Category Archives: Ill-informed advertising observations

We all have an opinion about advertising campaigns. These are mine.

The day I met Bernard Manning

Younger readers, this is Bernard Manning.

It’s 1992. I’m a young, fresh-faced freelance copywriter which, amazingly, I still am. I had picked up a few little jobs from a London advertising agency that specialised in film work. That is, they made press ads for when Hollywood films were about to get a video release. I had a lot of fun coming up with ads that were appropriate to the film being advertised, reasoning that this was a key element of my job, but the agency generally rejected my work in favour of a pack shot with the headline ‘OUT NOW ON VIDEO’.

But today my job is a bit different. I am to direct the comedian Bernard Manning in the recording of two radio scripts I’d written. They were to publicise the release of his own video, charmingly titled ‘Banging With Manning’ and allegedly a ‘hilarious’ spoof of sex education videos.

Manning. He was much bigger back then.

I arrive at the Manchester recording studio with the agency’s account lady at the same time as he rolls up in an enormous Cadillac bearing the number plate 1 LAF. No doubt you were supposed to read that 1 as an I in case you were left thinking the plate alluded to the number of actual jokes in one of Bernard’s comedy routines.

The passenger door opens and Bernard, not the lithest comedian on the circuit, grips various parts of the car to leverage himself out of his seat. He waddles across the car park and introductions are made.

“See the boxing last night?” He’s addressing me, correctly assuming that the posh young account lady wouldn’t care one iota about boxing. Neither do I, but I say I missed it while making a face that I hope conveys the idea that this was an unavoidable oversight on my part.

We walk to the studio. “I don’t mind black blokes punching shit out of each other,” he continues, “but I don’t like it when they beat white fellas.”

I don’t have a face ready for a remark like this, much less a suitable vocal response. The account lady and I look at each other. This is going to be interesting.

And it is, and not only in the way I’d been expecting. No sooner does he settle down in the recording studio, still angry about a white boxer being beaten by a black one, than my colleague gets a call from the agency back in London. Apparently the body that oversees the suitability of broadcast advertising has belatedly taken objection to an element of the script. “Which script?” I ask.

“Both of them,” she says.

“What it is about them they don’t like?”

She hesitates. “The word ‘banging’.” The name of the product, in other words.

I glance at Bernard in the booth. Although I can’t hear anything, he seems to be asking the recording engineer questions about the equipment. What’s there to explain? Like all such rooms there’s only a microphone and a pair of headphones, and surely he’s familiar with the former.

“You’re going to have to rewrite the scripts,” says the account manager, “and quickly.”

I look for a place to, er, bash something out while the situation is explained to Manning. He’s not happy. He’s decided that blame for the episode should be laid at London’s door. “Fucking London,” he yells at everyone. “Fucking London idiots,” he adds, getting a bit more specific.

Writing radio scripts isn’t easy. To be honest, I don’t find any writing easy. Those who come up with headlines like OUT NOW ON VIDEO probably do, but I don’t. And although I’m not what you might call precious, I do find a desk and a chair and a bit of peace and quiet help the creative process. Not an enraged shouty comedian stomping about, a product I’m not allowed to mention by name and less than 45 minutes to write and record a couple of 20-second radio commercials.

It gets worse. Once we’re in a position to get something down on tape, it becomes clear that Bernard is as unfamiliar with reading aloud as he is with basic recording equipment. He stumbles over every line, strays from the script, adds pointless pauses and PUTS the emphasis ON all the wrong words. The agency didn’t bring an actual radio producer, someone skilled in the diplomatic art of getting the best work out of the ‘talent’, and all the engineer says after each take is “was that OK?” So it’s down to me to explain to an increasingly impatient Bernard that he needs to read a bit faster, or a bit clearer, or with less yelling, and please can you wait until the microphone’s turned off before saying fucking London wankers.

Luckily, the studio – situated in a largely residential area just outside Manchester, as I recall – doesn’t have any other jobs lined up so we’re allowed to overrun. A couple of hours later we’ve got frayed nerves but two commercials that even the most puritanical member of the radio clearance committee won’t have a problem with.

Recently I was clearing the loft and came across a whole bunch of my old radio ads on C30 cassettes, including the two with Manning. I ordered a bit of kit called the Tonor cassette tape to MP3 convertor, and stuck the least-crap ones on my website. Grit your teeth and have a listen. 5th and 6th ones down.

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It’s 2014 – time for World Cuppling!

Here’s a look at the variously clever, risible, audacious and at times just plain desperate attempts by non-official World Cup advertisers to align their products with one of the world’s biggest sporting events, without, you know, actually mentioning it by name.

It’s called World Cuppling. By me, anyway.

First up, Sony. The people who prepared a wraparound for our local newspaper use puns galore to allude to the World Cup. They must be sick as HD parrots to learn that Sony is, in fact, an official sponsor, and that they could have sprinkled magic World Cup soccer dust all over the place.

Next, Panasonic.

A little too subtle, Panasonic? And you spelled the ex-French captain’s name wrong.

Camelot is talking holiday destinations, right? Not a potential fixture in that footie contest

George at Asda. For everything a die-hard England fan won’t be seen dead in this summer.

‘Save’. A football reference. You’ve drawn me in! Small point: How much do I save, exactly? On the wine, for instance? You haven’t said. Are you Costcutter or Copycutter?

Will this do?

Pure quality

This next ad from 3 is actually pretty good. A totally relevant idea, with Kenneth Wostenholme’s famous quote thrown in for good measure (and far from gratuitously). I also like the way it avoids using the phrase ‘World Cup’ without the reader noticing its absence.

Not sure about that ‘whilst’, though.

Seen any examples of World Cuppling? Please send  them to kevincopy (at) gmail.com or leave a link in the comments section. Let’s get behind our Boys and Girls in creative departments up and down the land!

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How to ruin an ad

We are deep into the 1980s and advertising agency de jour Collett Dickenson Pearce (CDP) has just presented its solution to the latest brief from its client, Parker Pens. Like previous executions in a long-running campaign, the ad takes the form a 48-sheet poster.

This ad features a pen that, unusually in an era of shiny silver and gold pens, is finished in matt black.

The poster ticks all the right boxes. Just seven words, lots of standout, nice pack shot, and a headline that completely wrong-foots the reader. You’re expecting it to say ‘clever’ or ‘smart’ or ‘gorgeous’; anything but ‘dull’. By confounding our expectations, the ad encourages you to look at the image, reread the headline, complete the equation ‘dull = not shiny’, then study the caption and make a mental note to try the pen out next time you’re in Smiths. Job done.

The client loved the ad and ran it. It picked up a few awards and probably shifted loads of pens.

The following is what could have happened had the Parker client been one of those people who likes to ‘improve’ ads.

And what could have happened had the agency been one of those that doesn’t stick to its guns…

“I like it,” says the client, ‘but I’ve seen research stating that people don’t like negatives in ads. Can we turn the headline round and make it a bit more positive?”

“Sure”, says the account director. “I’ll get the creatives straight onto it.”

“Much better,” says the client. “Very strong. But I’ve been discussing the ad with my team and some very good points were raised.

“The advert doesn’t make any mention of price. The pen you’ve chosen is quite expensive, so I was wondering if the ad could reflect the fact that Parker make a range of pens. You know, to suit every budget. We don’t want people to think we only make pricey pens!

“Also, and this is probably my mistake, I neglected to mention the matching presentation case the Parker 25 set actually comes in. And the guys in Brand went ape about the lack of a logo! Can you add the logo, and our Royal Warrant?

“Oh, and we’re in October now. People will be thinking about Christmas. Could you just add a nudge in that direction? Thanks”

“No problem,” says the account director.

“Brilliant! You guys rock. And that’s so true, about Christmas and Parker. Well done.

“You know, I was wondering if we could perhaps capitalise on that whole Christmas giving thing? I only ask because Parker offers an engraving service. That would be such a neat idea at this time of year. Plus I went on this advertising course where they kept going on about how the ‘offer is king’. So let’s just push this engraving idea, shall we?

“Otherwise it’s fine. Although we could perhaps big up Parker a bit. They don’t throw out these royal warrants willy-nilly, you know. We shouldn’t undersell ourselves.”

“Of course not,” says the account man. “I’ll see what the studio boys can rustle up.”

“Perfect. Looks like you’ve got everything in there.”

*reads for several minutes*

“Good. Very good. Although…”

“Yes?”

“Well, I showed the previous ad to Mrs Client, and she pointed out that it didn’t really shout ‘Christmas’ enough. Could you just make this one a tad more seasonal, do you think? Then we’re just about there, I reckon.

“Oh, and following on from that ‘the offer is always king’ thing I was telling you about, I had a bit of a brainwave about how we could drive sales by offering another of our products at the same time. It’s all about driving sales at the end of the day, isn’t it?”

“Ha ha ha, of course it is. I’ll ask the studio…”

“And the pens look a bit all over the place. It’s not immediately apparent who they’re aimed at. Could you group them according to whether they’re male or female pens?”

“A fantastic suggestion! I’m on the case.”

“We’re getting there. We’re certainly getting there.”

“That’s great news. I’ll…”

“Although, looking at it, there is rather a lot to take in, isn’t there?”

“Eh?”

“For a poster. Aren’t they supposed to have a maximum of eight words or something? That’s what you told me, I distinctly remember. You’re ignoring your own advice!”

“But…”

“Don’t worry. I have a solution. Instead of a poster, make it a press ad. That way you can get in a few more sales points. And a list of dealers. I know! Duh! Let’s make it a direct response ad and sell pens off the page! You know, I think we’re going to end up with something really quite different.”

“Yes, I think you might be right.”

“Brilliant! Anyway, must dash. I’ve heard a rumour that our share price is slipping…”

About this article

I found this piece in a very old edition of Creative Review. Although when I found it, it was called ‘the latest edition of Creative Review’.

I kept the magazine because I thought the piece was a funny and telling demonstration of many truths. How ideas are precious things, how the desire to ‘improve’ an idea is part of many people’s make-up, and how a willingness to please (or appease) a client can result in poorer and less effective work.

I lent the magazine to a creative director who thought it would be good for a talk he was delivering on the subject, and that was the last I saw of it. However, he had kept the visual elements of the piece, and these he kindly emailed to me. Unfortunately I don’t remember the author of the text that originally accompanied the visuals – I think it might have been the ex-CD of CDP, John O’Donnell. I hope my words have maintained the spirit and, hopefully, some of the wit of the original.

Resources

A (relatively recent) history of the Parker Pen Co, Wikipedia’s entry on Collett Dickenson Pearce, and some of their ads

Text © Kevin Mills 2013

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Fuelling anger

The Chief Executive of Consumer Focus reckons that 6 million UK households are currently experiencing fuel poverty, a figure set to rise to 9 million by 2016. That’s a lot of people thinking twice about putting the heating on, or having to make choices between eating and staying warm.

Just like petrol prices a few years back, the inexorable and dramatic increases in the costs of gas and electricity are causing anger and outrage as well as real hardship and, too often, premature deaths.

You’d expect the big energy companies to bear this in mind when briefing their ad agencies or approving the work they produce. They must be aware that the EDFs and E.ONs of this world aren’t amongst Britain’s best-loved companies. Especially as they’re French. So I can’t understand what makes E.ON think that this advert conveys the right message to its customers.

e.on advert

“I get money off my energy bills with E.ON. Great. More money for online shopping.”

Because that’s obviously the alternative. Not food, or clothes for the kids. Any money you don’t give to e.on can be added to that huge fund earmarked for Net-a-Porter. And what’s with that gratuitous inclusion of ‘online’? That just compounds the felony, as a simple ‘shopping’ would indeed suggest the weekly trip to stock up on life’s necessities. ‘Online shopping’, in contrast, still evokes the buying of treats and luxuries, especially when viewed in context with the image.

I think it’s insulting. But then it gets worse with that clunker of a strapline.

‘Helping our customers. We’re on it.’

To me, that comes across as ‘Helping our customers, you say? Worth a try, I suppose.’

Or: ‘We’ve heard about offering help to our customers , instead of remorselessly f*cking them over, and we’re going to give it a go.’

‘We’re on it’ doesn’t suggest an ongoing programme at all. The singular version – ‘I’m on it!’ –  is what an eager young intern says when asked to perform a challenging new task,  usually accompanied by a snap of the fingers. In fact it doesn’t even have the sense of a gradual process as evinced by its much-maligned predecessor, British Rail’s ‘We’re getting there’.

Essentially, the news from e.on is good. It is at last doing something positive for its  customers, probably as a reaction to the criticism that’s been levelled at it from all sides saying that existing customers are always ignored in favour of lucrative new ones.

But I think they could have conveyed the news in a far more sensitive and appropriate way. Meter reading: 0000001.

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Hurtz to listen

Hertz is running an ad campaign at the moment that includes some radio commercials. I say includes, but perhaps the entire campaign is being run exclusively on the radio, and maybe the campaign consists solely of just the one ad. This matters, because the quality of any other ads in the series – on the radio, in the press or online – may go some way towards mitigating the forty seconds of crap I heard last night. Here’s a précis of the set-up:

MIDDLE CLASS MAN: I’d like to hire a car please.

DODGY USED-CAR-DEALER-TYPE LONDONER: Yeah, what’cha after then?

MCM: Well, something a bit stylish and modern.

DUCDTL: Got just the thing. Lovely motor. Very spacious. Here it is!

MCM: But…but….that’s a VAN!!!!

See? The person wishing to hire the car had visited one of the less-well known vehicle rental businesses, perhaps in a desire to save money in these belt-tightening times, and the no-good scoundrel behind the counter had tried to rent him a van instead of a car. Because that’s what must happen: businessmen in focus groups often recount the times they had to turn up to an important meeting behind the wheel of a battered long-wheelbase Ford Transit or an LDV 200-series with a Luton conversion. It just doesn’t look good.

It’s clearly a false premise, though. Discovering that Ronnie’s Rentals doesn’t have the exact model you wish to hire is entirely possible. Finding that the car is in a poor state of repair or that its ashtray is full may be a familiar occurence. But the scenario of this ad is so unlikely that I suspect it won’t even begin to resonate with the target market. And I reckon this over-exaggeration of the possible negative consequences of trying to save a few quid is deliberate. It was done in order to put more space between that and the positive aspects of hiring a car from Hertz. The creative team must have struggled to find anything appreciably better about the Hertz experience, so they made the alternative seem absurdly nightmarish.

Some fuss guaranteed

This is borne out by what’s said in the ‘positive’ section of the radio ad, the bit where we get all serious and real-worldy. The voiceover reassuringly informs us that a car can be hired from Hertz with a minimum of fuss. So there will be some fuss, you say? Despite your 94 years of experience in renting cars, it’s still a bit of a fuss to hire a car from Hertz? Expecting the process to be free from fuss is an unrealistic expectation, is it?

I detect the hand of a nervous client here. Or maybe the RACC had a problem with a previous version of the script, the one that alluded to a 100% guaranteed, entirely fuss-free transaction in every Hertz location and on every occasion. I can understand that. In which case, the solution would surely be to not mention fuss at all, wouldn’t it? In fact, why are we even in the territory of fuss at all – the commercial was supposedly about the inability of some car rental firms to provide customers with cars to rent.

Clients can be a pain and briefs can be flimsy and the RACC can be heavy-handed, but there’s no excuse for lazy writing.

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Sort-of integrated campaigns

Have you seen this ad recently? You probably have. It’s everywhere right now. In the press and on 6-sheet and cross-track posters. Maybe other places too. In the ads, a woman or occasionally a man has been handed a parking ticket from a traffic warden. But instead of being cross about it, the motorist is happy. The traffic warden looks happy, too. Everyone’s happy.

In another execution, the happy motorist is shown with the ticket in one hand and talking into a phone that’s held in her other hand. There are smiles all round.

The phone bit made some sort of sense, in as much as it was an ad for a phone company. An ad for a phone company featuring someone using a phone wouldn’t be a bolt from the blue; a crazy juxtaposition making all your cognitives go into dissonance overload.

But it didn’t help me make any more sense out of the overall concept. And in any case, what could she be saying into the phone?

“You’ll never guess what happened, Mum! I got a parking ticket! Yes, another one! Well, they say good things happen in threes!”

According to the headline, there are ‘no nasty surprises with You Fix’. Did that make things clearer for me? A bit, maybe. Perhaps the motorists haven’t really been given tickets. Perhaps, in some inverted adland version of reality, the motorists are actually giving parking tickets to the traffic wardens. Fuck knows. Despite the posters and ads being all over the place, I soon decided not to bother trying to decipher them. It’s probably to do with some clever network joke that people in my demographic wouldn’t get.

I mentioned this to a friend the other day and he told me what the campaign’s all about. Apparently,it’s based around a TV commercial in which an actor dressed as a traffic warden gives fake parking tickets to other actors dressed as motorists. The drivers pretend to be upset, then pretend to be overjoyed when the ‘parking ticket’ turns out to be a £10 note. No nasty surprises. See?

It’s quite a good idea, if a tad derivative (although lifting stuff is officially Not A Crime Any More in advertising). Showing the absence of something is always a tricky brief to crack.

No, it’s not the idea that irks me about this, or the creative strategy. It’s the assumption that everyone who sees the posters or print ads will have seen the TV ad and will thus get the joke.

Doesn’t that strike you as odd? Not everyone watches Emmerdale or X-Factor. To make doing so a precondition of understanding your ad campaign seems, well, a bit wasteful.

It’s not a one-off, either. I was recording a radio commercial recently and questioned whether the call to action – which involved people texting a certain word to a particular number – was being said with enough clarity by the voiceover. The client, who shall remain nameless, said it wouldn’t matter if some people couldn’t hear it. They’d probably be able to read it on one of the posters.

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You want hard-working advertising words. That’s why we’ve identified two more.

I say ‘we’, because I wasn’t alone in spotting this comparatively recent trend. The estimable Tom Albrighton over on ABC Copywriting did all the heavy lifting back in May. Quick on his feet, that Tom. All I’m bringing to the table is a few more examples.

I’m talking about the ubiquity of the two words ‘that’s why’ in advertising copy. As Tom says, it follows the formula:

At A, we know how important B is. That’s why we C, which gives you D.

Or: You know this? That’s why we have this

It’s cropping up everywhere. It’s like every copywriter in town has been on the same course. Which would be strange, because copywriters don’t go on courses.

Here’s a few examples I’ve half-heartedly collected over the past two weeks. There are loads more out there.

'Find healthy'? Let's not go there.

One ad. Three that's-whys.

Oh, so that's why!

This is a bit of a non-sequitur, in my opinion.

Basically, we wanted to increase profits and hurt the competition. That's why we were compelled to make our products look and sound desirable. Otherwise we'd have just thrown together the first thing our designers came up with.

It's Sidney again, still looking for healthy. Hang on, wasn't he 88 in the previous ad? Time flies when you get old. (That's why you should try and enjoy every day as if it were your last.)

Cheerio!

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