EDITORIAL: Press ads still have power to persuade

As the jury prepares to sit in judgment on entries for Campaign's Press Awards to be revealed next March, it seems an apposite time to ask what's happened to great press advertising.

Thirty years ago, when the awards were inaugurated, there would have been no need for such a question.

National newspaper circulations were still massive and there was no shortage of craftsmen copywriters who could do full justice to the medium.

Since then much has changed and little of it has been for the better.

From a time when press advertising led many a media schedule, newspapers have become a "dump bin" for the TV leftovers.

Today, there's little to compare with those arresting GLC ads from the 80s when a youthful Ken Livingstone told Londoners: "If you want me out you should have the right to vote me out." Somehow, print advertising has lost its power of advocacy and persuasion. The fact that too many print ads simply look like bad posters betrays the paucity of thought that goes into them.

Clients and agencies are equally to blame. It has become almost inevitable that, when an advertiser's budget grows beyond a certain level, it triggers an automatic switch from print to TV. This trend has been exacerbated by creative departments in which writers willing to pen 250 words of copy are as rare as rocking horse poo. The craft and intelligence in the recent Harrison Troughton Wunderman campaign for the M&G financial services group stands out as an oasis in a copywriting desert.

Some leading creatives contend that this is of no consequence and that copywriting is an inevitable victim of life in a fast-paced and visually driven world. It's not dumbing down. Just different.

This would be a powerful argument were it not for the fact that the written word isn't only alive and well but thriving. Magazine sales boom, as does text messaging, while the internet is really one big piece of copy. The editorial format of most newspapers hasn't altered fundamentally. But the plethora of price-led advertising that surrounds it no longer engages with consumers whose appetite for written communication is undiminished.

If print advertising is to regain its pre-eminence, agencies must start telling colleges to begin producing copywriters again. Only then, perhaps, can major advertisers be made to regard print almost as a new media and rediscover how compelling it can be. For the moment, though, the sad fact is that while consumers haven't lost their ability to read, the industry has lost its ability to write.

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