harleyA friend of mine was recently hired as the ad director for a mid-market newspaper, owned by the Tribune Company. After he was there about a month I asked him, “so how do you plan on selling ads for a dying media?”

“For starters,” he said, “I do something absolutely no one in that office does. Every morning I read the newspaper. Cover-to-cover.”

Okay, I said, game on. Yesterday, instead of brushing through The
Sunday New York Times in print, and checking the digital version
throughout the day, I read the paper. I read it cover-to-cover with the
exception of the automotive section, travel, and real estate. I’m not
going to wax on about my re-conversion for the print format, because
that’s not the case. But I will tell you that right smack dab in the
center of the business section I found a reason for newspaper
advertising to live. Right there in the center spread I saw the future
of newspapers and it is named Harley-Davidson.

I’m adding the drama for effect, but the spread ad, which you rarely see anymore in print, was dramatic. It is an anarchic image of an American flag, full of type. “You can file our obituary where the sun don’t shine,” read the area of the stars. And the stripes were full of a declaration of American ingenuity, fighting through hard times, and turning up whatever collar you own and getting on your Harley. Tagline: “Screw it. Let’s ride.”

I don’t own a Harley. Never have; never will. But I never wanted to ride one so much in my life. I never wanted a company to sell its product so badly since….. well since I saw Marisa Miller draped over a Harley on its most recent web campaign. But that’s a different engagement strategy altogether.

The campaign has a sharp social media component. Type in the website suggested and you get a Facebook page to become a fan of Harley and you can see the print ad I’m talking about. It is a brilliant execution of cross-channel customer engagement, but it left me frustrated on two fronts. First: Why would you put this ad in the middle of the business section on a Sunday. I know the customers are high-income, but this ad is a statement that newspapers can still deliver the goods. It’s a statement ad for a business that is dying almost as fast as Facebook is growing. I would have put it in a more prominent spot. The spread impact was that powerful.

The second point of frustration was digital. The OPA published innovative new standards two weeks ago and I applaud that. But digitally newspapers need to go even further to find the kind of visual impact that its best advertisers want to deliver online. Newspapers need to live in both worlds. Advertisers need to engage in both worlds.

Advertisers have not completely given up on newspapers. I’m telling you. If you don’t believe me, read one.