Many years ago, I worked at an alternative newsweekly. One week, we had a blank page. Yes, it should have been filled with advertising, but a full-page ad fell through, so we were left with a page with nothing on it.
As the editor, I thought editorial should go on that precious blank page. The sales staff wanted to run ads from former advertisers they were trying to win back. Ultimately, though, the art department took the page. They, after all, would be the last people to see the layout before it was sent to the printer; they could do whatever they wanted at the time and deal with the consequences later.
We had an especially gifted graphic designer who had a mischievous sense of humor, and the art director was also a man with a devilish sense of humor. Sometime around 3 a.m., the two of them created an ad, all right — an ad for water. Not any particular brand of water, not even bottled water — just regular old tap water. A color photo of water running from the tap into a glass took up most of the page, and they wrote their own copy. I wish I had that ad in front of me, but it was something to the tune of “Cool, refreshing, thirst-quenching water. Don’t you want to drink some right now?” They might have had something in there about how water is good for you, too. And they included the newsweekly’s logo on the page, which really made it more of an ad for the paper.
As I looked through that week’s issue on publication day, I saw the ad and did a double take. It took me a few seconds to realize it wasn’t a real ad. But it was clever and witty, and it actually did make me want a glass of water.
Sure, these two designers were probably on a sugar high and their second wind of a 20-hour production day, but it occurred to me at the time that they had come up with an incredibly effective ad (for both water and the paper). It was edgy and smart, and we liked to think of ourselves and the paper as edgy and smart, and it was something you wouldn’t find anywhere else.
The publisher, who also headed the sales department, wasn’t pleased about “wasting” a full page of space, and he was really upset that the ad had been done in full color, which costs much more to print than black and white. He calmed down, however, when he started hearing how great our readers and advertisers thought the ad was.
Throughout the years I worked at the paper, I’d see the water ad reappear whenever we had open ad space in an issue. Sometimes the designers would shrink it to a quarter- or half-page ad; sometimes they’d run the full-page version (although they always ran it in black and white thereafter). Perhaps it was “accidental marketing”: the designers created it to be funny, to make themselves feel better about working long hours for low pay. They certainly didn’t design it with effective marketing in mind. But it worked, and it was memorable for both the staff and the readers. Isn’t that, after all, the point of advertising?
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