers to announce the deal, the video is still clearly an #Ad.
“Imagine you're pulling off an elaborate heist, and the subconscious ad blockers are security guards on high alert. Disguise your ads authentically to get past the security guards without questions.”
- Barry Hott
- Commit to the style of ad you’re creating
Every content type has elements to it that customers expect to see. For example, the classic meme font is “Impact.” If you see a meme without that font, it looks off.
This is what Hott means by committing to the style of content. “A slight font change compared to what users expect to see in that format can trigger them to feel like something is up with the content, and they’ll naturally skip it.”
So while it might not be “on brand” for you to use Impact as a font in your content, you’re potentially hurting your engagement metrics if you go against what’s expected.
- Encourage employees to create and share UGC
One way to gather tons of UGC for ugly ads is to get your internal team excited to create them.
Hott shares how you can do this by running a monthly contest, asking employees to shoot the content with their phones only. You can provide frameworks, topics, or themes like, “create the weirdest video of our product.”
“Make a game out of it! I had a client who made a bingo game out of UGC—like a scavenger hunt—to get different shots. You can even get your customers to do this if you incentivize them with free products,” said Hott.
- Stop focusing on perfection
We naturally put a lot of pressure on ourselves, feeling like everything we do can be no less than perfect. But we’re our worst enemies, and focusing on perfection too much makes it difficult to drive our work across the finish line.
While it’s easier said than done, try to put your perfections aside with ad creation. “You don’t need to go make the best ad ever. Just get a feel for it,” he suggests. “If you’re the CEO, go film something about your story. Film it on an iPhone; don't get too fancy with it. Maybe do it while you're walking—or sitting in a chair. It doesn't matter. See what juices flow, think about your pitch, and get passionate about it.”
- Follow best practices while being relatable AF
Hott’s last tip—be relatable—is for other marketers. This is because you need to understand what relatable moments you can capture that others will care about.
Remember, an ugly ad can still be a bad ad, so a good marketing eye can help you decide if your ugly ad will be effective.
It’s tough to balance making a video that feels like one your friends would post while including best marketing practices. That balance is important to master.
3 examples of effective ugly ads
Alright, now let’s put your new-found ugly ad skills to the test. Can you see why the following ads are both ugly and effective?
Featuring Mr. Hott himself 👋
- The Perfect Jean
3 examples of ads that may be “too pretty”
Now to compare, here are some ads that Hott says are “too pretty” and overly branded.
- Dos Equis
What do you think—do the ugly ad examples appeal to you more than the pretty ads? Put your biases and marketing training aside before answering this question 😉