Words Are Dead in Print Ads Mr. Madden

Peter Madden asks in an Adage.com column: Are words dead? The ad executive bemoans the de-evolution of print ads, and the loss of long ad copy passages. He even waxes on about a 1950s Budweiser ad that had long copy passages.

This reminds me of a discussion and disagreement, I had with Jeff Goodby, one of the smartest and most talented ad execs I have ever known. An exec at his former client, Saturn, asked me what I thought of some print work Goodby had created. I said that I had issues with it, one of which was long flowery copy in an ad for the Saturn Sky. “It’s interesting to read,” I said. “But I know maybe seven people on the planet who are going to take the time, so why waste the space.” Hard words, I know, for a writer to impart.

Then, when I had the opportunity to digest Goodby’s Hyundai pitch last April, there it was again. Long copy in the car ads. Jeff, I asked. “What the hell is with all this copy?” Jeff cited David Ogilvy’s philosophy about long copy. “Even if they don’t read it, it looks like you have a lot to say.”

As much as I respect Jeff, I have to diagree with him…and…David Ogilvy. God help me. At least as far as it goes in 2007. Advertising is not the elegant profession it once was. We have been conditioned to discount ad copy as a waste of time and attention at best, and BS at worst.

I hope I don’t draw the ire of Businessweek’s hierarchy for saying this. But I have long suspected that the reason magazine ad pages are under so much pressure is because the quality of the advertising that runs in business magazines is usually so awful. I’m not sure how this conversation would go. But if I was selling ad pages in a slick magazine, and an advertiser cancelled or discontinued a buy, my first move might be to tell the client: If your research is telling you that the ad isn’t pulling, might I suggest working with you to improve the ad. It’s not our circulation and readership that isn’t failing you, it’s that the ad is failing to attract their eyes and attention.

Honestly, I have seen a lot of ads in magazines that might as well be tombstone ads for all the good they do the advertiser.

Peter Madden sounds like an ad man who appreciates well written prose, and he’d like to write more of it. Might I suggest he publish his own book of prose. Because advertising has fallen so far in our esteem that I don’t think the vast majority of consumers will take artful prose seriously if it is wrapped around a print ad for a Saturn, a Hyundai or a roll of paper towels.