I hereby recuse myself from commenting on the new Steak ’n Shake TV ads, and offer my Eight Attributes of Great Advertising.

If you dig very far into this site, you see that I spent the better half of two decades writing and/or creative directing advertising and marketing materials for Steak ’n Shake restaurants. So, like a judge who really can’t be impartial adjudicating a case that comes before his bench involving one of his kids, I should let someone else comment on these ads.

Instead of commenting on these ads, I can, however, make a bullet pointed list of eight things I admire in any ad, for any company, with examples. If you extrapolate from these examples how I might feel about the new Steak ’n Shake advertising (which was done by an ad agency I have held in the highest regard for most of my professional life), I cannot prevent you.

Eight Attributes of Great Advertising:

1. The Sudden “Oh Yeah” Connection of A Well-Made, Relevant Point. I think ads can be great when they’re making me realize something about a product that I hadn’t thought about before, but which I think is relevant, interesting, and engaging. Example: Chipotle.

It's a Chipotle Billboard I like!

2. The Happy Recollection of A Positive Experience. I think ads can be great when they remind me (or create a false memory) of how much affection I have for a product. I think White Castle used to do this pretty well. Unfortunately, their recent work disturbs me. I also think that wall of good P.R. in Five Guys injects you with a positive opinion when you go in, which the experience usually supports, and everything you see from them outside the store (including their sign) reminds you how good it is. It’s a beautiful example of powerful in-store marketing, and of how simplicity, the appearance of honesty, facts, and more-or-less objective third party opinion can be effective.

Everybody says I love you. To Five Guys.

3. The Rare Privilege of Watching a Great Actor In A Great Role. I think ads can be great when they luck into a perfect casting choice, and allow the actors to really mine their acting or comedic gifts while making differentiating points about the product. Sonic did such a good job with this that they let “the guys” go, then had to hire them back.

4. The Power of Understanding The Marketing Intent With Great Clarity. I think ads can be great when they get very clear about what they want their audience to conclude and, over time, work through an ever-evolving series of delightful twists and plays on the central idea. Even consumers enjoy watching a perfectly, precisely honed strategic platform play out in the media. I’ve already discussed how Chic fil A and Hardee’s/Carl’s Jr. have mastered this. Jimmy Johns does a great job, too.

5. The Thrill of Detecting Intelligence and High Standards In Corporate Leadership, As Displayed In The Outward Expression of The Advertising. I think ads can be great when they make me feel they’re being done by people who are confident, imaginative (that’s a link to the current Big Mac advertising), disciplined, and meticulously minding the details. Like in these Cracker Barrel ads:

6. The Recognition of Ancient Urges Stoked By Expertly Executed Imagery. I think ads can be great when they have “ownable,” memorable product photography, like Hardee’s sloppy burger drops. The old Red Lobster lemon squirt is another example.

7. The Bonding Effects of Like-Mindedness, Never Taken For Granted.I think ads can be great when they know their audience so well, and what their audience thinks is interesting, they can constantly find ways to engage and surprise them, like Taco Bell, or the former administration at Burger King:

8. The Androcles-Like Loyalty Earned By Respecting The Viewer’s Intelligence and Using the Media To Effectively Entertain (Even As the Consumer Acknowledges A Company’s Self-Interest). I think ads can be great when they’re funny, and not just funny “for an ad,” but actually funny. I’m looking at you, Jack in the Box. And I’m smirking. In a good way.


  1. I got tired of the Five Guys approach. One wall is adequate, but their positive media followed me into my restroom. Powerful perhaps, but I started rolling my eyes…

    1. Oo, yeah. Most restaurants have the sense to leave you alone in the bathroom. Probably four of the guys understand that and tried to talk that remaining guy out of being overly promotional, but One Guy was pushier and got his way, and took that St. Louis Post Dispatch review or Cincinnati Monthly Magazine reprint and put it in the frame and stuck it in there for you.

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