It's not often an advertising campaign which uses only posters seems interesting enough to talk about, let alone steal.
The Magazine's review of advertising
But the posters for the Economist (the current affairs magazine which calls itself a newspaper) are an honourable exception - so much so that the company keeps having to replace one of its current adverts after people started peeling part of it off the billboards.
The long-running ad campaign is famed for being subtle, but since without the missing part (an image of Brains from Thunderbirds) all that remains of that particular poster is a plain red background, this is thought to be too abstruse even for Economist readers.
The gist of the campaign is that if you're a reader, you're smarter than your average passer-by. And not just smarter, but more successful, more interesting and witty, and - whisper it - better paid. Thus if you are like Brains, you will know what it's an advert for, even without a logo.
Twice a year, the newspaper runs a new series of posters, and rather proudly never uses an idea twice.
In the current series are: "Pay and display, Ł3.00", "Stop having to remind people who you are", and "You can so tell the people who like don't read the Economist" - though the latter should really have like ended in a question mark to get the right inflection?
It is especially proud of one billboard which has a 3D light bulb suspended in front of the poster, and a sensor which turns the bulb on whenever anyone walks directly beneath it.
Past classics include "What exactly is the benefit of the doubt?", "Great minds like a think", and "I never read The Economist... management trainee aged 42" - an idea which resurfaced briefly in an Easyjet ad, until the newspaper pointed out that they had been there first.
Jacqui Kean, brand marketing manager, says while success is at the heart of the campaign, the element of the audience having to "decode" the advert is crucial.
"This means the advert is saying something about the product, but also giving a reward to people who work it out, so they feel as if they are in a virtual club of Economist readers," she says.
Clever adverts are all very well, particularly those which take a self-consciously obscure approach, but do they work? Seeing yards of purple silk might once upon a time have reinforced smokers' association with Silk Cut, but does that hold in a world where there is a continual visual bombardment from one advert or another?
For instance, the current advert for French Connection eschews its (initially amusing) "fcuk" logo, and instead shows various words in the shop's house style. Presumably this works for those hip and media-savvy enough to buy French Connection clothes. Beyond that audience, however, people will be mystified.
FCUK ad asks: "Don't you hate big logos at the end?"
Which is why, despite the senselessly excessive media coverage last week, there is not a McFlurry's chance in hell that McDonalds will permanently stop using their golden arches logo in favour of a question mark.
But maybe it's different for the Economist. Sean Brierley, author of the Advertising Handbook, says the Economist's ads are "the ultimate aspirational campaign" which appeal to the snob in us all.
"What is fascinating about the Economist's campaign is that it has never emphasised the quality of the editorial product, but it has always concentrated on the self-image of the readers. Intuitively, I would say that this is indicative of the fact that though many people buy it, not many read it.
"It is a badge brand - one that executives like to be seen with, but are hardly ever seen reading. This is not to say that the Economist is not an excellent publication, but its marketing/advertising reflects the fact that the self-image and self-esteem of the readers is more important to the brand's success than the quality of the product."
Which may be true, but the newspaper is doing something right, whether that is its advertising or something else: in the 20 years since adman David Abbott had the initial idea for the campaign, sales have risen from 70,000 to nearly 500,000.
Ad Breakdown update: Last month we reported on Sid the Slug, the Food Standard Agency's anti-salt mascot. The Salt Manufacturers' Association complained to the Advertising Standards Authority, saying the ad was "incorrect and potentially very damaging". The ASA has now rejected the complaint, saying most people would appreciate it as humorous.
Ad Breakdown is compiled by Giles Wilson.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
It is not about making the reader feel 'clever'. Apart from telling the target market about your product or service ... the main reason for advertising is to massage the ego of the advertiser.
David Maynard, Stockport
Yep, ads like those of the Economist and (previously) Silk Cut certainly make you feel more clever because you have suceeded in working them out, despite the lack of a brand name. But having to spend time pondering an advert also ensures it sticks in your mind for longer - how many other tobacco adverts can you remember from the 80s, other than Silk Cut? Guinness has also gone along this route - its bizarre Rutger Hauer ads (for me, memorable well over a decade after they were aired) were another great success.
Sarah Wakely, London, UK
I've read The Economist many times, but would have had no clue about the adverts without your article. Maybe that means I'm more concerned with the content of the magazine than its image.
I get irate and "rejectional" of brands that try to be too clever and totally mystify me on their advertising. I'm a graduate, reasonably clever etc but what is the point of, say, the "Three" mobile "jellyfish-and-Japanese-Blokes" advert?
There is a fine line between cult and nonsense.
Giles Hawker, Bristol
So much advertising these days is blunt. Thanks heavens for creative companies that sometimes make us stop and think about what they're saying or selling.
There is a fine line between making someone think about an advert, and arrogance that people know who you are without saying who you are. The latter is, I feel, a wasted opportunity of getting your name out and about. I recall seeing a white van that was decorated with a logo of a grid of different coloured circles, the company name (which was so low-key that I cannot remember what it was called) and a telephone number. What was missing was any indication as to what services, products or otherwise that the company actually did. I wish I had rung up the company to find out if they did advertising.
Stephen Buxton, Coventry, UK
I'm surprised that the comments above include so many that object to such advertising. I find that, especially in a town such as London, advertising is so pervasive as to class as visual polution. Much of it is obvious, garish and very often treats me like an idiot. An add with humour (which you may even find amusing because of what it says about the people who are influenced by it, even if you feel it doesn't speak to you) provides a moment of amusement that I appreciate when waiting for the little man to go green. Some of the comments above seem to suggest that certain viewers are offended because a joke has been told that they don't understand. So what? Relax!
Sebastian Ladoire, London
At the end of the day the ultimate point of advertising is to encourage people to buy the product or service or at least make them aware of it. If only people who currently buy the item can work out the campaign then surely this has been a waste of money, why advertise to your current market? you need to advertise to the broader market and if they cant work out the campaign then your not going to get the recognition or the sales.
G Mitchell, Brierfield
Remember Heinekin's catch-phrase "Reaches the parts other beers cannot reach"? They used it so well, that they didn't even need to mention it any more - when a British male giant panda was sent abroad to impregnate a female giant panda, Heineken took out a full-page ad in all the newspapers, with a picture of the British panda, and the caption "Good luck... from Heineken". They don't do ads like that any more.
I think adverts such as the ones from The Economist are fantastic. They suceed in doing exactly what they're intended to - they get you thinking of the product for a great deal longer than you otherwise might. Whether this makes the average person go out and buy it I don't know but the sales figures increase in recent years is probably no coincidence!! I study marketing in great detail, and in my overall opinion the key to a successful advert is whether they get you talking about them, this is the case with many so called "crap" adverts!! But who can criticise? It works doesn't it!!
Jon Hart, Loughborough, UK
The Economist poster campaign is not primarily intended to attract new sales, but massage the egos of existing readers. As tacitly acknowledged by the Pay and Display poster, it is the middle-management desktop equivalent of a coffee table book, essentially a magazine for corporate posers.
Ray Burke, Stockport, UK
I actually read The Economist every week, but I've never seen those ads before. Are they displayed only on billboards across the UK, or am I suffering from an acute case of "ad blindness"?
Páll Hermannsson, Reykjavík, Iceland
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