New Coke vs Time Magazine Marketing Blunders


April 23rd 1985:  Coca Cola introduces New Coke, the world’s greatest marketing disaster of all time.

April 25, 2005 Vol. 165 No. 17:  Time magazine puts right wing harpy Ann Coulter on the cover of the magazine:

Has Time magazine pulled a ‘New Coke’ with their ‘Ann Coulter’ cover?

Ironic Coincidences
I’ve been wondering about how this blunder by Time magazine (the cover issue) will be looked at in the future. Might this be the media equivalent of New Coke? We have already seen quite a few people cancelling their subscriptions to Time Magazine (See Altercation of April 22, 2005). If the boycott of Time Warner gets up a head of steam, this whole affair could end up as the world’s second worst marketing disaster (the Edsel is #3).

The great irony is in the timing: the exact same week of New Coke celebrating (if that’s the right word) the 20th anniversary of its disastrous introduction, the Time Magazine Coulter cover arrives on Newstands. How serendipitous is it that those two examples of corporate think at its worst share the same anniversary — exactly 2 decades apart? We know that poor thought processes is in the DNA of TWX; this is the same brain trust after all who put together AOL and Time Warner in the first place.

It is the comic timing that’s truly amazing — like some cosmic irony warp which crosses North America every 20 years. This is not only a major blunder on the part of Time Magazine, but on the exact same week as New Coke’s anniversary? What are the odds of that happening?


What Happens When the Other Guy Blinks?
Time magazine made a mistake very similar to the one that Coke made: Time can never out-“right wing” Fox News, The Washington Times, Andrew Sullivan or Drudge. How likely is it that readers of those sites are going to become Time Magazine subscribers? Answer: Not very. Consumers of these 4 sites are viewers/readers who are looking for a very specific flavor, a unique slant. They want less of a hard news source (i.e., specific facts) and more opinion, philosophy, political cheerleading and energy.

Time magazine, on the other hand, is primarily a weekly news gathering organization. I believe their bigger problem is not a matter of where they fall on the left-right political spectrum, but a “right-now” versus a-week-from-now quandry. The internet causes the dead-tree media all kinds of difficulty; Weekly newsmagazines are particularly hard hit do to issues of timeliness.

Instead of responding, in a focused manner, to the challenge the internet presents, Time let a small but vocal group of non-subscribers determine the parameters of debate. By letting another party frame questions of coverage, you lose before you even start. (Lawyers call this framing an issue).


Who was This Cover Target Audience?
Magazine covers are advertising. It is part of their very nature, as the most visible page in a mag, and it is designed to attracts readers.

Time’s appeal is to people who want mainstream media news from a centrist perspective. The right and far right are hardly interested. Almost by definition, Time picks up both the Center (a given) and the Center Left — the people who aren’t interested in a blunt right perspective. I do not see Time capturing a significant percentage of Rush Lumbaugh listeners  and converting them in to regular magazine buyers.

So from a marketing perspective, I gotta ask:  At which demographic subgroup was this cover targeted?

Was this a ploy at grabbing right wing readers? To anyone involved in Media, you cannot help buy notice the spectacular rise of the Right oriented press. Not neccessarily a vast right wing conspiracy, but rather the surge of a particular type of media outlet appealing (some would say pandering) to a hard right perspective.

Like Coca Cola 20 years ago, Time Magazine blinked. They fell for the hype, alienated a substantial percentage of their audience, and played right into the hands of their competition. Pepsi beat Coke in taste tests, because the sweeter Pepsi tested better in small servings. After a full can, however, the Pepsi Challenge gave a decisive edge to Coke. (Go figure — the test was rigged!)

The first rule of business: Know thy customer. Time clearly has forgotten that rule. Don’t be surprised if the penalty ends up being rather severe.


Another Classic Time Magazine Contrary Indicator?
The cyclical nature of News and Politics oscillates to and fro. What’s hot one year fades and is replaced eventually by the next new thing. The “quick sip” goes one way, but over the longer time a different flavor may dominate.

That the Editors at Time do not know that is truly astounding.

We have looked at the magazine cover indicator in the past as a contrary indicator. Its been a solid tell on politics, technology, currency, even specific stocks (i.e, Apple).  And, this is not the first instance of Time Magazine’s displaying exemplary  timing. Recall the Jeff Bezos (’s founder and CEO) in December 1999 pretty much top ticked both that stock and the entire dotcom bubble.

Since Reagan was elected, the right side of the political ledger has been in ascendence. But for Bill Clinton’s brief reign (initially elected in a 3 way race that included businessman Ross Perot), that’s over 25 years. It would be both fascinating and ironic if Time Magazine, demonstrating once again their wonderful sense of timing, and top ticked another trend.

I’d find it terribly amusing if Time magazine managed to nail the exact moment — the post-Schiavo/Iraq War/Social Security reform instant — when the zeitgeist swung away from the G.O.P.

Time (not the magazine) will tell . . .

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What's been said:

Discussions found on the web:
  1. james commented on Apr 25

    “Consumers of these 4 sites are viewers/readers who are looking for a very specific flavor, a unique slant.”

    Not to be ungrateful to this site’s great host, Barry, but he show’s a ‘slant’ here with the words chosen to describe the other sights.

    While the sights mentioned in the article are to the ‘right’ of Time magazine, balancing a ‘left’ leaning global media…I would posit they represent more of a yin to the left’s yang (as it where)….no so much just offering a ‘specific flavor… or a ‘unique’ slant…..

    Barry, please…your better than that…(or you should be)…


  2. BusinessPundit commented on Apr 25

    A Time Magazine Marketing Debacle?

    Barry Ritholtz thinks that Time’s decision to put Ann Coulter on the cover may be the worst marketing move since the introduction of New Coke. He draws some interesting parallels between the two cases….

  3. Andy Nardone commented on Apr 25

    As I told my brother-in-law over the weekend, I’m a seller of conservatism as practiced by this administration & its media mouthpieces. It jumped the shark with the Schiavo affair. This cover just represents the last marginal buyer getting in at or just after the peak. No what to go long…?

  4. rob commented on Apr 25

    from my recent conversations with friends and business associates who were strong Bush supporters, I would say the top is definately in.

  5. Karmakin commented on Apr 25

    You can look at it another way. There’s a war brewing. It’s a big one. And there more than just two sides. Time is just going with what they percieve as the best odds.

    The war is happening throughout DC, through publishing circles, and so on. I can see at least three sides going on here…

    #1. The traditionalists. Moderate Democrats/Republicans and their media sources. The traditional mainstream status quo. This is the group that’s in SERIOUS trouble.

    #2. The hardcore rightist elements. This is the group that’s running DC right now. They’ve pretty much marginalized the right-leaning moderates right now…this is the group that Time is siding with.

    #3. The “Reform Democrat” side. This is who Time is running FROM. And that’s the danger. These are the people who probably subscribed to Time in the first place, but Time sees the writing on the wall, and for the reasons above, they’re going to lose most of them ANYWAY. Not for reasons of ideology, that is, (RDs tend to be anti-ideology when it comes to policy and MUCH more pragmatic) but just because they’re too damn slow.

    So that’s the battle lines that are drawn. Time’s thrown in their ante. It doesn’t matter anyway. They’re being whittled down anyway to the blinds and they havn’t won a hand in forever.

  6. seamus commented on Apr 25

    The new revisionism on the New Coke affair says that New Coke was ultimately a success. In the early ’80s, Pepsi was gaining market share and celebrity buzz with the Michael Jackson hair-burning episode, etc. Coke, meanwhile, was an old and unexciting brand that even its loyal consumers were taking for granted.

    So Coke said, “Let’s see how you feel about us taking your Coke away?” And much how a rock star sells more records or a disgraced ex-President wins accolades following their deaths, Coke sales went up, people raised hell, and by the time Coke out with “Classic” and rebranded New Coke as “Coke II,” Coke was a hot brand again. The next 15 years were very good to Coke.

    Whether Coke’s ultimate success with the New Coke episode was strategic or serendipitous, the lesson is the same. But Time hasn’t taken itself away from its readers; it’s merely degraded and created doubt in its product. The Right sees this as a ploy by the liberal media. The Left sees this as heresy. The middle thinks she’s nuts. Time wins nobody over.

    The irony is that Time was trying to use Coulter to symbolize something broader, and that’s the caustic, hateful bile that passes for popular political commentary these days. But the cover doesn’t accurately portray this theme — instead it just looks like a profile of an Important Person.

    That’s what so many people really find offensive about the cover. Coulter is only important as a concept. She’s a sideshow as a person. She’s neither Coke nor Pepsi. She’s not even RC. She’s Diet Caffiene-Free Wild Cherry Mountain Dew. Outside her niche, most people find her repulsive, and inside her niche, most people know she’s not good for them.

  7. joe commented on Apr 25

    I like your site better when you keep out of politics. It is good for you to expose yourself I guess so I know where you are coming from.


    (BLR: Don’t assume you know my politics — read this first: Last of the Independents

    The inability to make objective observations about the impact of DC on Wall Street is potentially costly.

  8. JWC commented on Apr 25

    I’ve subscribed to Time for over 20 years and am seriously switching to Newsweek when our subsription runs out. I doubt that I am alone.

  9. Mark T commented on Apr 26

    Let me get this right, are you saying that because a magazine features somebody whose opinions you do not share on its front cover that you should immediately cancel your subscription?

    Presumably you put your fingers in your ears and shout “not listening” when anyone disagrees with you all. Being a Brit I have no view on Ms Coulter, but I find the closed mind implied by this topic rather worrying

  10. Barry Ritholtz commented on Apr 26

    No, you are not getting this exactly and precisely wrong.

    When supposedly neutral magazine shows a fierce disdain for facts, and does so for political reasons — thats why you no longer rely on that magazine for factual news.

    A far more eloquent screed on how Time magazine screwed the pooch can be read here:

  11. quinn commented on Apr 27

    I think comparing Time and Coke is a bit unfair- Time, in addition to selling adspace, has the job of trying to record the gestalt for history. That’s one of the reasons why they indicate trends gone by at points- they are trying to capture something when its story is fully matured. In many cases, to tell the story of something they need to wait for its narrative to mature, to find a hook.

    Also, Ann Coulter isn’t their new product. She’s going to grace one cover for one week, and be gone. A magazine has to work harder than that to jump the shark.

    It would be a terrible omission to leave Ann Coulter out of any genuine record of our times, which I say as the kind of liberal she’d probably have put to death. It’s interested to note that the story on the front of right now is about Tom Delay’s ethics, or lack thereof. It’s pretty unfriendly towards Delay.

  12. Debbie commented on May 12

    u ugly

  13. Businesspundit commented on Jun 14

    A Time Magazine Marketing Debacle?

    Barry Ritholtz thinks that Times decision to put Ann Coulter on the cover may be the worst marketing move since the introduction of New Coke. He draws some interesting parallels between the two cases….

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