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What Happened To Print Advertising?

Updated: Sep 22, 2021

by Matt Zucker CMO Network

Buying a magazine at a newsstand feels so special now. At $5.99, $7.99 or more, it's pricey compared to the digital version, but if you’re traveling and need a screen break or something to read during takeoff, a magazine is a cozy indulgence.

The love of print

Magazine ads were once the foundational communications challenge. As a copywriter early in my career, it was just me and the art director, armed with a brief from the strategic planner. We were given a consumer insight, a desired perception or behavior change and specs for the media buy.

We’d crank out a hundred ideas, and sell three to the client as a series. There would be an argument about the size of the logo and if there should be an 800-number and in later years, the web site listed. Fantasies of winning a One Show pencil, D&AD or Kelly award kept us motivated.

You didn't need study under George Lois or Don Draper to know the basics and have a bar for what good is. There is a century of proven lessons in how print advertising can effectively and creatively build brands and drive demand.  Look at this great classic library on Pinterest — great examples from DeBeers, Avis, ABC TV, The Economist and VW.

Against a backdrop of digital growth, print advertising is declining, but does that mean it also has to be terrible? Marketing Sherpa had a study in 2016 that showed print advertising as the most trusted format when making a purchase. Over TV, radio, even search. Forbes has also previously covered the challenges of (and opportunities for) print.

Pick up a magazine and judge for yourself

So fast forward to the current marketing era, when picking up a recent issue of Bloomberg BusinessWeek at the airport. The editorial content of the magazine was good, but if you can't resist glancing at the ads in between, lower your expectations and read on:

BMW, no stranger to great advertising, has a full page ad with a photo of a slick new model and a headline that simply says “THE 8.” That’s it. It’s at least a $100,000 car and they couldn’t afford a proper headline with a verb. The car is gorgeous but this approach puts all the pressure on the image which may appeal to some, but not surface what might matter for others. In the bottom right corner, paired with the iconic checkered-propeller logo is the brand name fully written out —"Bayerische Motoren Werke" — which is kinda clever and kinda classy but I’m not sure why they’re doing it.

Financial products company Athene runs a full-page ad with four executives in black suits and white shirts walking like marionettes. The headline: “It’s time to break free from conventional thinking.” The four folks are ethnically diverse. It took 10 minutes of research, but it’s not stock art; the image is essentially a screen grab from their TV spot about disrupting convention. As of this writing, the same headline and image is also on the website home page. This tells me that the while the brand admirably seeks consistency across channels, it hasn't yet invested in purposeful channel strategies (i.e., how best to use the web, how to use print, etc).

Mutual of America must have briefed its agency (or in-house team) with the strategy of “Real people answering the phone” since its ad has a nice broker over the shoulder of a nice affluent couple with the nice headline: “When you need someone to talk about your retirement plan, it’s good to actually have a person.” There’s nothing really wrong with this, since it’s a true statement and is a competitive posture against impersonal automation. The challenge for me is that this is not different from 100 other up-market players who tout live customer service. Mutual of America is actually an interesting organization, with a regional approach, high third-party ratings and some good testimonials on their website. There’s got to be something more compelling to say for this expensive ad unit.

Emirates, arguably the most fabulous luxury airline in the world, advertises its first class comforts — your own apartment in the sky. It probably could have said anything interesting, but the winner is a handsome man in a white sport coat, maroon pants, clutching a Scotch, gazing ahead, with the accompanying line: “Enjoy your own PRIVATE ESCAPE.” Not untrue, but some of the copy on the website is better: “Experience true luxury with your own private hotel room in the sky. Game changing technology includes temperature controls and mood lighting, an industry first with virtual windows, and soft leather seating reminiscent of a Mercedes=Benz S-Class.” Wow. Why not use some of that?

What’s the return?

Print ads in top-tier business pubs like Bloomberg BusinessWeek can run anywhere from $25,000 to $60,000 for a full page ad. What is the ROI on the ones from those I pointed out? They certainly don’t build the brand, and none as I could see had a compelling reason for direct response with an offer or strong call to action. They live in a vacuous no-whereville of wanting to announce a product and drive demand, without applying the best practices of what drives demand.

Some people did get the memo. I found this gallery from A Nerds World with some good examples of print, including a hilarious ad from Pedigree that riffs on gaming and pet control and also a collection of interactive ads, including one for Moto X around customization that appeared in Wired by a team I knew at Publicis.

So bring on augmented reality, bring back strong concepts including real headlines and calls to action. If you need a refresher take it from my favorite teacher, David Ogilvy. His advice for advertising is perfect for print.

Print, after, all is not dead — even if its soul seems shallow.

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