Experts
19 . 04 . 18

Richard Madden on the “strange rebirth of print in advertising”

Words by: Richard Madden
BBH London’s strategy partner ponders advertisers’ Faustian pact with digital media’s dark side and print’s unique ability to communicate in different cognitive modes
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At a glance:

  • People trust print more than electronic media – and therefore the brands that use it.
  • With print, we pay attention when an article captures our interest, but we also pick up signals in a low-engagement way.
  • Print can land a rational message, while leaving a lasting emotional impression too.

As I sit down to write this, the furore around Cambridge Analytica’s alleged misuse of Facebook data is only just dying down. At last count, $58 billion (£41bn) has been wiped from Facebook’s market value and Mark Zuckerberg has belatedly made a public apology.

This is only the most recent scandal to affect the world of digital media. First there were the revelations about ad viewability. And then the cases of brand damage arising from programmatic algorithms placing advertisers’ messages next to nefarious online content.

Digital media has transformed advertising, making the dreams of old-school direct marketers a reality. Its one-to-one targetability and sheer immediacy make the advertiser’s Faustian pact with digital media’s dark side – consumer irritation and invasiveness – worthwhile.

However, there has recently been a reawakening of interest in print media across the industry. This may be a reaction to the current ethical crisis of digital media – or it may simply be a fashionable retro trend like the current enthusiasm for vinyl.

I would argue that there is enough evidence to suggest that there is something deeper going on. Specifically, I would point to two reasons for the strange rebirth of print in advertising.

In print we trust

The first is the issue of trust. From horsemeat to vehicle emissions to Kendall Jenner, brands have been rocked by a succession of crises which have undermined years of assiduous investment in creating positive preference. Indeed, the latest Edelman Trust Barometer points to the biggest decline in brand and business trust since the global financial crisis.

At the same time, there is evidence that people trust print more than electronic media, and as a consequence they are more prepared to trust the brands that use it. A recent study by MediaCom has shown that campaigns which deploy magazine advertising achieve 64 to 94 percent greater scores across a range of trust metrics than those which rely on display and social.

There are many reasons for this. Principal among them is the editorial environment. People pay for newspapers and magazines, and while they accept or even enjoy the bias exhibited by their preferred titles, they also expect a certain degree of accuracy. The Mediacom study cited above shows that 70 percent of people trust magazines, whereas only 30 percent of people trust social media above magazine media.

Furthermore, in the UK, truth and decency in printed and other traditional advertising is rigorously safeguarded by the Advertising Standards Authoriy. In the US, ownership of traditional broadcast media is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission. No such checks and balances apply to social media in either country.

At BBH, press advertising has played an important role in helping us restore trust in large UK brands such as Tesco. In this case, the primary driver in its recovery was a robust and insight-driven strategy, but print played a big part.

For Tesco, we prompted customers to reappraise their perception of the brand’s food quality by associating it with emotional moments in their lives.

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Picking up print’s signals

I believe there is a second, more subtle reason for the reawakening of interest in the power of print. And it has its origin in recent advances in the science of psychology.

Over the last decade, the work of Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman has entered the mainstream, at least in the world of advertising strategy. His basic thesis is that humans think in two ways.

“System 1” thinking is the kind we use most of the time.

In System 1 we are not consciously focused on problem-solving. Instead, we lazily rely on mental rules-of-thumb (“heuristics” is the posh word) to navigate the world around us. Only when we are truly engaged in a task that is new to us do we enter our high-attention “System 2” mode.

We have traditionally considered print advertising as influencing us only when we are in System 2 mode. As a consequence, it is often seen as the medium for conveying information and making reasoned arguments. However, new research shows that it also communicates while we are in System 1 mode. It is one of the only media able to do both.

Richard Shotton, deputy head of evidence at media agency Manning Gottlieb OMD, argues that once again it’s all down to context. “As we read our favourite print title, we naturally flit between cognitive modes. We pay attention when an article captures our interest. But even when we are leafing through the title, we are still picking up signals in a low-engagement way. It’s just the way we consume print, and print advertising is no exception.”

At BBH, some of our most famous ads have made use of print’s ability to land a rational message while leaving a lasting emotional impression, even among those who are just lazily browsing the title.

Much of our Audi work, for example, combines a factual product point with an image that forms a powerful emotional imprint, sometimes without requiring the reader to even notice the copy. Which, as a former copywriter, is somewhat galling.

It is possible to argue that more has changed in the world of media in the 30 years since Tim Berners-Lee codified the principles of the World Wide Web than in the 500 years since William Caxton invented moveable type. While the latter would be astounded by the achievements of the digital era, he would surely take quiet satisfaction from the fact that so many modern communicators believe print is more relevant than ever.

Richard Madden is strategy partner at BBH London and the man Campaign once described as “The biggest brain in direct marketing”.

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