Vox pop – May 2006

The new Economist ads: inspired continuation of a legendary campaign, or a load of increasingly tired old puns?

Jim Davies, Writer, totalcontent

The Economist poster campaign is from the ‘if it ain’t broke’ school of advertising – it’s been ploughing the same old furrow since 1984. The early ones, masterminded by David Abbott, deserved all the acclaim that came their way – they were distinctive, intelligent and succinct. ‘”I never read The Economist.” Management trainee. Aged 42’ is probably the strongest. At a time when the glossy advertising image held sway, they bucked the trend, demonstrating the power of a few well-chosen words. The figures speak for themselves: worldwide sales doubled between 1988 and 2000; advertising revenue increased by 250%. Now, they seem to be trying a bit too hard. The puns are a bit laboured, and intrusive graphic devices detract from the elegant simplicity that once set them apart. Working on a campaign this famous is a double-edged sword – there’s a great heritage to draw on, but you have a lot to live up to. Perhaps it’s time to move on.

Roger Horberry, Alp Associates

I’m a fan. Simple is hard, as anyone who’s ever tried to do something similar knows. Only the most curmudgeonly creative could fail to be impressed by the variety, wit and sheer economy displayed in these ads. Their authors make the minimum amount of content deliver the maximum impact without recourse to the usual visual gimcrackery. OK, the occasional execution misses the mark but the overall hit ratio is envy-inducingly high. Basically, I wish I’d thought of them.

Tim Rich, Writer

Rather like the economy, long-running campaigns have highs and lows. I still like ‘”I never read The Economist.” Management trainee. Aged 42.’ And the poster placed on a double-decker bus’s roof that said ‘Hello to our friends in high places’. Cue a mild depression. Did the latest creative team base their conception of business phrases on a stuffy text book from 1985? ‘White collar’ is now applied to everything from CEOs to administrative drones – which do they mean? ‘Fold’, ‘Still busking’ and ‘bigger picture’ are weak puns. ‘Sparks & Mensa’ is a recycled line about M&S from the 70s. But I’m more thrown by the references to marketing and communications here – is the idea of a ‘rough’ something most business people understand? Why a self-conscious headline about headlines? ‘Free Seeds’ manages to lower the brand to the level of tactical sniping at other publications while delivering a rather feeble play on seeds of knowledge. Or do they mean seeds of growth? This lot seem laboured. But I bet the campaign bounces back.

Neil Taylor, Creative Director, The Writer

Come on! ‘Sparks & Mensa’, that’s genius, isn’t it? Anyone who’s serious about writing in business should jump for joy just that The Economist ads exist. They say two things which I want to hammer into the head of every senior business type in the country. First, that you don’t (always) need pictures to make your point; good writing can do the job all on its own. Second, you don’t need to be po-faced to sound clever. Obviously, some of them are better than others (I mean, ‘Is your indecision final?’? My dad used to say that, for goodness’ sake). But how many of us are funny all the time?

Mike Reed, Reed Words

It is the best of briefs; it is the worst of briefs. Such a huge opportunity – either to look wonderful or to screw up very publicly. And I have to say, this latest crop seem to be woefully below par. ‘Sparks & Mensa’ is not only a real groaner (it ought to say ‘Geddit?’ on the end), it’s too ‘on the nose’, as screenwriters say. The classic Economist ads compliment the audience in elegantly oblique fashion. This one says ‘You’re really clever if you read The Economist’, and sticks an Eric Idlean elbow in your ribs. (And what has Marks & Spencer got to do with The Economist anyway?) ‘Is your indecision final?’ seems to strike a sour note. Rather than congratulating its audience on their taste (and implying that non-readers had better join the club), it says very clearly, ‘You’re really struggling, aren’t you? Better read The Economist.’ Economist readers (in the world of the campaign) don’t read it because they’re struggling – they read it precisely because they’re not. It’s easy to knock, though, isn’t it? I know this is the point where someone says, “Have you got any better ideas?” To which I can only reply, “I’d be more than happy to provide an estimate.”

David Hughes, David & Associates

Even the best orchestras strike a bum note from time to time. Even so, they don’t usually happen all in the same bar. Without doubt creating new ads for the Economist is a tough gig. This long running campaign has been a brilliant example of brevity, restraint, wit and style. I’ve enjoyed each new expression of the core idea ‘You’re smart if you read the Economist’. Part of that enjoyment has been the amazement that the agency has managed to keep the thing fresh for 22 years. This latest crop may not stand up when compared to the whole of the back catalogue – very little could. I’m sure it’s a blip and normal service will resume.

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