by Ted Striphas
I’ve long been a reader of magazines, and so for several months now I’ve been intrigued to see lots of pro-magazine advertisements appearing in some of my favorite periodicals. Maybe you’ve seen them, too. Generally, the ads are filled with all sorts of upbeat facts about magazine circulation and subscribership. The campaign’s purpose is to correct the belief — mistaken, apparently — that digital media and magazines are at odds with one another, and that the former are slowly choking the life out of the latter.
Well, this week I happened upon the cleverest ad of them all. “Will the internet kill magazines?” we’re asked. The response — given in the form of a question — is deliciously pithy. “Did instant coffee kill coffee?” What’s brilliant is how the answer operates so efficiently in two distinct registers. On the one hand, it conveys the message of complementarity that’s central to the campaign: just as there are markets for both instant and premium coffee, so, too, are there markets for internet and print-based publications. Everybody’s satisfied! On the other hand, the terms of the analogy offer a none-too-subtle dig at digital media, likening it to the unsatisfying simulacrum of the real thing: just as instant coffee is a quick-fix approximation of the good stuff, so, too, are internet publications little more than over processed conveniences for impatient people with undiscerning taste. Ouch. What one hand giveth, the other hand taketh away.
I could go on and on about “subject positioning” and “enthymemes” in an effort to explain what makes this ad tick, but for once I’m going to pull back. Instead, I’m going to do something a person like me — someone schooled in cultural critique — so rarely does: give credit where credit is due. Kudos to the folks at Young and Rubicam-NY for crafting such a pointed ad.
Will printed magazines survive? I don’t know, but I’d like to think so. The proof, I suppose, will be in the pudding…er, make that coffee.
UPDATE: A friend asked me on Facebook about magazines for the iPad. It’s a good question, one that raises an important issue left unaddressed by Y&R’s ad campaign. As Chris Anderson recently pointed out in Wired, we need to differentiate between the World Wide Web — one particular resource for distributing online content — and the internet, which is a more general conduit for communications. It seems to me that the pro-print campaign is mainly targeting web-based magazine content, which it mistakenly refers to using the word, “internet.”
App-based magazine content, like much of the material produced for the iPad, is distributed via the internet but not the World Wide Web. It tends to be more visually engaging and feature-rich compared to the web’s so-called “instant coffee.” So where does that leave us with the coffee analogy? As I wrote to my friend, it depends. For me the Macworld iPad app “is like high-octane coffee with way too much cream, sugar, and other types of additives.” Something like Flipboard, on the other hand, “is more like a smooth double espresso — or maybe a red eye.”