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Why Print Advertising Isn't Working

Viewpoint: Could It Be Because Much of It Isn't Really Good?

By Published on .

Philip W. Sawyer
Philip W. Sawyer
The exercise was simple: To update a presentation on print-advertising effectiveness, I needed to select about 20 ads to test their stopping power, branding ability and level of engagement -- the three key elements that drive purchase consideration and, ultimately, sales. Keeping in mind a set of principles that I had developed in more than 20 years of advertising research, I looked through 15 magazines and pulled about 50 ads that either positively or negatively exemplified those principles. Later, as I tried to cull my 50 ads down to 20, I came to a shocking realization: Almost all of the ads had caught my eye because they were egregiously negative examples of the principles.

This wasn't good. Experience has taught me that only about 33% of print ads are effective, but only about 5% of the ads I had selected were examples of good creative design. And for any ad-effectiveness research to be useful, it has to be discriminating. If almost all the ads are weak, then our analysis has no real foundation. Was I subconsciously looking for bad ads? Perhaps. So I went back to all my magazines and began a new search, specifically to find ads that were likely to attract and sustain reader attention.

It took me a long time. Maybe I've become one of those old codgers who bemoan the lack of standards and whines that everything was better in the old days. But here is another possibility: Maybe print advertising today just isn't very good. Maybe very few people are mindful of the research that has demonstrated what makes print advertising work, and maybe a lot of people who are creating print ads these days are doing it based on the lovely ideas that come out of their divine imaginations -- and that have nothing to do with how people really see and respond to ads.

What is wrong with print ads?

They lack stopping power and, therefore, a visceral connection with the reader. The ads that consistently attract initial attention tend to be those with a single photograph comprising one powerful focal point. So many print ads today err on either side of that principle: Either they eschew the use of photographs entirely in order to pack the page with verbiage, or they contain several images, thus diffusing rather than concentrating attention, which, in turn, results in boredom and the reader abandoning the page.

Photographs are the primary attention-getting element in an ad, and the only thing worse than the absence of a powerful, eye-catching image is a plethora of images. One compelling photograph with one alluring focal point is both sufficient and necessary to bring readers to the page -- the advertiser's first goal.

They inhibit involvement. Clean copy is read copy. Just as the journey to the heart and the emotions generally begins with the image, the path to the rational, decision-making sphere is through the verbiage on the page. Arousing an emotional response is important, but so is appealing to the intellect. Making a good, cogent argument for the product or service is what transforms the interested bystander into a committed shopper and advocate. Unfortunately so many advertisers undermine their advertising messages by employing variously sized and shaped fonts in their headlines or by presenting the body copy over photographs with variously shaded backgrounds, making the copy almost impossible to read without a considerable amount of work.

Most readers are willing to work to understand the articles in the publication, but not to comprehend the pitch in an ad. If you provide them with concise, easy-to-read headlines and body copy, and if they are at all interested in the product, they will read even lengthy body copy -- and are then far more likely to call the company to get more information, to talk about it to others, and to purchase the product.

They "flow" badly. Every ad takes the reader on a kind of visual journey, which typically begins with the photograph and then moves on to the headline, body copy and logo. The tendency of the American reader is to move downward and to the right in keeping with the way that we read full texts. However, the ways in which the elements are placed on the page can alter that natural flow. For example, if the body copy is placed at the top of the page and the photograph below it, most readers will first go to the photograph and then proceed downward. They are unlikely to "fight gravity" and float back to the top of the page to read the body copy, which is unfortunate because the body copy is where the argument for the sell takes place. If you look at many ads carefully, you start to see that most are haphazardly put together and many will, without the intention of the creators, send the reader on a journey that subverts the interests of the advertiser. Effective print ads employ creative devices that, like good Sherpas, smoothly take the reader through all the critical points on the page.

They display little interest in generating meaningful action. Print advertising has increasingly become more response-driven -- which is entirely fitting and proper. And yet, if you select a sample of print ads and try to find any response information, you will see that in many cases you're going to have to work hard to find it. In a substantial number of ads, the 800-number and website addresses are indistinguishable from the rest of the copy and, perhaps most important, that information is placed at the end of the block of copy. And then print advertisers wonder why their ads aren't getting a response and blame the medium for its presumed failures.

They do not emphasize benefits and, therefore, provide little "reason to believe." Something sinister happens to marketers when they turn to print advertising. Somehow in the transformation of an argument into print, they cease being sellers and, instead, become self-portrait painters, content to describe the product and service, relying on obtuse (but often clever and sometimes poetic) value statements or rhetorical questions. They thus avoid any attempt to answer the consumer's most pressing question, "What's in it for me?" Here is what is vitally important for advertisers to remember: Most consumers are uninterested in what you are committed to or how devoted you are to innovation or your proud history or your philosophy. What they want to know is how you are going to save them time or money, make them more effective or healthier, happier and richer.

And consider this true story. Sometime in the early 1990s while reading The Wall Street Journal, I spotted a small, direct-response ad from a shirt manufacturer. The ad featured drawings of four different kinds of dress shirts and a brilliant headline, "Great Shirts. Great Prices." The body copy neatly and concisely underscored the ideas in the headline, emphasizing the facts that the shirts were 100% close-knit cotton and built for comfort and durability. I called the 800 number, and the owner of the small company answered the call.

After I ordered, I asked him how his ad was performing. "I'll say this," he said, "that's the last time you're going to see this ad for a long time." Stunned, I asked him how this could be. There was a pause, and then he said, "I've gotten so many orders after placing the ad that I can't fulfill them fast enough." His point was proved during the two long months it took to process my order and deliver my shirts (which, by the way, were everything that he had promised).

The point, again, is that print advertising does work. And the first question that any advertiser should ask when an ad fails to fulfill expectations is not, "What's wrong with print advertising?" but "What's wrong with my ad?"

Philip W. Sawyer is senior VP-solutions consultant at Harris Interactive.
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