iNewspaper: the medium of the message

Remember getting the initiation.You fold this part halfway, then this part over, and then a quick decisive tuck.It was the summer of my 13th year, and I was taking over a friend's paper route until school was in.The instructions were...

Remember getting the initiation.

You fold this part halfway, then this part over, and then a quick decisive tuck.

It was the summer of my 13th year, and I was taking over a friend’s paper route until school was in.

The instructions were varied, but one rule held: the paper must arrive in perfect shape within one foot of the door. The enemies were rain, wind, and the clock. I did not notice the flickering of the tv screens in some of the living rooms, and magazines still had to be paid for a copy at a time from the newsstand.

The death of the newspaper as a place to put important messages could hardly be predicted then. There were still two papers to divide the day into a.m. and p.m., and everybody had a favorite section, packed with all manner of messages.

Today’s papers (usually one major daily to a city, except in Toronto) have something missing most days. Oh, there is still the usual collection of screaming ads and price ads, and ‘act now’ ads, but there is something missing.

The important messages. The messages that get you to dream. The messages that made you think a company was special, whatever its products. All the messages that were above mere price, banner and starburst.

What the people in the business called ‘image ads.’

You see, these ads have migrated to other media, notably tv and magazines. Why?

The answer lies partly on the back page of the October 1992 National Geographic I read in a neighbor’s living room.

It was an ad for Jeep Cherokee, I believe. An image ad with no price, and a mouth-watering shot of the product in the great National Geographic outdoors.

The headline read something like, ‘The good news is that the new Jeep Cherokee now comes with a V6 engine standard. There is no bad news.’

Maybe in the world of National Geographic there is no bad news, but adapt that ad to newspaper, and put it in a typical Canadian daily and what is beside it? Airplane crashes, plant closings, the constitutional crisis. In short, bad news.

Image advertising lives in a Polyanna realm, or at least a world of optimism.

Dailies have discovered that bad news makes more interesting copy.

The Fraser Institute recently surveyed news coverage of the economy and noted that downswings were more likely to be written about than upswings by an incredible margin.

Any reviewer knows bad notices are more lively and fun to write than good ones, and editors know a good scandle or disaster sells papers.

Trouble is, they do not sell image ads, in which rose-colored glasses make companies and products look their best.

That is not the only hang-up. People are not reading as they used to. Time spent with papers has been steadily shrinking, literacy rates in Canada are alarming.

What is a company to do but find a nice, safe 30-second tv spot next to a sitcom or the Jays’ broadcast? Magazines are okay, because you do not have to really read them, browsing does nicely.

Of course, from a creative director’s perspective, newspapers have not always made it easy. Standardization of sizes and columns came late. Ask for an unusual size for a national ad and you would get a checkerboard of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ from the dailies.

I remember trying to get color on the bottom of the page banners for Canadian Pacific Airlines ads.

Beg and bully

The media people had to beg and bully their way past, first, minimum sizes, then position premiums, followed by minimum color charges, paper by paper, right across the country.

We persisted, and the unit later became rate card standard, but what a struggle.

Then there is reproduction. Old presses such as those at Pacific Press, clung to for years, are an anathema to clean image advertising.

White space, if it survived the client’s desire to fill it with useless detail, was destroyed by over-inked facing pages or bleed-throughs.

Color registration is still an issue with many papers. My son did better at keeping inside the lines when he was five.

Many advertisers simply ceased to bother. Newspapers have increasingly become the place for prices, not launches, sales not dreams.

There is some hope. Car companies have rediscovered color inserts, thanks to Nissan. This is a vast improvement on messy ads with cars, $500 rebates but no real prices, a nightmare hybrid between retail and image advertising.

Business press still retains a dignity and targetting acumen to attract image advertisers in the corporate realm.

Finally, and this is the most promising sign, some astute agencies have noticed that retail ads can further image while selling product.

Better yet, if an image ad can co-exist in the real world of daily news, and survive, it automatically stands out and is remembered.

You see, the day it runs, it most likely stands alone.

Alvin Wasserman is creative director of Wasserman Cozens Dundon in Vancouver.