Media Perspective: Newspapers can't afford to take moral high ground on ads

In the Jeeves and Wooster story The Code Of The Woosters, Bertie Wooster ruminates on the correct way to steal a policeman's helmet.

His chum Stinker has gone beyond the pale in nabbing the headgear while it is temporarily removed from a copper's head. "It's tantamount to shooting a sitting bird," Bertie complains.

Bertie feels himself to be morally superior due to his preferred method of swiping the helmet, while it is firmly in place on a bobby's bonce, providing the "victim" with a fighting chance in the ensuing battle for possession. Not that Bertie's pointless distinction cuts much ice with the magistrates. Theft is theft, and he is fined £5 for his pains.

A similarly wrong-headed approach was adopted by Guardian bloggers and their readers last week when expressing outrage over a Daily Express coverwrap promoting the Fiat 500. In their eyes, the Express and its "maverick pornographer owner" were not playing the game in the correct spirit because the wrap, using the line "It's a big day for firsts", obscured the title's coverage of the Obama inauguration.

The morally superior tone was evident as one blogger laid into the "indignity" of the Express burying ten pages of special coverage under an ad. This was "dispiriting" for the editor and his staff and would result in a paper "seen by fewer regular readers" because they'd be offended by the commercial wrap.

The Express editor, Peter Hill, may have been dispirited at having to run the ad but the move seems to have paid off for the Express. Sales were up on the day by around 2 per cent, a sure sign that readers weren't put off by the commercial message. Melanie Danks, the head of trading at Express Newspapers, is taking a responsible approach to repeating the exercise. "It was a very big decision internally to run with it," she says. "The editor was scared about what readers would think but we've had no bad feedback at all. To repeat this, it would have to be something really special, but given the right copy and the right brand we would consider it."

It seems that the Express is shouldering unfair criticism for trying something innovative and new (the first coverwrap around the main news section of a paid-for national title) in a newspaper ad market that is pretty stagnant creatively. And it's fitting that the Express and Fiat's media agency Mediaedge:cia (which has only just wrested the account from Starcom MediaVest Group) should pull off this deal just ahead of this week's ANNAs (the newspaper industry's ad awards) as this is just the sort of activity that should win awards rather than attract sneers.

Maybe we'll see other newspapers adopt similar solutions to revenue problems. Presumably not The Guardian, though.