Ad Breakdown: The Economist’s “Keyhole”

Lewis Folkard

Lewis Folkard

Suffolk-based conversion copywriter.

The Economist Keyhole ad

Taking it further this time. The last breakdown had a little bit of copy. This time we’ve got none. 

So, without any copy to break down, I’ve had to make some changes. No language or structure insights today. Sorry…

Let’s have a look at the ad:

If you’re in advertising, I’m sure you’ll be familiar with at least one of The Economist‘s ads. You’ll also know they’re always clever and give a little nod to the reader’s intelligence. This ad, “written” by Chris Palmer and art directed by Mark Denton, is no different.

Now, I’ve got two key points I want to share with you:

  • What allows this ad to be clever
  • The main technique of the ad

Let’s dig in.

What allows this ad to be clever?

Have you heard the saying, “by trying to appeal to everyone, you appeal to no one”? Probably. Well, The Economist are intentionally not appealing to everyone here.

Think, if you’d never heard of The Economist, would this ad make sense?

No… and that’s the whole point. They’re only talking to those who know who they are and what they offer.

It’s in The Economist’s interests to do this because the people who haven’t heard of them (subconsciously) need more before they feel ready to buy. And besides, even if they did buy, they wouldn’t make great customers. They’d have missed out on all the build-up and excitement.

And of course, a keyhole isn’t going to drive an unaware audience to sign up, is it? 

Instead, they’re focusing on the better, easier-to-convert prospects. Those who have heard of The Economist. And by doing so, the ad can build on existing knowledge and create something special.

(In fact, you feel pretty special when you “get” it. And that makes you like them more. And hence, more likely to buy from them.)

Anyway, next.

The technique

Almost every ad that’s used this technique (that I’ve seen, at least) comes out pretty damn good.

It allows you to combine unrelated (but independently well-understood) concepts to help paint a new and improved picture in your prospect’s mind.

How? Because these concepts already have their own emotions and meaning associated with them. You can twist them to make something more engaging and persuasive. It does all the leg work for you.

And what am I talking about? 


Now, there are visual ones (like The Economist ad above) and text-based metaphors (which my email subscribers got an example of). Both are great.

Here are the two independent concepts combined in this ad:

Concept 1: A keyhole (suggesting access to something, which, in itself, builds some anticipation)

Concept 2: The Economist’s (already known, but quality) inside information

You have to appreciate just how simple this ad is. A keyhole and a logo. By merging them together you get the impression you’re getting insight into something secret. It’s also intentionally a little ambiguous – so you can colour its meaning yourself.

Is it the secret to a work promotion? Better investment decisions? Access to the “elite”?

You decide.

And there’s a lot of power in that. There are endless possible meanings – it’s whatever means the most to you. The ad appeals to so few but so many at the same time. Just deep that.

And then, as with all great advertising, there’s also an element of “grasping” the idea. Y’know a penny drop. Again, metaphors make that easy.

If you’re looking for a “shortcut” to better ads (if that’s even a thing), a good metaphor is going to get you close. The trick is finding the right one. Shameless plug, but again, email subscribers found out how.

So, for another “shortcut”, try this. (Teehee).

Until next time, ciao.

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