Column: Putting ads in perspective


I am sitting here looking at a large pile of paper. The whole thing weighs about 17 pounds and is made up of the combined ads from Thursday and Sunday’s newspapers.

I feel a special connection to this diverse lump of material, a connection that goes back to my editorial days on a daily newspaper. Even though it was a long time ago, the lump I knew back then and the lump I see today were remarkably similar.

There were ads for just about everything both then and now. Women’s fashions took center stage with clothes for kids coming in second. There were ads for bicycles, car accessories, pharmacy items, seasonal stuff, furniture, garden supplies, spiritual seminars, building materials, travel brochures and so-called back-to-school essentials. I don’t know how “essential” today’s lists are, but when I was a kid, school supply lists always called for, among other things, a protractor. When I left home for college I threw away at least a dozen of them. As far as I can remember, none had ever been used.

The thing that dawns on me is this: I know something about these weekly mountains of ads that most people probably don’t. The ads are mostly the product of a printing process called rotogravure, a school of printing that was developed in Germany in the 1800s as a means of producing fine-quality art prints.

The process uses a system called intaglio, where ink is transferred to paper from engraved indentations in the printing plate. In standard printing, the ink is transferred from raised dots on the plate, dots which quickly wear out from friction.

Since there is no friction in intaglio printing, perfect quality can be maintained for very long print runs, something the inventors never thought about at the time. They just wanted to know that the 400th copy of a Durer masterpiece would be as crisp and professional as the first.

The rotogravure use of intaglio involves printing plates attached to gigantic drums – up to 12 feet wide – one for each color. The drums spin at warp speed through a gigantic printing press. Minimum print runs for a roto press start at 1 million, which makes the process perfect for printing national ads that will be inserted into newspapers across the country.

At the paper where I worked, a truck arrived twice a week with printed ads from the rotogravure plant in Kansas City. Everyone on the newspaper staff pitched in on those days to assemble the ads that would be inserted in Thursday and Sunday papers.

I think about this sometimes when I leaf through the ads and see one for school supplies that still includes protractors.