Anybody who’s bought a national newspaper in the past two months has probably seen BP’s full-page spreads pledging, “We will get it done. We will make this right.” The ads have been prominently displayed in the New York Times, Washington Post, and USA Today, among other outlets. Given the ad rates at these papers, it’s clear that BP has been forking over plenty of money for the campaign.
Just how much? Greenpeace kept track of BP’s ads throughout June and came up with a rundown of how much they likely cost. The company ran 12 ads in the Times, 15 in the Washington Post, and 11 in USA Today. Based on the ad rates for each paper, which vary by color, day of the week, and size (for example, according to their rate card, a full-page color at the Times on a weekday costs $230,266, while a black and white ad costs $194,166), Greenpeace calculated that BP spent at least $5.6 million on ads in these three papers alone in the month of June—no small chunk of change considering how bad the adversting market is for print media these days.
BP has bought enough ads at the Post, for example, to qualify for a bulk rate. It’s not a special discount, Marc Rosenberg, senior advertising manager at the paper, explained to me last month. “Anybody who is buying 10 full pages of ads would get the discount,” he said. Rosenberg also said that BP can state a preference on where an ad goes in the paper—meaning the company could request that its ads not be positioned immediately across from photos of oil-soaked birds, for example. “Any advertiser has the right to request preferences for placement,” he said.
And BP of course has the right to shell out as much money as it wants on the ads—and, knowing full well the state of the print media, I wouldn’t begrudge any paper for taking as much BP ad money as they can get their hands on. But how much control BP might have over where the ads are placed and whether the company gets discounts is an interesting subject. After all, these papers have done amazing and abundant work on the Gulf disaster, so it must raise at least a few questions about how to best deal with these giant ads about a controversial subject that is currently all over the news.
“That has obviously been a challenge at times,” Rosenberg acknowledged. “There are days that there isn’t much in the paper besides oil spill.”
USA Today vice president of advertising Bruce Dewar said that it’s standard industry practice to work with advertisers on placement, though he said that, to his knowledge, BP has not made any specific requests to avoid placing its ads near spill coverage. “We will work with an advertiser if there is going to be a clear direct conflict that is going to be embarrassing to both of us,” said Dewar. He also said the BP is getting a bulk rate on ads there too. “BP is spending at a level that is definitely earning them some discount,” he said. The Times didn’t return requests for information about their policies.
Greenpeace’s Kert Davies argues that perhaps BP shouldn’t get a say when it comes to placement given the current situation, or in the very least should be forced to pay full-price. “This is part of a very clear national image washing campaign. It’s damage control,” he says. “They’re clearly broadcasting to an audience of decision makers, thought leaders, and the public through these print outlets.” But at the same time, he said, “It’s good if this ad revenue supports ongoing, good reporting that the Times and Post are doing.”
There’s also another important question about just how much these ads are actually helping BP. Congressmen have lambasted the “make this right” line repeatedly, noting that it can never really be “right,” given the scale of the disaster. And I’ve talked to more than one person who felt the ads were more off-putting than anything else. As Gavan Fitzsimons, a professor of marketing and psychology at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, explained, “A lot of folks see those ads and think, give me a break. It’s too little too late.” The ads, he said, “really strike the wrong cord with a lot of folks.”
It’s also worth noting that the $5.6 million on print ads in major papers alone is probably only a tiny fraction of what the company has bought so far. They’ve also run ads in local Gulf papers, on television, and all over the internet, which isn’t included in that figure.