There’s been some really effective produce advertising over the years.

What makes good advertising? Ads that perform a business function: sell, inform, promote.

Sometimes clever, funny or profound ads get critical acclaim and even win awards, but fail in the basic task: viewers don’t remember the sponsor’s name. They just remember they liked the ad.

Searching for the perfect produce ad

Larry Waterfield
Columnist

On the other hand, repetitious, and even annoying ads, can be effective. Does anyone not know that “the gecko” sells GEICO car insurance?

There have been successful ads using celebrities, characters, cartoons, catchy slogans: Chiquita Banana, the California Raisins. Singer Anita Bryant used to sell Florida citrus.

One of the best “promos” ever was not an ad but a publicity photo from a movie studio: the immortal Marilyn Monroe dressed in an Idaho burlap potato sack, which proved the point, “She’d look good even in a potato sack.” That image is still around on the Internet, where you can also buy potato sack clothing.

Advertising and its creators have become fashionable because of a television series, “Mad Men,” about the advertising business — Madison Avenue — in the 1960’s.

I worked some in advertising way back then, including trips to advertising agencies on Madison Avenue. There were plenty of companies trying to reach the produce industry: box and packaging firms; chemical companies; railroads and packing machinery.

The airlines targeted produce. They believed air freight could service pricey and highly perishable produce items.

The TV series does capture the spirit of the times: severe dark suits (no casual days), two-martini lunches, plenty of cigarette smoke, and the beginnings of the modern women’s movement as well-educated women battled to move into better jobs.

This was also the time when the public began to get interested in nutrition and health, and even food safety. Eggs were implicated in the concern over cholesterol, and the fact that eggs could carry salmonella.

Searching for the perfect produce ad

Larry Waterfield

Produce advertising to consumers was limited, but a lot of produce commodity groups were competing with the high budgets of processed foods. A lot less was known about the health benefits of fresh produce. Still, most people intuitively knew that “fresh” was better for you.

A big advance came with the creation of the 5 a Day campaign, a generic program that was proposed back in the 1940s. Another advance was the easier and more economical use of color in ads, on television, on cartons and bags. There are few products more attuned to color than fresh produce. The colorful old produce labels have become collectors’ items.

Some of the best produce advertising has come from supermarket chains “selling” the produce department as the anchor and lure of their stores. Here is a way to “brand” the store, to make it stand out. Sell the color, the heat of the tropics, the crunch of the apple, the snap of the celery, the hint of sunshine in the citrus, the promise of freshness from “locally grown.”

A hallmark of good advertising is to find the key selling points of a product or service.

Then create ads that tell — sell — the story, with the use of attention-getting pictures, copy, headline, slogan, color, song, jingle.

A lot of smart advertisers know their ads will be seen by existing customers. That’s a good thing. It re-enforces the decision the customer has made: Here is a company or brand that is a player, that’s in the game. You do business with us, you’re dealing with a winner. The ad makes a statement.

When someone doubts the power of advertising, I give them a test. I name generic products and see how they respond. Dole. “Pineapple.” Driscoll. “Strawberries.” Idaho. “Potatoes.” Cranberries. “Ocean Spray.” Tyson. “Chicken.”

That happened because of years of advertising and promotion. You can’t hide your candle under a bushel and expect anyone to see your light.

In some ways this is the golden age of advertising. There are so many more ways for advertisers to reach — to target — their customers and prospects. Of course, people are also bombarded with more messages than ever before.

Advertising can be a business workhorse, but it cannot work miracles. It can’t convince people that a sow’s ear is really a silk purse in disguise. It cannot compensate for bad products and bad service. A lot of banks, airlines and car companies have found that out.

The search is still on for the perfect ad, the one that sells effectively, informs, and entertains.

I haven’t worked in advertising for many years, but as an avocation I create posters, which were an early form of advertising. Several years ago a photo appeared in the Los Angeles Times of a zoo gorilla surrounded by dozens of fruits and vegetables.

I made that into this poster with the simple headline: “He Eats 55 a Day. Surely you can do 5!”

It may not be a perfect “ad,” but it sure helps to have an 800-pound gorilla selling for your side.

E-mail lww4@verizon.net