Two of the biggest campaigns of 2017 relied on so-called “tombstone ads”—stark, black type on a white background. One was one of the year’s best, the other one of the year’s worst. And both are major success stories for the brands that paid for them.
It was the best of ads, it was the worst of ads.
The first campaign comes from The New York Times. The celebrated “Truth” campaign marked the publisher’s first major campaign in decades, speaking simply (but effectively) to the essentialness of journalism in a tumultuous and divisive time socially, politically, and culturally.
The second campaign comes from Big Tobacco, whose court-ordered public service campaign addressed decades of intentionally misleading the public.
While Big Tobacco “successfully” met the criteria of the federal courts, their ads have been met with broad derision in the ad world. And rightly so—the entire strategy seems to be a cynical zen koan—if an ad is designed not to make you do what the ad says, is it really an ad at all?
The question, then, is how can two campaigns with such a similar look and feel achieve wildly different results—one a Cannes Lion winner and the other so intentionally flat?
Finding—and not finding—your audience
The New York Times knows that newspapers are no longer print-driven enterprises. To connect with consumers who increasingly get their news from digital and social sources, the Times built digital and social placements into their media strategy. There was a splashy launch of the campaign’s anthem spot during the Oscars broadcast, but the bulk of the campaign’s impressions came from non-TV sources.
By contrast, Big Tobacco’s media strategy is designed to be invisible, especially to younger viewers. Back in 2006, a federal judge ordered Big Tobacco to run these “corrective statements” on “one of the three major networks (CBS, ABC or NBC)” and in 50 newspapers listed by name. Digital and social advertising were very different beasts 11 years ago, and Big Tobacco’s lawyers and marketers recognized what a federal judge did not—that by naming the outlets where these ads needed to be placed, and by stringing out the appeals process, there was an opportunity to violate the spirit of the law without breaking the letter of the law.
Right there in black and white
When the Times used a text-heavy, black-and-white visual approach to their campaign, it was a clear reference to the look and feel of both the physical newspaper and the Times’ digital properties. The news is still word-based, even in the digital age, and by choosing a stark and simple visual treatment, the Times was telling consumers that they could trust the digital Times just as much as the legacy version.
Big Tobacco, on the other hand, did everything it could to forget how it had succeeded in the past. Rather than using the time-tested marketing tricks that had built their empires—the charismatic loner in the cowboy hat, the smiling camel wearing sunglasses—they chose to adopt a flat black-and-white approach with no obvious tie to their brands or products. The Marlboro Man and Joe Camel could have been the pitchmen for this campaign. Big Tobacco could have sold the benefit-of-the-benefit, the way they did when they used doctors and athletes to sell their products. Instead … this.
Call to inaction
The Times campaign appeals to the reader’s intelligence—the soft sell of the tagline (“The truth is more important now than ever”) serves as a call-to-action precisely because it doesn’t tell the reader what to do.
That’s not how cigarettes have historically been sold. Classic cigarette ads told the audience, in no uncertain terms, what they were supposed to do:
By contrast, none of the court-ordered Big Tobacco ads has a call to action. There is no attempt to create a branded or a memorable campaign, and the only line that is repeated in each of the ads is the opener about how a federal court has forced Big Tobacco to make this statement. That’s all by design, because Big Tobacco doesn’t actually want anyone viewing this campaign to do anything. You can see it in the dozen social share graphics that Big Tobacco produced—five of the graphics feature a small “learn more” CTA in the lower left corner, while the other seven feature no CTA at all. The low engagement numbers on these posts are features, not bugs.
Stories like this are a reminder that advertising is part art and part science. While creative plays a key role in paying off (or distancing) your messaging from your brand, a strategic implementation and rollout to find (or dodge) your audience can play an equally effective role in the campaign as a whole.