The Economist Ads, Part 1
...The Struggles of a 42-year-old Management Trainee
Back in the late 1980s, when smartphones were called Filofaxes, a British ad agency won an account for a weekly current affairs magazine with a business focus. The agency was Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO; the magazine was The Economist.
The ads that then flowed from the agency were part of the ‘White out of Red’ campaign. Within a few years they became watchwords for witty advertising: arch, playful, sophisticated. Most importantly, they were effective: between 1988 and 2001 alone circulation rose 64%, against a market decline of 20%, while subscriptions almost doubled. Not only did they propel the magazine to greater heights but the ads, under the creative directorship of David Abbott, became famous in and of themselves: to this day, they are widely reproduced on blogs, in books and on social media.
Perhaps now they seem a bit over-familiar — especially if you work in advertising. That said, the simple fact they are referenced and admired over 30 years later, when many ads have the shelf-life of the average tomato, means they’re worth looking into.
Given the length and depth of the campaign, there’s too much to cover for one newsletter. So this week I’ll look into their value propositions and how they became funny ads; next week, I’ll look into their humour mechanisms.
There seem to be two propositions behind the campaign. The first was If you read The Economist, you’ll be more intelligent. Most of the ads pivot on this.
You’ll find plenty of wordplay:
More than a little corporate ambition:
And intelligence = inspiration:
Some of the most successful ones in this camp are when the ads acknowledge, and kick against, pop culture:
(This might need some explanation for non-British readers. Jordan is the pseudonym of Katie Price, who gained huge fame as a glamour model in the late-1990s. So, in short, the mention of Jordan makes you think of:
But this is only half the story. If one proposition is If you read The Economist, you’ll be more intelligent, the other proposition isn’t its exact opposite ( = If you don’t read The Economist, you’ll be less intelligent).
It’s grimmer than that.
It’s If you don’t read The Economist, you’ll be a failure. It’s a far deeper, more emotional proposition — intelligence is of the head; failure is of the heart. This led to what many people consider the most famous of all the Economist ads:
As a model of succinctness, it’s outstanding: eight words, one number and no need for even the brand’s logotype, as it’s mentioned in the quote.
This is where a more lateral approach, using wit, excels. By depicting the non-reader of the magazine, we do a super-quick joining-the-dots of this 42-year-old man or woman, and can safely predict they won’t be sitting on the board at age 52 or, indeed, 62. Humour takes the sting out of the harshness of the proposition.
Peter Ustinov, the actor and writer, once said: ‘Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious’ and that applies here — it makes the seriousness of this stunted career both tragic and comic.
There’s an irony tucked in the heart of humour: so often, the harsher, more serious the subject, the better suited it is to wit. David Abbott, who created this ad, knew this only too well — and The Economist thrived on the back of it.
Many thanks for reading,
www.studiogilmore.com / email@example.com / +44 7866 538 233 / Twitter: @mrpaddygilmore