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American Journalism Review
Attack Ads  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   July/August 2001

Attack Ads   

Nashville's Tenessean goes on the offensive with the city's alternative weekly.

By Christopher Sherman
Christopher Sherman is a former AJR editorial assistant.     

"TALK IS CHEAP," declared the May 20, full-page, color ad run by Nashville's Tennessean. The ad posed this question for advertisers: "Do you want to barely make a dent in the market--or dominate it?"
Similar advertisements appeared in the paper the next two Sundays, all emphasizing the dominant circulation numbers of the Tennessean compared with those of the alternative weekly Nashville Scene. "We had just received our Media Audit numbers," Tennessean Publisher Craig Moon explains. "We started to see some weaknesses in the alternative's numbers that we hadn't seen before." So the daily decided to use edgy, eye-catching ads to take a little air out of the weekly. "Most of the alternative press has a tendency to talk about their young audiences...their well-educated audiences," Moon says. "That's the perception." The ads ran in the midst of the Scene's five-part series taking a critical look at the Tennessean. An editor's note that ran with the series' first installment said that it would try to answer basic questions about the Tennessean's mission and role in Nashville, as well as stickier queries like how the paper has changed since Gannett acquired it in 1979. Moon says that series had nothing to do with the decision to run the ads. "I don't think anybody read it. We haven't heard from any advertisers or readers" about the series. Nashville Scene Editor/Publisher Bruce Dobie says that he has received a lot of positive response to the series, both local and national. The Tennessean's ads, on the other hand, have not affected the paper, he says. "The reaction we have had is one of bemusement from most people.... It strikes most people as curious" to see the big daily picking on the smaller weekly. The Scene is not rolling over for the Tennessean's aggressive ad campaign, but rather, in scrappy alt-weekly style, is publishing its own ads in response. "Our interpretation of the data is different," Dobie says. The first ad in the Scene framed the battle as a case of "David and Goliath," pointing out how much more money the Tennessean's ads cost per thousand readers compared with the Scene's. The second ad responded to the daily's charge that the Scene does not have the young audience it claims. The ad jabbed: "If you're under 35, you probably haven't noticed The Tennessean's recent ads bashing the Nashville Scene." Sticking with the David and Goliath theme, Dobie warns: "Never pick on someone smaller than you."



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