What’s in it for me?

Lowe Howard Spink’s 1997 magazine ad for Vauxhall shows a new Tigre Verde flying past a pair of European hitchhikers with a sign displaying their desired destination, ‘Nice’. The driver’s response—‘Thank you’—is a dumb joke, but it earned a Gold Lion for its use of the kind of quip the agency’s founder Frank Lowe was famous for. At a Christmas party in the 1980s, he was propositioned by a member of staff. She reportedly said “fancy a blowjob, Frank?”, to which he replied: “What’s in it for me?”

Advertising effectiveness probably wasn’t front of mind for Lowe at that particular moment, but his question is one that’s central to the debate about whether magazines are worth advertising in anymore.

When I was starting out in the industry I used to love poring over Lürzer’s Archive, a bi-monthly that catalogues the latest and greatest magazine advertising. And nothing beats great print work. There’s a discipline required to create world-class magazine advertising that just doesn’t exist in other mediums. It’s a joy to see it done well. And reading Lürzer’s, there was always a lot in it for me.

In 2008, Energizer showed a photograph of a small boy considering his pet poodle, loaded paintbrush in hand, having just discovered his father’s stash of house paint. When you browse to the bottom of the page and read the line ‘Never let their toys die’, you tell yourself a very funny story and one that strikes at the heart of the product benefit. One picture. Five words. Theatre of the mind does the rest.

We easily favour television for its ability to give a brand a sense of scale. But Annie Leibovitz’s campaign for Louis Vuitton, featuring the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev, Andre Agassi and Keith Richards, has more gravitas than 99 percent of the world’s best television campaigns.

Comparing those examples to the average magazine campaign in New Zealand in 2013 is a somewhat depressing exercise. There isn’t much in it for anyone. “Tarted up photo with litany of boastful claims” is apt for most. Kiwi magazine ads tend to be a bit like looking at the social media profile of someone you’d rather not meet.

There’s plenty in it for us reading magazines. Circulation numbers prove editors are doing a great job. But not much in it for us reading magazine ads. In a country that produces consistently strong television, outdoor and digital creative, we produce consistently terrible magazine work. And I don’t think it’s working.

If we look at the 140 New Zealand Effie Award winners from 2009 to 2012, magazines were the least used medium. While 115 of the country’s most effective campaigns used TV, 108 used online and 61 used outdoor, just 32 used magazines. With online spend only just above magazines and outdoor spend well below, it wasn’t a factor of poor investment in magazines.

If we split those four years out we see a trend. In 2009, 14 Effie winners used mag ads. In 2010 it dropped to nine. In 2011 it dropped further to eight. And in 2012, just one of New Zealand’s most effective campaigns used magazines.

Spend stayed roughly the same over those four years, so we can again rule that out. So why has magazine advertising effectiveness fallen so dramatically?

If we look at the number of magazine campaigns creatively awarded at Axis during the same period we see exactly the same trend. In 2009, seven mag campaigns were awarded. In 2010 it dropped to five. In 2011, just two. And in 2012 there were no magazine ads or campaigns awarded at Axis. We did zero magazine advertising worthy of a creative award that whole year.

Magazine effectiveness in New Zealand is declining at exactly the same rate as magazine creativity. This is consistent with the mountain of global evidence that as advertising creativity declines, so does its effectiveness.

As an advertising and marketing community, we are not using magazines well. We produce shitty magazine ads and they don’t work. Howard Gossage, the great 1950s San Francisco ad man, said: “The real fact of the matter is that nobody reads ads. People read what interests them, and sometimes it’s an ad.”

Magazine editors follow Gossage’s logic and strive for content that interests readers. But the way we’re using magazines as an advertising vehicle isn’t at all effective because for some reason we’ve fallen into a pattern of creating ads that nobody finds interesting.

Gossage also said “if you talked to people the way advertising talks to people, they’d punch you in the face.” And, judging by the Effie results, New Zealand magazine readers are voting with their fists. 

  • James Hurman is managing director of Y&R NZ and author of The Case for Creativity
  • This article originally appeared in the May/June edition of NZ Marketing. 

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