This advert, with balloons floating into an inappropriate story, rightly caused a flurry of disapproval on Twitter. It is pretty awful. But it's the execution, not the concept, that's the problem. Any sub or layout artist faced with this advert should have opted for a lighter story, rather than one about baby deaths. Insensitive at best, crass at worst. There has been a move towards 'radical' advertising in recent months. Adverts, once hemmed in at the bottom of the page and dominated by editorial, have been breaking out all over. Adscapes have allowed advertisers to think out of the box. Now we see adverts at the top of a page with editorial below or adverts jutting into copy. The rigid borders have been breached. Here are some recent examples:
None of these are offensive. Some are very good. I wouldn't even say they were particularly radical. Magazines have been doing this kind of thing for years. Some newspapers have slaughtered other sacred cows. Pages 2, 3 and the back, once fiercely guarded by editors (myself included), have become attractive and legitimate slots for advertisers.
The South Wales Evening Post carried this advert for Swansea FC's new centenary kit on pages 2 and 3. Nicely done, with big impact and huge local relevance.
Even the front page has come up for grabs. I was as surprised as anyone to see The Guardian, Independent and Daily Telegraph dressed in Vodafone's bright red last October.
It followed The Sun giving its front and back over to Sky 3D in July. For free newspapers such as Metro, this was always an option ... but it was a no-go area on paid-for dailies. All that has now changed.
The Hull Daily Mail came up with a variation, and managed to protect its splash, with this an interesting approach - a translucent wrap - last year.
I was also interested in this cover from the Lincolnshire Echo. The paper was campaigning to save Lincolnshire Prison from closure and recruited the support of leading local lawyers who paid for the privilege of arguing the case on Page 1.
All of this would have made me wince 20 years ago when I was editing a daily paper. Many a time I arm-wrestled with the advertising manager over inappropriate adverts - both in content and design. The bout would often end with me throwing the advert out. The editor was king.
But extraordinary times require extraordinary measures. The odd jagged-edged advert is not the solution, merely a start. If newspapers are to thrive, they need a new approach to advertising, sponsorship and partnerships. They need to look after their clients, provide them with solutions not simply sell them space. They need to be their agents, running their portfolios, assisting them with their marketing campaigns and maintaining their websites. They need to guarantee response. A third way and a different model are crucial. Editors need to sit firmly in the middle of the commercial operation. Radical revenue hunters (and the circulation people) might sit on the news desk looking for opportunities with every story.
That doesn't mean, of course, that editorial has to capitulate and allow the commercial department to run riot with its clipart and yellow star bursts. Editors need to ensure advertising is creative, well designed, of good taste and inkeeping with their title's strategy and brand. They need to watch for dodgy juxtapositions. And mostly they need to continue to provide value, protect the credibility of their titles and ensure readers are not duped. They still have the right to throw out unsuitable ads.
We all know that advertising forecasts for the newspaper industry for 2013 are challenging. But one thing is certain. If all we have to offer our customers is a 'take-it-or leave-it' rectangle in a pre-determined down-page spot, with no guarantee of response, then we will all be heading to the great Press hall in the sky sooner rather than later.