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Print Advertising In Today’s Economy

Saying 'cheap,' without saying cheap.

September 2008 is now widely considered to have been the toughest month for the U.S. economy since the Great Depression. But does this mean businesses are spending less on print advertising? Nope. In face, many major brands are ramping up their ad campaigns, and looking to change their image.

In times of economic uncertainty, people stop caring about high-end luxuries, brand names, and eco-friendly products. As the economic climate shifts, they start looking for those big posters and banners that say “Save Money!” “Huge Sale!” and “2-For-1 Deals!”

In response, many brands, stores, and businesses are having to completely revamp their web, TV, and print advertising to compete for the attention of those thrifty consumers. Instead of talking about 'going green' and planning an extravagant holiday season, advertisers need to align brands with low costs and special discounts.

Maybe that's why, at a time when the stock market is struggling, Wal-Mart's stocks, and sales, are up. They've got a special line of $10 toys coming out for the Christmas season, but the massive retail chain doesn't have to do much rebranding to position itself as THE place to go for cheap everything. You know that if you need a jug of milk, a bike tire, and a beanbag chair, and you only have twenty bucks, you can always go to Wal-Mart.

Another industry that wins during tough times is the state lottery system. It's a simple equation – the more people worry about money, the more they want to win big. It wasn't too long ago that lotteries were advertising to those who wanted to in all of life's luxuries. Now the targets of lottery print advertising, like billboards and subway ads, are people who just want a little financial security.

You can always count on state lotteries to come up with innovative print design, but in general, economic downswing is not great news for print designers. Print advertising that screams 'CHEAP' is not the kind of print advertising that wins awards. You need to draw attention with bright colors, oversized fonts, and other elements that are design no-nos, as a rule. And worst of all, the best way to say 'CHEAP,' is to look cheap.

Of course, it's not the print designer's job to engage in snobbery over esthetics. Sometimes the work we do it not pretty. But how about it, guys? Is there a way to make print advertising big savings look super stylish? And if so, how do you create that style without making the ads look too expensive?

From my perspective as a copywriter, the challenge is daunting. Generally speaking, there are a ton of great euphemisms for 'cheap' that can be used to imply cheapness while still encouraging the consumer to feel like a million bucks. Low-cost, inexpensive, budget-conscious, thrifty, marked down – the list goes on. However, at times of severe financial strain, people don't care about looking like penny-pinchers. They WANT to save money, and it's as uncomplicated as that.

Is it possible to advertise to these consumers in a stylish way? Can we redefine our understanding of 'cheap?' And most of all, can we save the country, if not from an economic crisis, then, at least, from esthetic impoverishment?


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