The Story Behind the New York Public Library's Clever Retail Ad for Black Friday

The ultimate doorbuster offer

It's not easy to hijack a cultural event. But when done right, it can be marketing gold—think Nike at the Olympics, or Newcastle at the 2014 Super Bowl.

Black Friday has seen its own set of rogue campaigns over the years. Patagonia had "Don't buy this jacket." REI does "Opt Outside." Cards Against Humanity tries something new and outlandish every year (this year, it was a 99 percent off sale).

But one of smarter Black Friday retail ads this year didn't come from a retailer at all. It came from the New York Public Library, which ran a spoof retail ad in The New York Times explaining its great deal on books. That's right—they're all 100 percent off! With free returns! 

See the ad here: 

The NYPL has been creatively adventurous lately. One of its cooler initiatives has been the "Insta Novels" program, dreamed up by Mother New York, which features whole novels, novellas and short stories designed for Instagram Stories. It also introduced a "Knowledge Is Power" library card—its first-ever special-edition library card designed with an "elite" black look, like a credit card, to emphasize the card's intrinsic value. 

The NYPL team wanted to keep the momentum going by doing something special for Black Friday. 

"We have done smaller social media campaigns playing off the intrigue and attention around Black Friday, but this year—with the support of our Chief of External Relations and the generous support of an anonymous Trustee—we were able to take it a step further," NYPL rep Angela Montefinise tells Muse. 

In addition to the national ad in the Times, the push, designed completely in-house, included animations for social media, including the Instagram post below, as well as an email to NYPL patrons. 

Amid the exhausting onslaught of actual retail ads, the NYPL spoof was a breath of fresh air. And by the numbers, it was a great success. Montefinise says the library saw double the number of online card signups as on a typical day, nearly 30,000 pageviews of nypl.org/blackfriday, and more than 50,000 views of the animations on social media. 

"It was a true collaboration between all members of the communications team—marketing, public relations, creative services, digital engagement, digital media, etc.—and in the end, the coordinated, multi-platform approach paid off," Montefinise says. 

While the concept was tongue-in-cheek, the message was a serious one.

"People should take advantage of the best deal out there—public libraries—which are in every community, welcome everyone, even the playing field for all, and fight misinformation," the NYPL says. "A library card unlocks limitless opportunities—and saves money, which is important this time of year—so the Library hopes this campaign encourages folks to visit their local branches, get their free library cards, and start their journeys." 

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Tim Nudd
Tim Nudd is editor in chief of Clio Awards.