Try to imagine a distant, magical past called 1978, a time of Champale, the Bee Gees, and the Chrysler Cordoba. But the strangest thing about this long-lost time had to be this: Magazines in the 1970s were a growth business. According to noted journalism professor Conrad C. Fink, the $1.3 billion of advertising revenue that magazines enjoyed in 1970 would climb to over $3 billion by 1980. Newsweek was one of many periodicals to share in the flush times. A quick glance at its December 4, 1978 issue, for example, reveals 30 ad pages for liquor and cigarettes alone.
Still, regardless of the times, advertising-driven magazines have frequently participated in the meta exercise of advertising themselves. But that’s hardly the only reason why the two Newsweek ads on these pages are worth a glance. According to veteran graphic designer Roger Black (who’s worked for many magazines, including Newsweek) not only do both of these ads fail to effectively advertise Newsweek, but they’d also have succeeded if they’d simply paid attention to what’s inside the magazine. “The problem with ads for media properties is that they’ve forgotten the whole point of content,” Black said. Put another way: Newsweek itself is an interesting read, but its own advertising—34 years ago or today—is not.
Newsweek first hit the stands in 1933, but it wouldn’t become a cultural cornerstone until 1961 when the Washington Post Co. bought the magazine and positioned it as the left-leaning retort to Henry Luce’s Time, which was essentially the GOP’s house organ. Though both magazines bookended the national dialogue for years, it was the contrarian Newsweek that stuck its neck out with stories about J. Edgar Hoover’s unchecked power, the plight of inner-city blacks and Vietnamese kids with napalm burns. Newsweek was the magazine with guts.
And that’s why, according to Black, this 1978 ad is disappointing. Rather than reflecting the magazine’s swagger, it merely recycles the familiar—the people to be found in any newspaper, be it Carter and his baseball bat or Arafat and his keffiyeh. Indeed, the only differentiator mentioned in this copy is color photography. “But readers expected photos to be in color,” Black said. “I don’t find that very impressive.”
Mediocre marketing could survive in 1978. Not so today. Cable TV, the Web, social media—all have devoured magazine revenues like so many piranha. After years of washing off the blood, the Post Co. sold Newsweek in 2010. The magazine has since merged with Tina Brown’s online culture-and-commentary watering hole The Daily Beast, whose latest offering, debuting in January, is its iPad app.
Which brings us to the ad on the opposite page—and to a situation that feels very familiar. Once again, Newsweek wants to show off what makes its content different, and just like in 1978, its marketing doesn’t. “The ad is not presenting the magazine or the app as something that would add to your life or make it more fun,” Black said.
And, chances are, Newsweek won’t get another 34 years to figure out how.