Newspaper ads have long been bottom feeder fare, the bane of art and production directors and the ugly sibling of magazine showcases. Of course, the majority of U.S. newspapers has been capable of reproducing color ads for years, providing a potentially more rewarding medium than a strictly b&w environment. Still, most newspaper color ads look a little under the weather, to say the least. Colors bleed, reds turn maroon, objects print as unrecognizable blobs.
"You have USA Today, and then you have your local paper," sighs Dennis Isaacson, production director at BBDO/Vancouver, who recently oversaw a color newspaper campaign for Molson's Signature ale. Actually, you now have The New York Times, too. After 101 years, the Gray Lady has put some color on her cheeks; the paper belatedly entered the fray last month by installing what are said to be state-of-the-art color presses. But is state-of-the-art finally good enough to satisfy demanding advertisers, production people and creatives?
How well color ads print in The Times should be clear by the time you read this. An early color advertising section in which the paper trumpets its new capabilities looked impressive. But around the country, art directors and print production managers, jaws clenched, are likely to point out why they still can't trust newspaper printing.
Bad experiences are all too familiar to Paul Lynch, quality and technical training manager at The Chicago Tribune. Lynch is also the chairman of the Newspaper Association of America's newspaper color quality reproduction task force. Earlier this year, he told a crowd at a New Orleans conference that the state of color reproduction in national advertising was nothing less than a "failure." He, too, held up USA Today as the exception (it maintains its excellent standards by rigidly controlling production in-house).
Lynch is regularly under assault by creatives facing an end product that looks appalling, not appealing. Here's the usual scenario: An agency designs an ad fulfilling the standard newspaper lines per inch and ink density requirements. The creatives send it off to the printer, who zips out a beautiful proof that matches the art director's computer image; a happy client signs off on the ad.
Then the ad rolls off the newspaper's presses. Colors don't match the proof; photos are murky, nobody can understand what went wrong, and Lynch starts fielding irate phone calls. "I get it all the time," he sighs. "The agencies love to sign off on a pretty proof, but there's no linkage between the proof and the final ad." Advertisers and agencies "see so much bad color produced that they don't know what's possible."
Among the many problems that beset color reproduction, Lynch says, one of the biggest culprits is desktop publishing software. Programs like Adobe's Photoshop have traditionally had default settings that are set to optimize magazine proofs, not newsprint proofs.
But the problem extends well beyond readjusting Photoshop settings. For instance, high-end scanners are also adjusted to output commercial printing; and colors chosen from the industry standard Pantone Color Matching System are physically impossible to reproduce in newsprint. To advance the cause, the NAA and The Tribune have published a guide with newspaper printing tips and a chart recommending percentages in order to achieve certain colors.
Photography is another area to watch. Bright white backgrounds can cause flare, triggering the loss of detail and color saturation in newsprint. A recent Nordstrom shoe ad achieved good results by opting for a violet background instead.
Printers must sometimes share the blame for bad results. Even when new presses are installed, staff often lack the training to optimize the color process. All told, the NAA estimates that the industry's shortcomings in printing have caused it to miss out on a potential $1.8 billion in advertising-everything from packaged goods to the pharmaceutical and automotive categories-that is gobbled up by magazines and TV.
Sometimes, in a combination of saving money and playing it safe, agencies opt for spot color instead of four-color ads. Elsie Fehr, an art director at Ogilvy & Mather/Toronto, thinks that amid the clutter of newspaper design, spot color usually does the trick. That was the idea behind her Timex Canada campaign, which won a '97 Silver One Show Pencil. The client's budget restricted the agency to a newspaper campaign, Fehr explains, so she illustrated Timex's blue Indiglo light tracing the path of Olympic athletes through the dark-a series of oval loops represents a runner; a line of loopy waves is an homage to a crew competitor. Working with b&w and just a little color seemed to get the message across, and anyway, she says, "I think some restrictions can be a good thing." Fehr demonstrated that belief once again when she tried to talk her KFC client out of running a four-color newspaper ad. "Food in newspaper wouldn't look as appetizing in four-color as it does in magazines," she argued. The client went ahead with the ad anyway-with less than stellar results.
Like Fehr, Mike Ferrer, art director at Moffatt Rosenthal in Portland, has no qualms about working with color. The conditions just have to be right. "Depending on the idea, it works out in full-color," Ferrer says, recalling a Cellular One ad he did a while back, which he believes turned out well because he stuck to a simple illustration.
Ferrer's newspaper campaign for MacTarnahan's ale, which, like the Fehr ad, uses spot color to highlight a concept, represents "an economical way to stand out," he says.
Ferrer believes that using color in newspaper requires experience and foresight. He cautions against dark photos ("You can't pick anything too moody"), because it'll "plug"--that's when the dots merge and the inks bleed like a hemophiliac in a car crash.
Working with color newsprint requires constantly staying abreast of the printing process and, if possible, attending print runs. At least that's the rule of thumb at McConnaughy Stein Schmidt Brown, Chicago. Tom Kim, an art director and new-media director at McConnaughy, just finished a BMW Midwest regional ad that ran in Chicago's Sun Times and Tribune. Working with local presses made his job easier, Kim says, because every newspaper calibrates its presses differently, making it necessary to change settings for each placement.
If an ad were running in multiple local markets nationwide, he believes it would be a nightmare. "I'm not going to follow up on how 56 different printers calibrate their presses," Kim says. "Some of them just aren't cooperative."
Other art directors wouldn't bother to attend local press runs even if they found the time. The level of printing expertise varies widely, says Kim, who got his start on the production side. Some art directors are control freaks and know a lot about printing, he points out, "while a lot of younger people do a layout on Quark and trust everything will come out all right."
Ultimately, color newspapers might be the cheap date of the print world, and from a reproduction point of view, they appear to have more going for them than ever before. But attitudes are a hard thing to change. For instance, while BBDO's Isaacson says The Province, a Vancouver paper, just installed a new press that is printing with better color fidelity and clarity, he still doesn't see creatives or advertisers re-evaluating color newsprint. "It's a combination of the bad experiences they've had and the question of which has more impact, full color in newsprint or spot color," Isaacson says.
Moreover, is four-color really worth the trouble? "With newspapers, it's usually