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Michael Lee of Madam: why some of the best ads just show what the product does

I’ve been in a number of agency/client meetings when the comment surfaces (more often from the client side of the table), “Why don’t we just show what the product can actually do?”

It’s more often than not met with a few looks to the ceiling, silences, and “yes we could do that…but.”

But, why not? Why are agencies so determined to avoid the obvious, when some of the best work ever was a simple product demo?

Apple has been doing demo work for years, just disguising it with flawless execution. From the brilliant ‘I’m a Mac/I’m a PC’ campaign to the new ‘shot on I-Phone 6’ work, featuring some stunning photography shot on the new phone. It appears that even in producing a product demo, Apple has set a bar for simplicity and elegant execution.


Going back a few years, the famous Volkswagen “snowplow” spot and the “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing” Alka-Seltzer spots were simple demos, brilliantly executed, endearingly remembered. Many demo campaigns have been lauded by consumers and award show juries alike. So why all the reluctance?

I asked Joe Alexander, chief creative officer of The Martin Agency, what his thoughts were on the demo. “I don¹t think creatives hate product demos if the product has a truly unique benefit to demo,” he said. But he warned, “If it’s not a great new story to demo, who wants to watch that?”

To be honest the demo has been given a bad rap mostly by being allocated eight seconds in a TV spot where we cut to a CGI sequence of soap bubbles whisking baked-on lasagna off a dish, to a weird frothy substance miraculously brightening a row of greying dentures or vigorous engine pistons demonstrating the talents of a particular engine oil.

Joe continued, “People share what they find interesting. Commercials, stunts, cat videos, hockey highlights—and product demos.”

Ted Royer, CCO of Droga5, loves a great product demo. “A fantastic demo is the best way to differentiate a great product. Volvo’s ‘Epic Split’ was so crazy..and then on top of that, they’re driving the trucks backward. And does everyone remember American Tourister luggage? They took it to an extreme. A gorilla smashing anything is great to me.”

So why shouldn’t a client be proud of their product? There’s nothing wrong with that. Unfortunately, some clients convince themselves that their product is interesting. “A demo can be great for a sales conference, but doesn’t mean anything to a bored and distracted consumer,” Royer adds.

It all brought back Jerry Della Femina’s famous line, “Nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising.” As true today as it ever was. Maybe more so.

And as a warning to agencies, nothing kills an agency relationship faster than a product demo gone wrong, as was the case with Volvo and the ‘Monster Truck’ debacle. This ambitious demo featured a monster truck driving over and crushing a line of cars, apart from one. The Volvo. Problem being that the film company had reinforced the Volvo roof.

Cue angry client. Cue agency review.

My thinking is, do a demo by all means, but make it insane, dramatic, memorable and most of all, one you’d want to share it with others. If your demo doesn’t fit that bill, my advice would be to keep it for the next sales meeting.

But last words go to Royer. He would “be happy to do demos for Jockey Underwear.”

Interesting. Let’s all keep an eye out for that one.

This article first appeared in Forbes

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About Michael Lee

Michael Lee
Michael Lee is a former ECD of Euro RSCG New York handling Volvo Worldwide. Born in England, he spent 20 years working on integrated accounts including Intel, JP Morgan, ExxonMobil and Jaguar. In 2012 he set up agency search consultancy Madam.


  1. Here’s a classic product demo from the Campaign Palace back in the 80s …

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