Remember that brilliant episode of Mad Men where, in retaliation to losing Lucky Strike, Don Draper cut ties with the entire tobacco industry via a single advertisement in The New York Times?
Of course, it’s fictional. But watching Don’s various colleagues, employees, and competitors staring aghast at their morning newspapers is a brilliant dramatisation of how to make your point and garner attention via a newspaper.
These days, if you want to get your opinions into the public domain, there are many options. Whether it’s through the written word or via a photo or video, there are countless platforms and apps at our fingertips, which allow us to fire off what we’re thinking and feeling into the ether.
As was explored at Newsworks’ Shift 2015 conference last month, context is particularly important when it comes to advertising. While social media undeniably has a fundamental role for brand communications, I believe print offers brands and campaigners a somewhat “weightier” environment in which to reach their audiences (without the 140 character limit).
Of course, open letters and ads seeking to make a point about particular issues have evolved since Draper’s day, covering a wide range of issues and taking some interesting forms.
Ecotricity created intrigue last September by taking over pages two and three of the Guardian with its stark message, “Nothing Happened.” With no obvious branding, the advertisement’s neat columns of text describe how no one noticed “after four nuclear power stations had shut down and Didcot went up in flames” because the “windmills kept on turning, powering almost 25% of our country.”
The large-scale, simple design, lack of branding, and almost poetic text combined to make the ad eye-catching, thought-provoking, and memorable.
More recently, an open letter used timing to increase its impact. With annual Oscar fever hitting the media last month, the piece cleverly drew on associations with one of the nominated films, The Imitation Game, to increase attention and support.
Addressed “To Her Majesty’s Government” and with signatories including Benedict Cumberbatch, director of The Imitation Game Morten Tyldum, and Alan Turing’s niece Rachel Barnes, the letter called for the government to pardon “all the men, alive or deceased, who, like Alan Turing, were convicted under the UK’s ‘gross indecency law’… and other anti-gay criminal legislation.”
In contrast to the simple starkness of the Ecotricity ad, the letter’s border furthered the association with the film by sporting the cogs of the code-breaking machine seen in the movie.
Going back a bit, another strong example of an open letter was David Walsh’s to Oprah Winfrey published in The New York Times, just before her television interview with Lance Armstrong.
Having conducted a 13-year investigation into Armstrong’s doping, The Sunday Times’ chief sportswriter used the letter to put forward 10 questions he’d like to see Oprah ask the cyclist. Speaking at Newsworks’ Shift North, Walsh described how he “had to steady myself not to fall off the chair” when Armstrong said he would apologise to him during the course of the Oprah interview.
On the subject of apologies, newspapers also often act as a platform from which brands can communicate and make amends with customers after a controversy.
Perhaps most well known in recent years was Tesco’s six-week newspaper campaign in the wake of the horsemeat scandal.
The long-copy ads, commencing with one entitled “We apologise,” helped Tesco to avert disaster, with its head of brand advertising Angela Porter saying: “Putting newspapers at the heart of our media activity allowed us to demonstrate how we were taking responsibility for events as they unfolded, so much so that our adverts went way beyond advertising to actually become the news.”
Apologising via a newspaper ad has become so popular that Three spoofed the format last summer with an ad stating: “Recently, you may have noticed a dramatic rise in sunsets appearing in your social media feed. We’re sorry. Responsibility for this spam rests entirely on our shoulders.”
The text went on to detail the phone company’s rates abroad, before urging Three customers to “please brag responsibly.” The juxtaposition of the funny content with the tone and appearance of a serious apology made for an original and amusing ad.
Finally, campaign group 38 Degrees used a newspaper ad to publicise its campaign to stop the government from privatising the NHS. Rather than taking the form of a long-copy ad or an open letter, the group created content that stood out by publishing a poster in the newspaper, encouraging people to cut out the “We heart NHS” ad and stick it in their windows.
Overall, newspapers offer many ways in which organisations, brands, and campaign groups can make a point effectively. Yes, open letters and long-copy ads have been around for centuries, but newspapers continue to offer a great environment for issues to be raised, apologies made, and questions asked in creative and innovative ways.