Memos to sign. Maps to fold. Letters to write. Calendars to flip.
Wistful paper executives remember. They’ve watched e-mail, annotatable PDFs, digital calendars and paperless billing diminish more than a third of the copy- and writing-paper business in recent years, spurring mill closures and eliminating hundreds of thousands of jobs.
But now paper and packaging — still a $132 billion industry but absorbing a 5 percent loss in office- and writing-paper revenue each year — is fighting back.
Aided by the same USDA program that helped milk companies produce the “Got Milk?” ads, paper and packaging manufacturers have launched a multimillion dollar ad campaign to remind the digitally revolutionized how paper can, as the marketing verse puts it, “solve problems,” provide “an outlet for our creativity” and “connect us in personal, meaningful ways.”
“What we really want to do is reaffirm the desire to use paper,” said Mary Anne Hansan, executive director of the Paper and Packaging Board, the organization behind the ad campaign. “We need to be out there having a voice in an increasingly competitive world.”
Paper isn’t trying to take down pixels.
“We are certainly not trying to break up the digital revolution,” said John D. Williams, chief executive officer of Domtar, a large producer of office and writing paper. “That would be a totally ludicrous idea. I have my iPhone and iPad. But we are trying to show people how paper can serve them in their lives.”
In one TV ad, a little boy writes letters to his military father overseas. He folds them into paper airplanes, then launches them across his backyard fence, where the neighbor boxes them up and ships them to the dad. In another, a young woman hands her grandfather two baseball tickets in an envelope. They pick up a box of doughnuts, head to the game and keep score.
Goosebumps practically radiate from the screen.
The commercials are showing up on TV and Hulu during episodes of “Modern Family,” “The Big Bang Theory,” “Seinfeld” and, of course, “The Office,” the iconic show about a paper company in Scranton, Pa. (Famous Jim line: “I can’t say whether Dunder-Mifflin paper is less flammable, sir. But I can assure you that it is certainly not more flammable.”)
Industry representatives say their target audience is people they call expressives: educated, working people who like paper but aren’t using it as much anymore. This group faces constant nagging about how paper is wasteful and digital products are better for personal productivity, particularly at work, where employers have found that adding a second monitor to workstations decreases paper consumption.
Paper and packaging companies are bankrolling the ads through one of 22 USDA checkoff programs aimed at boosting certain commodities. The programs — funded entirely by manufacturers — help beef, blueberry, honey, peanut and even popcorn producers band together to fund research and promotion that benefit their industries. Paper is one of the few such programs for something that isn’t edible.
The initial ad effort is designed to remind people how paper connects and enriches. Besides the warm and fuzzy commercials, the campaign is pushing studies about how paper and handwriting enhance learning. The marketers cite studies showing that millennials prefer printed textbooks. Next year, the campaign will evolve to include education about recycling and sustainable forestry.
It’s a sort of one-two marketing punch to reinvigorate paper’s diminished status — or as Domtar said in its annual report to investors, its “secular decline.”
“Paper is literally like a character in our life story, but it’s a character we haven’t paid a lot of attention to,” said Todd Stone, a creative director with Cramer-Krasselt, the ad firm that created the commercials. “When we see it and notice it, its ubiquity becomes apparent, but its importance becomes apparent, too.”
Paper is about 2,000 years old, born in China. It instantly became vital and has stayed so, perhaps more than any other substance on Earth, excluding water.
“When it comes to pure utility, modern hygienic practice is unimaginable without paper,” writes Nicholas A. Basbanes, a paper scholar, in “On Paper,” a history of paper on 430 pages of paper. “When used as currency, people will move heaven and Earth to possess it. In the realms of intellect, every manner of scientific inquiry begins as nonverbal spark of the mind, and more often than not that first burst of perception is visualized more fully on a sheet of paper.”
But the digital revolution has relegated those quintessential paper jobs to the trash bin, even as our online lives have increased the use of paper packaging for all those Amazon boxes. (But maybe Amazon, founded by Washington Post owner Jeffrey P. Bezos, is actually a wash, given its paper-killing Kindle.)
“Paper has gotten a bad rap,” Basbanes said in an interview. “Paper is wonderful. I love the stuff.”
But Basbanes, taking the long view, isn’t dispirited about this seemingly threatening moment in paper’s history. For one thing, he thinks he’s okay with some of paper’s functions being replaced by machines, particularly if a few trees are saved in the process. And paper, he said, has been known to work with technology — the first computers used paper punch cards.
There are signs this is happening again. Evernote, the popular digital notetaking and organization platform, sells Evernote-branded Post-it notes and Moleskine notebooks designed for easy scanning and uploading. The software recognizes handwriting, and users can easily search for notes. Moleskine sales grew 13 percent last year, according to a corporate filing viewed online in PDF form.
Still, the industry sees the writing on the paper. Staples has closed hundreds of stores. The Government Printing Office last year changed its name to the Government Publishing Office, reflecting substantial reductions in government printing, which has prompted the paper industry to lobby against further cuts.
The big paper companies are already diversifying. Domtar is shifting some paper machines to make pulp fluff. For what? Adult diapers.
While paper executives know copy and writing paper isn’t likely to become a booming business again in the United States — although developing countries, lacking Apple stores, are using it a lot — they think they can stem the losses by nudging people to remember paper’s good ol’ days.
And paper executives are using paper’s mortal enemy to spread the word. A key medium for the campaign, aside from television, is the Internet. Ads for paper are showing on up Ticketmaster’s Web site and even on tickets that people print. The campaign has also targeted Shutterfly, a Web site where people can store — and print — photos.
The campaign is using its own Web site, HowLifeUnfolds.com, and social media to spread stories about paper. There are numerous links to stories about reading: “Can reading print books make you healthier? Read these words.”
Another post is a story about the Cleveland Browns using paper and pen last season for taking notes on plays, even as the rest of the NFL went to tablets.
“Football is all about the little things,” a linebacker said. “Little directions. You write down a few little things, you put it together and it adds up.”
A lineman’s theory: “You are actively using your brain more.”
But paper didn’t lead the Browns into the playoffs.
Maybe this season they’ll use iPads.