Usually I review print ads a single ad at a time, just as people at ad agencies focus on a single execution at any given moment, no matter how many projects they're juggling. However, readers of print media take in a whole slew of ads at a single sitting—an experience that yields a very different reading (or non-reading) of each along the way. So, I've chucked my usual single-minded focus to assess an entire magazineful of ads at once.
In paging through a magazine, what kind of ads quickly wear thin? Which come as pleasant surprises? And which are easy to ignore? For this experiment, I selected the July issue of Real Simple, whose 92 ads (ignoring house ads) covered a large range of categories—from automotive to cosmetics to packaged goods to financial services.
The first ad I come to—a spread for the GMC Yukon—employs an all-caps headline in tandem with all-caps body copy. This makes sense in introducing the new model of a large SUV, though it makes the brief body copy uninviting to read. Likewise for the Hummer ad a dozen pages into the magazine. (You'd think Hummer had come down with the grippe if it didn't use braying big caps in an ad.) But these ads employ a device that quickly wears out its welcome. By the time I finish the issue, I'll have encountered 26 ads that use an all-caps headline, including eight that also use all-caps body copy. Moreover, 21 of the ads with all-caps headlines use a sans serif typeface. When a Bertolli ad on page 223 uses a serif face in its all-caps headline, I feel like rushing out to buy a jar of the tomato sauce just to celebrate this touch of old-world elegance.
In any single ad, the all-caps treatment might or might not be an ideal choice. Seen page after page, it becomes a bore. Oh, for a lowercase letter! Oh, for the visual stimulation of ascenders and descenders! Your high school music teacher would describe it as a problem of dynamics: With all these bold capital letters, there's too much fortissimo and not enough of anything else. If typography emitted a sound, my ears would be ringing.
The pity is, there are several cases scattered around the issue in which this style is integral to the sales pitch, and not just today's default mode. In an ad for Boca Burgers on page 219, for instance, bold caps help signal that this is not (as I might have supposed) some dainty, unsatisfyingly dietetic food. The type does as much as the words to convey the counterintuitive message that this is "A BIG, HONKIN' BURGER." Contrast this with a spread for Post cereals, a few pages earlier, where the same type treatment seems a mismatch for the words, "EVERYTHING NICE. SUGAR & SPICE."
Apparently capital letters are thought to look ultra-modern these days. But before wading through all this modernity (and before even reaching the table of contents), I find myself on a detour to The Product Category That Time Forgot. Cosmetics advertising, represented here by the likes of L'Oreal, Revlon, Almay and Maybelline, seems barely to have changed in the past 20 years. It's the same old formula of models, product shots and breathy copy, with the occasional smattering of faux French.
The one new element I can't help seeing in the cosmetics ads (as well as the ads in all the other categories) is the presence of the Internet. A few pages into the issue, I bump into a spread for L'Oreal's Bare Naturale makeup, in which small type under the face of Penelope Cruz invites readers to visit a Web site for "shade advice." The offer feels a bit odd, since the ad otherwise looks like the sort that could have run before the personal computer was invented. Maybe that's why it also feels uncompelling.
Over the course of the issue, 72 of the ads provide a Web address. But many of these mentions range from the merely pro forma to the blatantly pointless. Are brands afraid they'll seem prehistoric if they don't make reference, however gratuitous, to the Internet? So it often seems. Just 17 of the ads make a Web reference that strikes me as being clearly purposeful. A few worthy examples: Allstate offers a download of a "Parent-Teen Driving Contract" with safe-driving information; MasterCard supplements a photo of a "priceless" lawn with a site for "backyard makeover ideas"; Visa features a site at which consumers can arrange for bill-paying via their Visa accounts. In such cases, I feel the ad has told me something useful with its reference to the Web site. But when ad after ad simply lists a Web address or blandly invites me to "visit" the site, I start to feel they're giving me homework—as if they think I haven't put in enough effort by just reading their ads.
After a while, I find myself giving points to the advertisers who make no mention whatsoever of their Web sites. Take the ad for the new Coca-Cola Blak, which appears on page 46. The ad tells me what the stuff tastes like ("A fusion of rich, cold Coke taste with coffee essence to awaken your mind and lift your mood"), and there's no pretense that I need to go online to find out more about it. Contrast this with the Finlandia ad I come to about halfway through the magazine, which feels obliged to stick "finlandia.com" under the photo of the bottle. Why on earth would I need to go to Finlandia's Web site? If there are things I should know about the vodka, why did the ad confine itself to 32 not-very-informative words? To the extent the Web reference registers at all with me in this case, it's a source of mild annoyance. At least the Milk-Bone ad, a few dozen pages farther on, puts the Web address on the outline of a bone, as if my dog will be the one who logs on and checks it out.
Oscar Meyer Lunchables, on page 147, presents a more ambiguous case: "For a closer look at all the improvements we've made, visit www.lunchablesmom.com." Now, you'd have to be leading an awfully empty life to feel tempted by this offer. But the fact the ad makes it does leave me thinking the product probably has been improved, enough so that numerous digits in cyberspace are needed to enumerate the advances. (The ad itself has spoken of "now with 50% less sugar, 30% less fat....") As long as they don't really believe I'll go to the site, I'm favorably influenced by the allusion to it.
Something of the same might be said about the ads here that run lengthy body copy. Scarcely any do. It's not until an ad for Oreck vacuum cleaners on page 143 that I see an ad with a single copy block running more than a 100 words. I can't pretend to feel the slightest eagerness to plow through this disquisition on vacuum technology. But don't blame me (or, for that matter, Mr. Oreck). The fact is, all of us have been trained to expect strict brevity in the ads we see. Since so many ads earlier in this issue have made do with at most a couple dozen words, Oreck's text block of 200-plus words looks like Moby Dick, except not as light-hearted. Even the fascinating fact that mold spores measure between 10 and 100 microns can't move me to read all this copy with a willing spirit. Maybe that doesn't matter, though. Oreck clearly has something to say, which seems not to be the case for many of the tongue-tied brands elsewhere in the issue. Whether one reads the text or not, the mere presence of all those words helps to sustain the Oreck mystique.
These days, of course, many magazines try to avoid long blocks of editorial copy. They're built more for browsing than for sustained reading, with the result that a long-copy ad sticks out all the more. Some ads go in the opposite direction, adopting a look that makes them nearly indistinguishable from the editorial matter that surrounds them. When I come to an ad for Häagen-Dazs on page 48, it takes me a moment to realize it actually is an ad. With a couple carefully chosen images floating in clean white space along with an easily digestible dollop of copy, it could easily pass for a bit of Real Simple edit. It's not a question of subterfuge, though: A glance at the text quickly makes it clear that this is indeed an ad and not a piece of laudatory editorial coverage. Rather, the brand has put itself in sync with the magazine, which in turn helps put it in sync with people who like the magazine well enough to be reading it. They'll come away from the ad (an attractive one in any case) feeling that Häagen-Dazs is their kind of brand.
Eighteen pages earlier in the issue, an ad for Thomasville furniture has also confused me for a moment. It's not that I thought it was editorial matter; I thought it was a fashion ad. And why not, since half the ad—the half not in the gutter, as it happens—shows a closeup of half a woman wearing a red dress. The other part of the ad shows half a Thomasville chair, whose upper section (upholstered in roughly the same color and pattern) has been grafted onto the half-woman to create a single entity. If I were the model, I'd sue the advertiser for suggesting my figure is reminiscent of an easy chair. Anyhow, the ad has caught my eye, but not in a way that immediately connects it to the product category, let alone to this particular advertiser (whose name gets quite lost in the gutter). It's the dress that gets top billing, and the whole page is calculated to express an air of chic. The small-type headline says, "So you," presumably meaning that Thomasville's style is consistent with your style. But the visual is too weird to convey this message.
As it happens, the Thomasville ad introduces another visual theme that will crop up several more times before I've made my way to the end of the magazine: ads that are conspicuously dominated by a single color. Even the most inattentive reader will recognize the same ploy in ads for Coca-Cola Blak (blackish brown), Tropicana (orange), Triscuit Wheat Rosemary & Olive Oil crackers (pink) and Tabasco's Sweet & Spicy sauce (red). The succession of these makes the monochrome approach seem like a fad, particularly when the Triscuit ad immediately follows the Tropicana ad. It's at least a pleasant fad. Still, it's impossible to overlook the fact that the device makes more sense in some instances than in others. An orange page for Tropicana, I get; a pink page for Triscuit, I don't get. Had I not just seen the Tropicana ad, it might not have occurred to me that a pink page for Triscuit is a pointless gimmick. Seeing the ads one after another, the first makes an implicit critique of the second.
And that underscores another pattern: Each ad adds to the context in which I view the next ad. Thus, when I see an ad on page 61 for Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, I'm not comparing it to hotel ads elsewhere; I'm comparing it to the ad I've just seen on page 59 for a Sony multi-function recorder. The pseudo-precocious boy in the Wyndham ad (who wants "to take a break from all the stresses of kindergarten") seems annoying partly because the girl in the Sony ad (whose summer vacation will be enshrined on DVD by her Sony-owning parents) is artlessly charming as she skips through the water. While I wouldn't have liked the boy anyway, I like him (and, by extension, Wyndham) even less due to the way he contrasts with the girl.
Some ads benefit from their contrast to the ads that preceded them. On page 88, for example, I'm brought up short by something I haven't seen so far in the issue: an ad in which an illustration dominates the page. It's not thrilling. But after pages of mostly unremarkable photos, even a so-so illustration comes as a colorful treat. Moreover, the unexpectedness of it helps me take in the point that McDonald's has added something unexpected (Asian Salad) to its menu. Its form serves its function. If the issue were full of illustrated ads, the McDonald's ad wouldn't have had this effect.
If I'm grateful to see a nothing-special illustration, imagine how glad I am to see a bit of pulchritude when a mostly undressed Jennifer Love Hewitt turns up in a Hanes ad on page 85. For all the notion that "sex sells," sexual imagery has been notably absent from most of the ads here. Granted, I'd have a different experience reviewing a lad magazine than the well-domesticated Real Simple. Still, in a culture that often seems supersaturated with sexual imagery, it's a surprise to see almost none of it in these 92 ads. Even the cosmetics category is studiously chaste, except for a Maybelline ad with its close-up of a moist-lipped bombshell. (Pantene seems to be trying, but its models look more comatose than come-hither.) It's hard not to come away feeling today's advertisers would rather browbeat me than seduce me.
Ah, but I get my revenge as a reader! Having arrived, tired but happy, at the end of the magazine, I can remember plenty of the ads, but I can't necessarily recall which brand an ad was supposed to be promoting. In many, the brand doesn't plainly "own" its ad—the ad could have been for any number of brands. An ad in which the "van gods" bestow their blessing on a Honda Odyssey is pleasant enough, but easily could have been a pleasant-enough ad for some other van. If some prankster at the printing plant had switched the brand names in many of the automotive ads in this issue, few readers would have been the wiser. An ad for Ocean Spray juice drinks, featuring two yokels in the middle of a cranberry bog, stands in happy contrast. There aren't a lot of advertisers that could pair such a delightfully goofy photo with the slogan "Straight from the Bog," so this one will stick with me as an Ocean Spray pitch. Still, I put the magazine down wondering whether it's a bad sign for print advertising today when a bog is such a high point.