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For Effective Small Ads, Less is More

By: John Malmo

John Malmo began an advertising agency on a cardtable above a delicatessen in 1967 and built it into the largest in the mid-south. He also owned a travel agency, a clock shop, and a snack food manufacturing company. He is president of Koenig, Inc., Management Consulting, specializing in marketing, and he writes a weekly business commentary column for The Commercial Appeal. His 45 years of marketing experience encompass, virtually, every business category. Email him at:

It’s great to be big.

Especially if you want to play basketball or football, or if you want to advertise in magazines or newspapers. Nobody would argue that it’s better to be able to afford a full-page ad than a small one.

This, of course, creates an obsession with size. Yet, many smaller, faster athletes are quite effective in both sports, and lots of advertisers are very successful with small, much less expensive ads.

Many advertisers believe that if they can’t afford big ads they shouldn’t advertise in print media at all. Yet, in most major cities the only way an advertiser can reach a half-million people for a few hundred dollars is with a small ad in a daily newspaper.

In terms of return on investment, small ads properly created can be more successful than large ads.

Advertisers think small ads won’t be seen, and most aren’t. Not because they’re small, but because they are smaller versions of big ads with too much stuff in ‘em.

Since they pay for every line of space, advertisers want to fill every line. So they cram in everything they can. This makes ads look cluttered and messy, with no focus. Such ads repel readers.

By sticking to three fundamentals, anyone can create successful, small newspaper ads.
  1. Say or show only one thing.
  2. Surround it with blank (white) space.
  3. Write a headline of only one or two words. No more.
Advertisers who do these things make small ads that are interruptive, and very cost efficient. Two such advertisers in Memphis are Rhea & Ivy, for tax and financial planning, and Bluff City Buick.

Rhea & Ivy runs a one-column-by-two-inch ad in the Memphis Business Journal. The headline is “Retired.” The ad relates in 67 words a spoof of a mythical, 37-year-old client for whom the company has done such a good job that he has retired to Maui.

Bluff City runs ads of about 16 percent of a page in The Commercial Appeal that feature usually only one car, one price, or a low interest rate.

The secret of the Bluff City ads is a hefty use of white space that makes them stand out. Much smaller, the Rhea & Ivy ad uses liberal space between each line of copy to give an illusion of white space.

Rhea & Ivy’s ad makes one subtle sales point with an engaging three-sentence benefit story. Bluff City makes one strong point by using its space as a bold, clean statement that “owns” any page on which it appears, though lately they have added clutter.

Effective, small newspaper and magazine ads require great discipline. If you want to say two or three things, make two or three ads and alternate them. Rhea & Ivy has four.

Small ads are the classic example of “less is more.” Less content and less money beget more results.

© Copyright 2001, John Malmo

Other Articles by John Malmo

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