French is a legend in the “creative” advertising world. At one point, he was worldwide creative director for WPP group, owner of Ogilvy & Mather plus Young & Rubicam, among many other top advertising and PR agencies.
But as a character, he was even more interesting than his advertising accomplishments (I find this to be true of all great copywriters).
At various times, French was a bullfighter, a nightclub owner, and manager of heavy metal band Judas Priest.
He was a colorful character who ultimately had to step down from his perch atop the creative advertising world after making some controversial comments in a speech a few years back. However that doesn’t diminish the value of the ad you’re about to read.
Regarding the ad…
I found it to be a particularly good read, though difficult. You see, the only version I could find online was this picture, reduced to almost illegible text. And so here I’ve transcribed it, hoping you’ll have an easier time reading it than I did. (Though I left in what I believe are typos, punctuation not quite where I’d put it, and other quirks of the original ad. I may have also added my own typos.)
Just to be clear, visually, this ad was presented without picture, black serif text on white background. It was written to look like an article in the newspapers where it ran. I think it was an Ogilvy ad, as the typesetting looks very Ogilvy — however it interestingly does not mention the agency behind the ad in the version I have. (Again, here’s a link to see the visual on the ad for yourself, however I believe you’ll have a much easier time reading my transcription below.)
Okay, enough setup. Here’s the full text of the ad…
Nobody reads long copy any more.
More importantly, absolutely nobody reads newspapers any more. This is a well-known fact, right?
And yet, tragically ignorant of this, many thousands of journalists spend their lives pointlessly gathering information, news, and opinions, and writing about it. Day in, day out, day after wasted day.
Sadder still, many more thousands of lost souls are glumly occupied in setting the result in type, designing the newspapers, and printing the damn things.
And strangely enough, millions and millions of otherwise seemingly-sane people one assumes, go out and buy (yes, buy) a newspaper, every day. This is because they need a cheap substitute for an umbrella, an inexhaustible supply of drawer-liners, or kitty-litter for a herd of terminally-incontinent cats.
But nobody actually reads the newspaper, surely? Dearie me, no. Whatever next?
Next is the news that Elvis, having been abducted by aliens, has returned as a small rodent, and is living with his auntie, in Papua New Guinea.
And I’m a little teapot.
You’re not still reading this drivel, are you?
Why, for heaven’s sake? Believe me, it’s not going to get any better. Go and do something useful. Count your socks.
Go along now. Shoo!
(Have they gone?)
Right, then. Sorry about that, but you’ve got to get rid of the riff-raff. That’s the other problem with newspapers: all kinds of people pick them up. Many of them not our sort of person at all.
Now, where were we?
Erm…nobody reads newspapers; that was it. Well, I suppose we might admit that the people who write the newspapers read their own stuff. So do their mums, unless there’s wrestling on the T.V.
This particular exercise in the art of futility was intended to be one of a series of ads, headed “How to write a newspaper ad”. Surely a headline so mind numbingly dull as to rival the marvellous “Small earthquake in Peru. Nobody hurt”, as the most boring ever written.
And the fact is that the vast majority of the folks who bought this rag are never, ever, going to write an ad, and still less give a rat’s bottom about those who insist on doing so.
Most of them will have flicked the page at a glance at the headline. This does not prove that they don’t read long copy. It merely proves that long copy (or indeed any copy) has to be relevant to the audience.
But withdrawing copy from the mix, in an attempt to make it more palatable to a wider audience, is plain nuts. It merely reduces any degree of effectiveness it might have had.
Thus this epic is on the one hand insanely incestuous, and on the other, appears to contradict the very point it hopes to make.
Sod this. Light relief, please.
Anyone still with us will recognize the first bit of this saga as a plodding attempt at heavy irony. A useful tool for debunking myths, is the old irony-ploy.
But did you know that there’s an unfortunate myth that Americans don’t understand irony? Since they apparently don’t read, either, it’s probably academic, but for what it’s worth, and to give us all a break, here’s my favorite irony-story.
An American bloke goes on a holiday to England. On his return, he’s telling his pal all about it.
“I was coming out of a shop one day, and it was raining hard outside, so I took shelter in a doorway.
Another feller was sheltering, too, and he turned to me and he said, “Nice weather”. Well, of course, it wasn’t nice weather at all. In fact it was terrible weather…and then, I got it! This was an example of the famous British irony. I loved it!
And I’ve been using Irony ever since. Like the other day, I was having this barbecue for the family and a bunch of neighbours, and I burned the burgers.
And Joe, from next door, was standing there, and I turned to him, and I looked at the burgers, and I said, “Nice weather”.
(Pause for what…bewilderment, I suppose…and back to business).
Can we acknowledge, then, that all the hundreds of thousands of words printed in this newspaper aren’t put there just to make your fingers dirty?
Irony aside, people buy newspapers so that they can read them.
And since this is obvious to anyone with the intellect of a soap-dish, why is the paper not chock-full of ads for big, sexy, brands?
The short answer is stupidity.
And the combined stupidity of ad agencies, researchers, and (perish the thought) clients can be a terrible thing to behold.
Basically, remember, you can prove just about anything: And if you want to prove that people don’t read long copy, you start by proving that newspaper readers only read a small proportion of the editorial articles in any given issue.
Television viewers, on the other hand, watch every show, every night, and never switch channels. (Note: In future, irony will be in Italics. But not all italicised words are ironic. Everybody clear on this?)
But the seeds of doubt have been sown. The fuzzy logic goes like this:
People don’t read all the words in the newspaper.
Therefore, people don’t like to read.
Therefore, we must avoid ads that depend on words.
Newspapers are full of words, so we must not advertise in them.
So newspapers become a ‘secondary’ medium, which is never used for its unique strength.
So the ads aren’t very good.
So nobody reads them.
Bingo. A self-fulfilling prophecy.
Send in the clowns.
But people will read something that interests them. And my bet is that, by now, the only people reading this are advertising folk. Mostly creatives.
So, now that we’re all alone, and just between ourselves…it’s the clients, isn’t it?
How many times have you been in a client meeting, and he’s announced, “People don’t read copy any more” This, coming from a man with a newspaper poking out of his briefcase. And if you point this out, he says, “Well, I do, of course. But the public doesn’t”.
You’ve noticed that this isn’t in italics: The bloke seriously believes that he and the public are different species. This is also the genius who says, when you present an ad, “Well of course, you know, I understand it, but the public won’t”.
(A good exercise with this type of idiot is to substitute the word ‘women’ for the word ‘public’, and play it back to him.)
But you can’t fight really determined stupidity, in the end.
We once produced a campaign that proved, beyond all reasonable doubt, that you could launch a beer in the press, even more successfully than you could on T.V. and at a fraction of the cost.
The big-brand beer manufacturers were not persuaded. Having been panicked for weeks by a campaign that widdled all over their T.V. commercials, they ignored the evidence once the panic was over.
One somehow doubts that the opinions of the copywriters engaged in this campaign are going to sway the beloved prejudices of most clients. The present economic oops-a-daisy is really only a symptom of the fact that most businesses are run by buffoons. And that the world’s occasional booms take place in spite of their poltroonery, not because of their brilliance.
When a new company begins its first meteoric rise, (actually, meteors fall, don’t they? Maybe this is a sadly prophetic metaphor), it’s because the guy who started the company is not a clown. But as his company grows, he has to hire more people, and it seems but a nanosecond before the executive floor is echoing to the flap of big shoes, and the beeping of red noses.
The only time it’s controlled is when the top man takes back his advertising into his own hands, as a way of avoiding the depredations of his minions, who are so diligently throwing buckets of confetti at one another, one floor down.
“You talkin’ to me?!”
So, Rule One of advertising is ‘decide who you’re talking to’.
There is no Rule Two or Three.
The consumer is the only thing that matters. Once you know that, you’ll find a way to interest him: Big picture, small picture, no picture, no copy, long copy…the consumer and the product will sort out all those problems for you.
But newspapers are so often your secret weapon. And here is the real point of this ad.
People buy a newspaper. Do you think they buy it but don’t read it? That they don’t value it? Think again.
T.V. is, on the face of it, free.
Radio is free. Posters are free. And Internet advertising, damn it to hell, is free. And advertising in each and every one of them is hated and despised as an imposition, an interruption, and an annoyance.
Not so with newspapers: When did an ad last spoil your enjoyment of the paper?
Sure, newspaper ads these days tend to be so boring that you ignore them. But that’s not the same as being an irritation.
And it’s your business to change that: Now’s the time to own the medium.
Newspapers are portable: You can read them anytime. Not just when the programmers decide you can.
They are private: You don’t have to share your newspaper, or argue with your entire family about which page to read.
You need both hands to read your newspaper. You can’t double-task. On the other hand, the paper makes an excellent barrier against the rest of the world.
Your entire vision-field is filled. Even your periphery-vision. For a few minutes, the newspaper is your world.
Nobody opens the newspaper to provide ‘background’, or as part of life’s wallpaper. Reading is a considered decision.
Newspapers are not an entertainment medium. That’s why they are called news papers. Readers are in the mood to be informed. Nobody reads the newspaper to escape from reality: They read to get involved.
In other words, if you can’t get people to read your ad in a newspaper, it’s nobody’s fault but your own.
Pretty good, huh? Not every point rings pitch-perfect in today’s media environment, but the sentiment is still spot on: people will read what is interesting to them, especially in the context of a medium they are paying to have access to.
There are a thousand breakthroughs there, but alas they will have to wait for another day!
Yours for bigger breakthroughs,