Inside the Mix

Tactical ads that incorporate current events can create real impact over the longer term

Tactical ads that incorporate current events can create real impact over the longer term

One of my heroes in the marketing industry is Howard Luck Gossage, the late San Francisco-based direct marketing and promotions genius who espoused, above all else, the art of elegant long-copy print advertising.

It's rare these days to come across an example of any long-copy work (outside direct mail, and even then the industry is leaning towards pithiness). However, as I came across Sun Microsystems' full-page nose-thumbing at Hewlett-Packard's predicament in the February 15 Wall Street Journal, I realized this was probably a last bastion.

These full-page broadsheet ads tend to fall into one of four categories. Most agree that a pioneer in the first kind - classic, opinion-led advertorials - was Mobil. These pieces showed thought leadership and gave a company a forum to express its views.

Second is the crisis response ad - think of Johnson & Johnson's ones as part of its response to the Tylenol crisis. Third are advocacy ads, such as the ones created by the AARP to outline its position on social security.

The final category is the positioning ad that is part of a marketing strategy - and it's the second half of that sentence that's critical, says Weber Shandwick chairman Jack Leslie. The Sun ad falls into this area, and follows the traditional format: it's narrowly targeted and gives Sun a chance to take advantage of a current event, especially as print is still the vehicle of record for current events. Such ads, along with adhering to brand messages, Leslie adds, must also be true, credible, and relevant. For the target audience - which is probably a very small percentage of the Journal's readership, but one to which the ad speaks unquestionably in its language - all three are more than likely the case.

The same went for Wal-Mart when it made a full-page ad showing a letter from CEO Lee Scott the centerpiece of its aggressive "Facts" drive earlier this year, albeit aimed at a far larger audience through more than 100 papers nationally. The campaign was visible to all, in large part due to the media coverage the company knew it would get following the ads.

The impetus for taking out these ads was different for Wal-Mart than it was for HP. It wasn't a tactical shot across the bow of a struggling competitor; Wal-Mart felt it had a good story to tell when it came to wages and benefits, but was frustrated by its inability to get traction for that story in the news media.

But while the improvement in consumer perception was a great result, corporate communications VP Mona Williams says that the campaign was first and foremost for Wal-Mart's associates. During January's annual kickoff event for employees, some 20,000 staffers were shown highlights of the media footage and responded with a standing ovation, she recalls. Sun's ad is unlikely to have such a profound effect on its employees, but that's not to say the effort won't be worthwhile.

Not that these ads always work. As Leslie says, this tit-for-tat tactic often falls into the realm of inside baseball - "it's a very expensive way to have a tiff."

Or, like someone once said, corporate advertising is a bit like peeing your pants. No one can really see that you're doing it, but you get a nice, warm feeling.

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