Have you ever seen an ad in your local paper or perhaps in your child’s soccer banquet program and thought to yourself, “Wow - somebody paid money for that to represent their business.” But then you remember it’s just a small time ad and the lady who owns Honey Donuts was probably too busy and subsequently poor from her husband’s recent, sudden passing to collaborate with a cutting edge ad firm to really make you feel the sweetness of her “award winning honey rolls.” You should also stop being so ungrateful that local businesses care about the community enough to take out a pointless ad which will be seen by like, 40 people at BEST to support your stupid kid’s soccer league. Jerk.
But what about ads by super powerful companies? Considering how much money they pour into advertising, it always stands out when they totally miss the mark or put their name on something terrible. So when five of the nation’s biggest magazine companies unleashed the “Magazines: The Power of Print” campaign, I kind of became obsessed with hating it.
Let me start by saying this - I love magazines. I read several of them. Would I be sad if print media disappeared? Yes. I like to turn the pages. But would I eventually get used to carrying around a little electronic reading tablet thingy like so many people use now? I’d have to. But this campaign! It makes me never want to read a magazine again. It makes me feel both furious and embarrassed. Let’s take a look at an ad from the campaign:
First of all, cool picture. You really had my attention with that iconic image of a man with shorter-than-dude-appropriate shorts and dumb sandals holding a white folder looking at stacks and stacks of brown bags. I’m assuming those bags have coffee in them. Because of the ad copy headline being all coffee related. But I like to think that these are bags of cocaine. And not because I have a Miami Vice inspired imagination. But because it happens.
Also, that headline: “Will the Internet kill magazines? Did instant coffee kill coffee?” I am assuming I’m supposed to answer the second question with a resounding “No!” therefore revealing to myself that the answer to the first question must be the same. But I am not really a huge coffee drinker and don’t really understand the impact instant coffee introduction had on the java economy. So for me, the second question might as well be, “Did the Teamsters kill Jimmy Hoffa?” Then I’d know the answer to both questions was, “Probably, but perhaps we will never know!”
The main part of the ad is pretty text heavy. It has about a zillion more words than most ads. It is also laid out in such a way that it feels like a letter from the magazines themselves. Which gives it a slightly more personal feeling, but not “super nice thank you note from a friend” personal - more like “love letter from somebody you have no interest in ever being romantically involved with, but who you’re still going to have to see all the time because you work together” kind of personal. So many words, but what are they saying?
“New technologies change many things. But not everything.” Those first two sentences are pretty eye opening, right? It sounds like the lazily translated tag-line to a Hindi science fiction film. Thanks for telling me nothing! That vast statement is followed up with, “You may surf, search, shop and blog online, but you still read magazines. And you’re far from alone.” Ok, they GOT me on the “you still read magazines” thing - after all, I DID see this ad in an actual issue of Rolling Stone. Guilty! Also, when I read magazines, I am constantly fighting back an anxious feeling that I’m all alone. That nobody left on Earth understands my magazine reading. So thank you for including that much needed reassurance. Now if only there were a toll free helpline number included in the ad...
This second paragraph though - that’s where it is at! It is all crammed with facts and stats and compelling information! Right? “Readership has actually increased over the last five years.” If somebody in a suit or lab coat or other authoritative garb said this to me while pointing at a bar graph, I would maybe believe it for a second. But here it’s just all naked and vague and I can’t help but wonder, “Increased from what? Abysmal to slightly less abysmal?” Also, by throwing the word “actually” in there, it shows an assumption that the reader will find this contrary to their current view. I mean, yes a smart person probably assumes that print media readership has gone down since the Internet came into play. But this is America - you’re not selling to smart people. The majority of people who see your ad are the same people that earnestly do their Christmas shopping at the “As Seen on TV” store. If the person who bought this can't be sold on the idea that magazine readership is up, heaven help the publishing industry.
Then we’re hit with the factoid that the precious 18 to 34 demographic “continues to grow.” This is aimed right at advertisers since that’s exactly who they want to sell things like Mountain Dew and Doritos to. Also Axe body spray, Skyy vodka and Trojan condoms. Probably in that order. But that’s not all! “... typical young adults now read more issues per month than their parents.” And atypical young adults write suicide poems and draw pictures of Satan in the notebook they’re hiding inside that issue of Seventeen they’ve never actually read. Oh wait - that describes typical young adults. Also, if they’re reading more than their parents, does that mean that readership in the parent age group has gone down? So does that supposed young adult increase only serves to cancel that out? I don’t know - I only cried in front of one college professor and that was in my Statistics class.
But even I know this is a pretty weak case, magazines. One of my favorite things is when somebody tells me an explanation is “fairly obvious” and then backs this up by telling me nothing but vague bullshit. This next paragraph gets a gold medal in this category. The “explanation” for the maybe-not-even-that-great upswing in readership described above is “Magazines do what the Internet doesn’t.” Hmm... The only thing I can think of that I can do with a magazine but not with the Internet is kill a cockroach. The Internet pretty much does everything. It is a never-ending information land that may or may not consist of a series of tubes. Hardly anybody actually understands how it works. It’s literally magical!
Suffice to say, to strengthen the ballsy statement that magazines can somehow do something the Internet can’t, that follow up sentence better be pretty awesome. “Neither obsessed with immediacy nor trapped by the daily news cycle, magazines promote deeper connections.” Wow. You’ve just gone ahead and listed the two things magazines by design will always be terrible at and laid them out there as if they were your greatest strengths. Well spun, magazines, well spun. Also, what is this “promote deeper connections” business? Between me and the magazine? Between me and other people? Is this because it is easier for the crazy lady on the bus to read a physical copy of Vanity Fair over my shoulder and engage me in a conversation about how she was supposed to be Reese Witherspoon but the government kidnapped her before she could audition for Man In the Moon and forced the director to cast a cyborg fighting weapon robot girl they called Reese Witherspoon than it is for her to see the same article on my iPhone? That’s my best guess.
The last paragraph though, tells us everything we need to know. This two page advertisement is directed at and a cry for help to those who advertise. “Please advertise your products in our magazines, ok? Because we’re terrified that you’re going to stop doing that. We can’t quit you, because that would mean evolving. As you can see from this ham-fisted, desperate ad, we aren’t ready for that yet.” I mean, this ad is TWO FULL COLOR PAGES. To buy that kind of ad space in a high school yearbook is expensive, let alone a major publication. So the fact they’re willing to take up potential money making space with an ad begging people to advertise tells me maybe they’re not as confidant as they pretended to be earlier when they were bragging about their readership numbers. But I suppose that’s just the cynic in me.
So yes - I still love magazines. When Harper's or The New Yorker or Jugs comes in the mail it immediately makes my whole day better. Browsing the newsstand at a bookstore is my favorite part of the experience. I even love the way they smell. But seriously magazines, your insecurity is grossing me out. Knock it off.
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