Media Guy Slips Into Coma; Are Print Ads to Blame?

Weekly Commentary From The Media Guy

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I was, frankly, hoping for better.

For me, September issues of magazines have always been the glossy equivalent of the Super Bowl -- because all eyes are on advertising, print ads are at their peak and all sorts of fall campaigns are launching in the newly hefty monthlies. But I’ve mostly been at a loss in thinking of glossy campaigns that have really leapt out at me this season -- and that have the water-cooler buzz factor of even a middling Super Bowl spot. (Not counting, of course, the all-Target, all-the-time New Yorker takeover, which was obviously a one-time stunt.)

Just about the only ads I’ve really noticed in the fall fashion glossies -- OK, besides those Nike “big butt” ads that have already been deconstructed here in Advertising Age -- are the Demi Moore Versace ads (mainly because 42-year-old Demi looks so hot in them, and they make me think about what a lucky bastard Ashton Kutcher is) and the weird, murky J. Lindeberg ads starring a topless Juliette Lewis mounting a chair (which makes me think “So that’s what Juliette Lewis is up to these days” as well as “Hey, Juliette Lewis has really cute little boobs.”) Everything else is pretty much just a blur of samey-ness.

Remember the recent past, when magazine ads often used to be sexier and more compelling than the edit? Well, even Calvin Klein is letting us down these days with the new Obsession Night campaign (shirtless male and female waifs soaking stiffly in a dark pool of water ... and looking all depressed about having to languish in a watered-down version of CK ads).

In fact, just about the only print ads I’ve consistently engaged with lately are for American Apparel. Say what you will about AmAp and its famously pervy founder, Dov Charney, who is the mastermind behind the ongoing campaign. His ads are not only hot (they show his sexy employees modeling the merch) and briskly reinforce the brand message (which is about well-constructed, no-frills, eminently wearable, sweatshop-free clothing), but are refreshingly not celebrity-obsessed. And the ads, which have become staples of indies like Vice (which makes AmAp sort of a newer version of Absolut Vodka -- a corporate Medici for provocative magazines), have a genuinely interesting narrative through-line (the new “¡Viva México!” ad, for instance, stars a guy named Eduardo who is helping to open AmAp’s store in Mexico).

Meanwhile, while most magazine ads are boring us all to tears, there’s rising talk about marketers trying to get -- expecting to get -- product placement in editorial. Yeah, great solution: The ad agency you’re paying is totally letting you down, so try snookering the editors at the magazines you’re paying to run your lousy ads, all in an attempt to assuage your crushing disappointment in your own brand image.

Of course, the real problem is that it’s a lot of work to ensure that your ad team sits down and thinks about each magazine’s environment and what will work for each title -- or at least, each category. And, well, creating compelling content is hard! But it seems to me that the other route that more brands are attempting -- leaning on editorial to flog product -- is totally risky because: a) Publications that are susceptible to doing such favors come off as the cheery suck-ups that they are, and readers quickly catch on; and b) What’s to say that if a brand marketer persuades an edit staff to do a gushy little “placement,” then the next month a competitor won’t have gotten them to do the same, thus watering down both messages?

I’m sorry, but in the end, advertorial-ish “strategies” are all about corner-cutting -- laziness that ultimately fails brands and underestimates consumers/readers.

But I’m a whiner. Maybe things aren’t as bad as I think. Maybe -- just maybe -- I’ve been overlooking some great magazine ads this fall. And maybe you want to call them to my attention? If you can honestly think of a truly striking, engaging print ad that you’ve seen within, say, the last two months, tell me about it (describe it, and tell me where to find it) in a brief e-mail. (I won’t necessarily hold it against you if you work at an agency and helped create said ad.) The person who nominates the ad that I like the best will get a coveted Media Guy Bag of Swag, filled with the delightful freebies I’ve received lately ... so please put “Bag of Swag” in your subject line. And before you get any smart-ass ideas, any advertorials that are nominated will be deleted before they hit my in-box.

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The Media Guy's column appears weekly on and in the print edition of Advertising Age. E-mail him at [email protected]

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