Look at all those supermarket ads
By virtue of his tenure, Charlie Hoag is the Star Tribune’s unofficial in-house historian, especially when it comes to advertising.
The Minneapolis native began his career at the newspaper in 1961 as a sales intern during his junior year at the University of Minnesota. The kind of guy who seems to know everyone, Hoag worked his way up the ladder, eventually becoming the company’s director of sales and vice president of advertising. Although he officially retired in 2006, Hoag has continued to consult for the newspaper.
“My long-retired friends ask me what I’m doing now,” he said. “And I tell them that I’m teaching new dogs old tricks.”
Q: Why was Taste created?
A: It was a collaborative project between news and advertising. Back in those days — and this is still true today — anytime you did a readership interest study, food was always high on the list. Over the years I’ve identified close to 30 fairly distinct silos — categories — of business that we deal with on a regular basis, and food has always been in our Top 5 to Top 10. Back then, we had large amounts of competitive retail grocery advertising, and we also carried a lot of national advertising, mostly introductions of new products and couponing.
Q: So the purpose was to gather that advertising into a single, user-friendly section, right? I take it that there weren’t a lot of preprinted circulars being inserted into the paper back then.
A: I checked with the plant, and anyone old enough to remember thought that we’d started distributing preprinted sections sometime in the 1960s, for national retailers like Sears, Wards and J.C. Penney. Most of the grocery stores were local. They didn’t have those economies of scale. They could still run their ads in the paper and that was enough to drive people into their stores.
Q: Which explains why, during the 1970s and 1980s, Taste was packed with page after page of supermarket ads. They’re fascinating to read. In an average 16-page section in the 1970s, at least 12 of those pages would be devoted to supermarket ads. Why did that slow to a trickle in the early 1990s?
A: I did a tally, and I counted 20 food stores that are no longer with us. They’re all defunct, and every single one of them was an advertiser. Obviously, not all of the grocery retailers went away. They were just in the paper in a different format. I’d be willing to bet that, if you were to go back and look, you’d discover that that’s when grocery stores went into preprint. They could advertise more product that way, more than in those two-page ads.
Q: From the business side of the newspaper, was Taste an immediate hit?
A: Subscribers and single-copy buyers loved it, and there was a noticeable spike in evening paper sales on Taste day. It wasn’t only for the content, although people loved those dramatic poster covers, and the recipes. But Taste was designed for advertising, and back then we were considered to be the only game in town. People really connected with those ads.
Q: Why was Taste a project of the afternoon Star and not the morning Tribune?
A: The Star’s news and features teams were a lot more inventive, and risk-taking, and willing to go out on a limb. It was also less costly to create a new section in the evening paper.
Q: I’ve heard that employees would know when that day’s edition of the Star went on the printing presses, because the whole building would rumble. True?
A: The first press run started about 10:30 in the morning. I had an office right next to the press room, and my chair would start vibrating, it was like someone was goosing me to get out of the office and drum up some business.
Q: From your perspective, what is the future of Taste?
A: It’s great. Look at the millennials, and the Gen Xers. They’d rather spend money to go out to the latest restaurant or brewery than invest in a home or get married and have kids. I don’t think that’s going to change; that’s an engraved part of their lifestyle. And there’s a comeback going on in home cooking. That goes in waves. We’ve seen that over the years, and right now people are excited about cooking at home.