david ogilvy with pipe

Ad Agencies Get Smart

“It has been found that the less an advertisement looks like an advertisement and the more it looks like an editorial, the more readers stop, look, and read.”

— David Ogilvy

Eventually, advertising agencies figured out that if you made your print advertisement look like an article – not necessarily news but feature, review, lifestyle, food or similar – you could trick the reader into thinking they were reading something that was part of the paper. Sometimes this was subtle, and sometimes it was just casual and not overtly tricking the reader (as in the ad featured below). The old Mad Men ad agencies of the 1950’s perfected the  technique. You could even say Claude Hopkins started the editorial advertising trend decades prior to the Internet in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Read Hopkins’ book Scientific Advertising if you’re interested in this stuff. Ogilvy on Advertising is also very good.

David Ogilvy pounded the editorial/native-ad drum incessantly. He proved that ads designed to look like editorial pages gather far more readers than those that don’t. Here’s an example of the kind of ad he espoused (see below). It’s got a nice, beautiful picture with people for visual interest. The copy looks like an article, and the headline draws you in with curiosity.

The Ogilvy ad also has a numbered list, which is important. In today’s internet world, you may notice that numbered articles and listed articles are very popular. They call them “listicles” in the publishing trade.

Ad men were in constant battle with the publication consumer, the page-flipper as it were. It was a behavior battle that plays out to this day on the web. If you’re a page-flipper in a doctor’s office flipping through Esquire magazine, Look or Popular Science (suspend reality for a bit and pretend it’s 1955), you would have had a magazine strategy for getting through the fluff and into the articles quickly. Turn past the beginning where the large photo ads are packed in. Past the table of contents and into another batch of big one-page display ads. Then, yay, you reach the article you wanted and you settle in for a read.

Ogilvy and his crew, however, wanted to stop you with that beautiful Rolls Royce and what appeared to be some tantalizing facts about the ride.

Later on, magazines and newspapers adopted a practice to reclaim the wall between this kind of advertising and editorial. They started placing subtle words at the tops of the pages that read “Advertising Supplement” or “Paid Advertisement.” In chapters that follow, we’ll talk about how this plays out on the web with companies like Outbrain and Taboola. These advertising companies use behavioral targeting to promote companies in editorial that looks like articles, slideshows, blog posts, photos or videos. Their content is dynamically inserted into major publications with the tag “Around the Web” or “Related Items” or “Recommended by Outbrain.” You’ve probably seen them all over the web on sites like Fortune, Fox News and The Huffington Post.  

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