News of Yore: Promoting the Funnies

The 1920s and 30s were the golden age of comic strip promotion. Newspapers ballyhooed new features in large display ads, new storylines in established strips got news coverage, and newspapers were peppered with advertising reminders of the fun to be had on the comics page. The vast bulk of this marketing blitz was instigated by the syndicates. Marketing materials for new strips and old were constantly being created and distributed to client newspapers.

Then came World War II and paper shortages – a time when newspapers didn’t have the luxury of using limited space on promotion material. Seeing that their promotions weren’t being used, syndicates began to get out of the habit of producing it. After the war the syndicates didn’t get back in the habit. Yet newspapers now wanted to promote their new acquisitions and ongoing features. The following articles, from 1950, discuss the situation.

Since then matters have gotten far worse. Today syndicates don’t seem to produce any promotion material at all – at least I can’t recall the last time I saw any in a newspaper beyond perhaps a little one-column notice of a new feature. This is yet another case of the syndicates, and newspapers too, letting their features languish in the back pages, printed begrudgingly and without interest.

For instance, if the tiny sizes weren’t enough of a problem for story strips, the failure of syndicates to produce regular promotions, like ads recapping the latest developments in the current story or announcing the start of a new adventure keep readers from having a place to jump in and try reading the strip.

One has to wonder if strips would be a more vital part of the newspaper today if the syndicates and newspapers took more of an interest in stirring up interest through promotions.

Syndicates Called Lax In Promotion Activities
By Jane McMaster, January 1950

Syndicates are hurting them­selves by failing to provide ade­quate promotion material for their features, in the opinion of various members of the National Newspa­per Promotion Association.

In letters solicited by NNPA Secretary Frank Knight, a cross-section of PMs [promotion managers] suggested:
(1) Syndicates in supplying too little material too late (or not at all) sometimes “kill” big promo­tions already planned by the pa­pers;
(2) By not stating their case well for newspaper readers, who after all have the last say-so about features, the syndicates are miss­ing out on one of the best ways of keeping a feature sold.

Ballyhoo That Fizzled
A Kentucky promotion man gave this expose of a dilemma in­volving “a top feature from one of the high-ranking syndicates;” “For reasons peculiar to our set­up, this was a feature we wanted to do a lot of talking about. The contract was signed three weeks before it was to begin. Two weeks were burned up trying to get some material from the syndicate and then we received one three-column mat and a biographical sketch which was written in 1935 or thereabouts. The picture of the personality in the ad was a head silhouette that simply failed to print despite all we could do with it. We called the syndicate and asked for a glossy photograph and they had none. The result was that what we had planned as a big promotion fizzled into a bare announcement in type that so-and-so would begin on such-and-such a date.”

Another newspaperman who had to write three letters to get some glossies from a syndicate (after the first request he had re­ceived mats, wrong size) com­plained: “Too often, it seems to me, syndicates look upon newspa­per publishers and editors as the men they must reach and sell, when really continuing sale of their features must reach beyond the newspapermen right down to the readers of the syndicate fea­tures. We are one paper, at least, which takes feature polls to learn what’s what, and our editors get one vote right along with every­one else.

“Of course, it is true that the newspaper must be sold on a fea­ture in the beginning but, after a sale is made, the salesmanship target is the public.”

One PM urged a job “at least as good as the sales brochures.” Once the items are sold, he com­plained, “promotion falls to next to nil.”

Promotion Kits Suggested
Several newspapers suggested that syndicates compile promotion kits on each feature they sell, give the kit to the paper at the time of sale and keep the kit up to date by addition of material. Cost to the syndicates might be an added-in item in the price of the feature to the newspaper, it was pointed out.

A desire for advance notice on new continuities and new angles in features was strongly indicated. Said one PM: “Usually, I find out about it (a new angle) in reading the strips. Then it is too late to do anything with special events or promotions.”

Another suggested “that promo­tion material prepared by the syn­dicate to sell new clients be given to old clients as well.”

PMs would also like to be noti­fied in advance: when a feature is to be discontinued (to avoid running promotion ads just before a feature is withdrawn); and when a feature is taken on. Actually, of course, the managing editor who buys the feature should noti­fy the PM but sometimes he doesn’t in time to launch good promotion.

While some papers stressed that promotion material should be “well written,” others write their own stories and request mainly salient facts about the author or cartoonist, his past experience, etc. Papers that use promotion as-is urgently requested short pithy stuff, for boxed or front-page teaser use.

Different Material Asked
Many PMs seemed to feel something should be done about mats and photos but the size of the papers affected requirements. Larger papers were more desirous of getting good glossies so they could make up their own ads. (“We don’t like to use silhouetted heads and art work full of curly-cues which most syndicates seem to still consider the latest word,” one PM wrote. “May I suggest the art work embellishments that gen­erally accompany syndicate mats be eliminated,” said another.) Sev­eral requested, in addition to por­traits, action shots, or photos of the author in front of a back­ground highlighting the subject matter of the feature.

One paper suggested that syn­dicates keep a ready supply of mats of assorted sizes (from 1/2 to
two col.) of authors and artists and panel characters. Another PM suggested that “whenever pro­motion material is sent out it be accompanied by mats.” A third be­lieves “if a set of half dozen ads were sent by syndicates whenever a new story phase or new charac­ter is introduced in strips as well as general ads to use week in and week out, the syndicates could garner a tremendous amount of free advertising space and KEEP their particular feature sold.”

Personal Appearances
PM of a larger paper suggested that syndicates might maintain a list of regular name cartoonists and writers for personal appear­ances in conjunction with newspa­per promotions. (The fee, if any, should be well within promotion budgets, he said.) The paper also could use: wax recording of the author’s voice, supplied at cost, for radio promotion; one-minute films, showing the artist or author at work, for television.

Syndicates Answer Complaints on Promotion
By Jane McMaster

A complaint by newspaper pro­motion men that syndicates aren’t providing adequate promotion ma­terial for features drew a pretty human re­sponse from syndicates. “They couldn’t mean us,” individual syn­dicates said. “They must mean some other syndicate.”

But an informal poll of about 15 syndicates turned up some real problems in connection with their promotion activities. Some blame, syndicates suggest, lies at the door of newspapers, themselves:
1. Newspapers hardly ever send tearsheets to show how and what promotion they use. This is a deterrent to syndicate pro­motion planning.

2. Newspapers may be lax in routing of the material. Promo­tion material is definitely fur­nished, sometimes in great va­riety and quantity. In most cases it goes to the managing editor. (Where a newspaper designates a person other than the promotion man as the proper recipient, the syndicate doesn’t regularly mail duplicates to the PM because of the expense.)

3. Syndicates say they’re eager, willing and able to help promo­tion men in general and with spe­cial projects, if newspapers will advise what they want, in ad­vance.

King ‘Goes Overboard’
Promotion Manager John Ma­son of King Features objected to what he called “a ringing in­dictment of syndicate promotion that didn’t separate the sheep from the goats.”

“We go absolutely overboard in trying to help the promotion man­agers,” he said, showing an ex­pensive advance brochure for “The Cisco Kid,” new comic.

Other launching tools on all new King comics: a half-page intro­ductory layout, at least 10 teaser and follow-up ads, biography and picture of creator, truck poster and tack card ideas. Glossies as well as mats are provided.

King prides itself on coopera­tion in special promotions. A Philadelphia paper, for instance, recently requested a booklet on learning to box, tied in with “Big Ben Bolt.” The promotion de­partment prepared a booklet (in­cluding some firsthand advice from Gene Tunney and illustrated by the strip’s cartoonist) and gave it to the paper at cost. The pa­per offered it to readers for 10 cents.

Advises Direct Contacts
Mr. Mason’s suggestion to pro­motion men: “Establish direct contact with the syndicate pro­motion manager. Outline your plans and decide how the syndi­cate can help.” He also suggests that better liaison, promotion-wise, among the newspaper’s ex­ecutives might pay: “We often have to send out material two or three times because the managing editor or publisher loses it in the shuffle or fails to pass it along. Special reader promotion that we often include in the regular pack­age (of feature proofs) never reaches the promotion manager’s desk.”

Mr. Mason thinks promotion men might read the strips in ad­vance and thus spot new twists in time to plan promotion.

Promotion Manager Robert Sloane of the New York Herald Tribune Syndicate said: “We have plenty of promotion. Biog­raphies are constantly being brought up to date. We have all the basic material and are con­stantly filling requests.”

Doubts Extra Pay
Mr. Sloane didn’t think editors would be willing to pay an added cost for an elaborate promotion kit on each feature, a plan sug­gested by one newspaper promo­tion manager.

Manager Mollie Slott of Chi­cago Tribune-New York News Syndicate was baffled by one PM’s suggestion “that promotion material prepared by the syndicate to sell new clients be given to old clients as well.” Miss Slott said she had tried that and had received letters from newspapermen saying, “We’ve already bought your fea­ture, why do you keep sending us this stuff?”

“I was afraid I was sending out too much,” said Miss Slott.

News of CT-NYNS features is provided in a weekly newsletter recently started by the syndicate.

General Manager Laurence Rutman of United Features Syndi­cate commented: “It’s a real prob­lem. We have gone all out in preparing promotion material from time to time and found later that few newspapers used it. I don’t see how any syndicate could turn out promotion stuff day after day and expect it to be used.

“We fully realize the problems of editors,” Mr. Rutman con­tinued. ‘We try to keep our pro­motion up to a standard that war­rants being used without turning it out wholesale.”

Newspaper Responsibility
General Manager H. R. Wishengrad of Press Features and Overseas News Agency said syn­dicates should offer every coopera­tion to newspaper promotion men, but, he pointed out: “When a newspaper takes on a feature, it has a proprietary interest in that feature. The primary responsi­bility for continuing promotion of that feature rests with the news­paper.”

Manager Robert Hall of Post-Hall stated: “Actually, because of the restrictions in newsprint and the fact that many newspapers have not wanted lavish promotion, many of us have not offered large promotions like we used to do. We have checked and found out that only a small, amount was used.”

“I think newspapers could use much more promotion than they do,” Mr. Hall added.

Promotion Manager Jack Gamble of NEA Service said NEA-Acme has always supplied a variety of promotion and in­vited specific requests.

Editor-in-Chief Elmer Roessner of McClure Newspaper Syndi­cate: “I have long felt the syn­dicate business is one of the worst offenders in the promotion line. We are improving in our promo­tion here but I feel guilty that we are not doing more.”

McClure sends out an initial packet of material on a feature. But Mr. Roessner doubted whether managing editors would take the time to keep the packet up to date by adding follow-up promotion material received.

Tell Them What’s Wanted
President S. George Little of General Features Corp. said three or four persons, all former newspapermen, work on the syn­dicate’s promotion.

“We try to get all the back­ground material—in good news­paper promotion form,” said Mr. Little. “We are very careful to get right on top of any request for help in promoting features.”

General Manager Henry P. Martin of the Des Moines Regis­ter and Tribune Syndicate said the syndicate will now step up its promotion. “We have been as promotion-minded as any syndicate in the business,” he commented, “but I think in some instances we are all a little lax.”

R & T has done a special pro­motion job on the Chicago Daily News foreign service, giving edi­tors a packet every three months containing behind-the-scenes in­formation on the correspondents, the newsplay accorded various sto­ries and up-to-date biographies.

All in all, it’s a good time for PMs to state their cases further: tell each syndicate exactly what is wanted.

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