Advertising's broken dreams: 'It's thicker because it's got more tomatoes in it'

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The Independent Culture
ANDREW CRACKNELL, executive creative director of the advertising agency BSB Dorland, is sitting on a spotless, black leather chair in his Paddington office, wearing a dark suit with black-and-white patterned socks, holding a video remote. It is Thursday, 28 January, 1993; today, the headline in the advertising trade paper Campaign is: 'Agency levels dip to 30-year low.' It's the worst advertising recession in living memory: worse than the slump during the Thatcher recession in the early 1980s, when cream cakes were 'Naughty, but nice]'; worse even than the fallout from the oil crisis in the mid-70s, when Consulate cigarettes were, 'Cool as a mountain stream'.

But the recession has been good to Cracknell. Last year, his creative teams succeeded in winning pounds 71m of new business for Dorlands, including Anglian Windows, Benson & Hedges, Malaysian Airlines, P&O, Safeway, Ski yoghurt, Stones Bitter and Tennent's Pilsner.

Cracknell presses the 'play' button; it's a Tennent's Pilsner commercial. Two men walk into a bar. Immediately, you can sense that something is wrong, or at least strange: their gait is odd, jerky. 'We did this by getting them to do everything backwards,' says Cracknell, 'and then we reversed the tape.' The men at the bar order Tennent's Pilsner in weird voices, the effect achieved again by getting them to speak their lines backwards, and reversing the tape. The story is: two guys go into a bar, and order a couple of pints of Tennent's Pilsner.

One of them says, in his backwards-forwards voice: 'Brewed to taste a bit different.' The barman says: 'Ha, ha, ha] But do you know why? Czechoslovakian yeast]'

'It's almost meaningless,' says Cracknell. 'But you cannot be didactic; you can't say: 'drink this, it's good.' The consumer says: 'bollocks, I'll be the judge of that.' ' What you can do, though, as an adman, is research the 'premium lager' market, discover that consumers respond to superficial, jokey ads, and give them a single, almost meaningless fact about the product, a little bit of value to cling on to, even though they know it's a joke. In a recession, the laddish drinker likes a tiny bit of reassurance, but doesn't want to give up his luxury, which is being silly. 'Czechoslovakian yeast' adds the value, but preserves the silliness. It's perfect. That, at least, is the theory.

IS THE CONSUMER very much different during a recession? And, apart from Czechoslovakian yeast, what are admen such as Andrew Cracknell thinking up in order to survive, as many of them cannot? In 1989, nearly 16,000 people worked in the London advertising industry, universally acknowledged as the best in the world. Now the figure is 11,600; a quarter of the workforce has gone. In the same period, the industry has lost 18 per cent of its revenue. And this gives you part of the answer to the first question: many consumers, at least in the eyes of manufacturing companies, are not worth advertising to at all; in a recession, there comes a point when, however persuasive the ads are, people simply can't afford to respond to them.

And something else has happened: consumers have become - not wise, but at least wiser. To many people, the image of the adman belongs to a lost era, the Eighties, when people bought things, not because they believed them to have real value, but because they were living in a fantasy of borrowed money, of false values - an era which has come back to haunt them with debts, repossessions, shame. The last decade was a time when the thing you bought was the advertising, and you didn't mind, because the status your purchase conferred on you seemed to be genuine. It was a kind of spiritual inflation; you knew you were being conned, but being conned was something you invested in, because it enabled you to con others - the flash car and the expensive suit really did give off positive signals. In the Eighties it was viable to sell business-class seats on planes with the premise that a comfortable journey would enable you to be nastier to your colleagues when you landed; in the Eighties, when someone rang a housewife's doorbell and told her his washing powder was better than hers, she agreed: his powder always was better than hers. In the Nineties, people still believe in advertising, but their faith has been shaken, just like many people's religious faith was shaken by disasters in history: the First World War, Hiroshima. But, importantly, people who witnessed nuclear explosions often thought they saw the image of Christ in the mushroom cloud.

ADS, OF COURSE, are different now. Almost everything has been tweaked, refocused, rethought, to accord with a new set of consumer needs. If capitalism is driven by fear and greed, the advertising industry's needle has swung away from greed and towards fear; these days, you advertise an airline with smiles and reassurance (last year, British Airways reportedly paid Saatchi & Saatchi pounds 1.2m to make an ad in which hundreds of people stood together in a formation that, viewed from the air, looked like a smiling face.) And now, in the new Ariel washing-powder ad, when the salesman offers the housewife a new powder, she tries it and rejects it - Ariel, the powder she already has, is depicted not only as a product which is better at washing clothes, but as a product which helps you repel untrustworthy salesmen; a washing powder that cleans away the nasty understains of the Eighties.

But recession advertising isn't all appeals to frugal good sense. Just because we haven't got so much money doesn't mean we're not greedy, or desperate to indulge ourselves. But the scale is different. Last year, the agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty was selling Haagen-Dazs ice cream as if it were a sexual experience: the press ads depicted half-naked couples writhing and squirming against each other's bodies, which were sometimes dripping with white goo. In one, the woman is putting the spoon into the man's mouth and simultaneously bending her head towards his lips, almost kissing him. The campaign cost around pounds 500,000, and increased the sales of Haagen-Dazs by 59.7 per cent, over a period of a year. It won an IPA Gold 'Effectiveness Award'.

Sitting in his pristine, fashionably stark office, John Hegarty, the creative director of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, explained to me that it was important to understand the consumers' desire to treat themselves, even if they can't spend very much money. 'They're spending an extra pound,' he said, 'but they're buying a stylish, quality product.' When it comes to a high-value purchase, of course, like a posh car, they want a different kind of ad altogether. In his ads for Audi, Hegarty comes on like an estate agent: we see the back of the Audi Coupe 16v close up; it looks like a building. The copyline is straight, practical: 'Three brains decide how hard the Audi brakes. Only one of them is the driver's' This house comes complete with servants.

MURRAY PARTRIDGE, creative director of TBWA Holmes Knight Ritchie, is sitting eating sandwiches and drinking mineral water in his King's Cross office. One thing about ad agencies - there isn't a vending machine in sight. You never see a Styrofoam cup. People order coffee and tea as if they were in a hotel; everything is brought in pots and jugs. This is because advertising is largely a matter of confidence, of making you think things are right because they look right. In a recession, admen have to sell themselves harder.

And if people aren't buying, they don't complain - they creep away quietly. Admen live in a culture of market forces - they believe that if you're good, you'll sell. Did you know that a quarter of admen had lost their jobs in the last couple of years? I didn't. Academics would have staged a sit-in; journalists would have harried and whinged; miners would have walked around chanting, banners aloft. But admen are silent about failure; they want it banished. Their sacked colleagues are never mentioned; they're treated like fallen soldiers in a war.

Of the recession, Partridge says: 'The lesson is: get noticed. You have to get noticed. But a lot of clients don't realise that. They're absolutely terrified of getting noticed.'

As a 'creative', Partridge is uneasy about the new climate of fear that he sees creeping into advertising - marketing directors of advertising companies, frightened of failure, are trying to turn advertising into a science, wanting to back up every stage of the process with research; clients are scared of stepping into raw creativity. This is a touchy point. Campaign recently quoted 'one creative director', who wouldn't give his name, as saying: 'Nobody relies on gut feeling any more.'

'Is research killing ads?'; 'The rise of the consultant'; 'Clients get the shakes'; you can see the story in Campaign headlines. Almost every adman you meet fires a dictum at you expressing his unease about the culture of over-research. Hegarty told me: 'If research was foolproof, no campaign would ever fail.' 'One thing we know about research,' said Sam Hurford, deputy creative director at TBWA, 'according to research, we've got a Labour government.'

'People are slamming their money below the line,' said Alasdair Ritchie, managing director of TBWA. Going 'below the line' - using coupons and direct mail, rather than 'image' ads - is something that all creatives, and most agency employees, fear and dread. 'Below the line' is cheaper, safer, less creative, more boring. It's what the client wants when times are hard, or when he needs to back up his hunches with consumer response; a lot of below-the-line advertising is done to test a market, to stick your toe into the water. What admen like to do is to plunge right in, like the Levi's swimmer.

One TBWA client who did more than that was Nissan, who allowed TBWA to take the creative plunge, to advertise their cars boldly. How do people normally sell a small car in a recession? Mostly, they just photograph it at an angle to make it look longer, and surround it with text and a large version of the brand- name; on TV, they stick closely to their rivals' ads, showing the car snaking through traffic, or across a hilly landscape.

'We took three boring ideas and an interesting one to the Nissan meeting,' said Trevor Beattie, a copywriter at TBWA. 'In the meeting we gave them the three boring ideas. They quite liked them. So then I told them the good one: I said I thought we should throw the car out of a plane.'

Throw the car out of a plane . . . it was a great thing to do in a recession, precisely because it was out of step with the times. They did it in the Arizona desert, with 'a practice car - a Golf - and only two chances to get it right, two actual Micras'. The ad starts out with the plane door opening - you think it's a garage door, and the car slides half out of the door, (you're still expecting to see a drive), and then . . . just sky. The camera pulls back to watch the car falling.

This year, the Micra campaign concentrates on shape. Partridge points to the wall of his office, which is covered with A4 sheets of paper, on which are line-drawings of cars - round, blobby little cars which look like


He says: 'All car advertising is the same. So we wanted to do something a bit different. And it's worth it. People are seeing it. It's the shape. It's giving off the right kind of messages.'

The messages are: the Micra is different, it's round, it's cuddly, it's not threatening. The posters are yellow, and the car is a line-drawing. The week before our conversation, 300 Micras were sold every day at around pounds 7,500 each. Sam Hurford points at the blobby pictures and says: 'That's how people will see it now. Even if it isn't as cute as that, that's how they'll see it.' He's smiling; it's a victory for creativity, for the old spirit; a battle won in the bloody conflict of the recession.

IN A RECESSION, people go to the shops to fulfil their usual needs: they need luxury, approval, and snob value. The difference is that they find these things by buying different products, cheaper products, than before. This year, Heinz has a campaign that aims to stop people buying supermarket own-brands by stressing that Heinz offers a quality product. The ads are on posters, one showing a tin of beans, one a tin of spaghetti, one a ketchup bottle. How does it work? For a start, the pictures look like proper paintings, and vaguely Modernist ones at that - a photograph would have looked too downmarket. And the slogans mostly stress one fact: Heinz beans are posh beans, the spaghetti is posh spaghetti.

I'd never consciously thought about that, never thought of Heinz as a quality product until . . . actually, until the campaign had done its work on me. Now, Heinz beans are almost . . . not a tinned food any more; they're a sort of honorary fresh vegetable which happens to be stored in a tin. This is a campaign which catches recession-hit middle-class housewives on the way down; they might not visit the delicatessen counter any more, but they're beginning to regret it less. Perhaps the campaign has even added to the sum of human happiness.

This is another Dorland campaign. Andrew Cracknell opens a smart black case full of Heinz posters, and shows me the one with a painting of a ketchup bottle in the pouring position, with a little glop of ketchup not quite falling out. The copyline is: 'If it comes out faster than 0.028 mph, we reject it'; the ad is feeling for your intelligence, getting you to laugh in this minor crisis, the humiliation of this recession. You may be a bit poorer now, but you're not one of these people who walks around Safeway like an automaton.

'So why would people want to pay more for Heinz?'

'Because it's special. This ketchup has a . . . tactile thing, the physical factor, which also says something about its quality; it's thicker because it has more tomatoes in it.'

The point here is: it's not the ketchup that makes you happy; it's the advertising. It's not the Czechoslovakian yeast, or the Haagen- Dazs ice cream that gives you a bit of luxury; it's not the beans or the spaghetti themselves that make you feel a little more classy - or, at least, a little less degraded. No, the value to the consumer is in the slogans, the packaging. The consumer knows he won't starve, and he knows, in his heart of hearts, that he can't really tell one baked bean from another, once it's on the buttered toast, flavoured with salt and pepper. So he is, in a sense, shopping for the advertising - he won't be able to see beyond the label until the recession is a lot deeper.

BY DELIVERING milk to people's homes, the National Dairy Council has been branded leader in the pounds 3.2bn milk market. But by 1990, the milkman was dying out: every year, another million people switched from the bottle to the cheaper carton for their milk. The milkman, it was thought, only had 12 more years to live. Could he be saved? An emotive campaign in the mid-Eighties hadn't caused a blip in the graph. Until last year, he looked doomed.

Why was the milkman dying? Because his product was too expensive. And who wants bottles when you can have neat, stackable little cartons, with their clever little apertures? Who wants foil bottle-caps, with all their associations of birds' beak-holes? In 1991, the advertising agency BMP DDB Needham took on a difficult task: getting people to stop thinking about waxed-paper cartons, to stop thinking about milk as an impulse-purchase. The task was to get people to realise that, at some point in the past few years, they had lost something.

Who were these people? BMP DDB Needham made a TV ad based on friendliness and comfort; it depicted a smiling milkman delivering bottles at dawn to a poor but respectable housing estate. The milkman delivered his bottles while a jaunty tune played; what's more, the bottles were animated, they moved. The bottles trotted along behind him, and jumped into people's milk-crates, which were shown to have little dials asking for personalised milk orders. The ad was a masterpiece, a perfect comfort-blanket for the inner-city poor, for people whose lives are so blighted that they feel soothed by the idea of dancing milk bottles, for people who are so lonely that they are moved by the idea of a jaunty man, rather than a bunch of hideous criminals, creeping around their house in the early hours. The ad worked brilliantly, winning the IPA's top Effectiveness Award, the Grand Prix, halting the decline of home milk-deliveries, and generating pounds 22.5m for the NDC. It had cost them pounds 5.1m to make.

In a recession, the world as seen through the distorting lens of advertising is a strange place full of malleable objects: baked beans that cost a few extra pence become posh, little cars become bold statements, banks get cuddly, and after a while more practical; credit, your old enemy from the Eighties, becomes a softie, causing only mild embarrassment to Rowan Atkinson, who you normally see charging around with his trousers on fire at the very least, and ice-cream looks like a holiday in Amsterdam. And the milk-bottle, purely by virtue of being made of a different material, by being a differently shaped container, gives you back something you have lost. When you switch to the bottle, you are taken back to your pre- carton, pre-recession self.

Sitting in the viewing-room of his Marylebone office, Ron Leagas, chairman of Leagas Shafron Davis Chick, picks up the video remote and presses 'play'. The word 'Skol' comes on to the screen, the 'O' spinning round, and the 'O' is not an 'O', but a . . . record, no, not quite, it's a picture of the DJ Alan Freeman's head as a record. Alan Freeman says: 'Have a pint. Not 'arf.' The ad lasts 10 seconds.

When Leagas Shafron Davis Chick researched the downmarket lager, Skol, they wanted to know what it was that characterised the Skol drinker. How did he feel about his brand? How did he feel about advertising? They found that, to succeed, 'Skol's brand image had to be restored to being acceptable, without going too far . . . Too definite a brand image could take Skol into XXXX 'badge' value territory, and this could be nearly as dangerous as allowing Skol to continue its slide towards being yesterday's brand.' In other words, these drinkers were shy; they didn't want to be seen ordering a heavily advertised brand. They didn't want to look like mugs. This, surely, was the point where the advertising culture ended and the real recession began; these were guys who'd really had it with the Eighies. These were people who 'reject any advertising which makes a pint of lager into a statement'.

So they didn't want any ads, right? No, wrong. They did want ads. They 'want advertising to say that Skol is okay, everybody drinks it, it's popular'. And furthermore, they 'felt disappointed that their brand had been neglected, while other brands' advertising had given them more positive image values.' So, not wanting advertising, not fostering a relationship with it, is like not caring about your appearance. You do care about your appearance; you just don't want to look like you care about your appearance.

A poster campaign was designed. They depicted the word 'Skol', with somebody's head in place of the 'O'. One was a garden gnome, above the slogan: 'It's got more taste than the bloke who bought me'; another was Jim Bowen, the host of a darts-orientated TV game- show: here the slogan was: 'Great, Smashing, Super.' A third was a member of the Bay City Rollers; his slogan was 'Buy me one and we'll cancel our comeback' - all great choices,

perfect triggers for the low-brow smirk,

the slumped nod of vague approval. There

was one of Julius Caesar saying: 'Get two, Brutus,' but this was less popular, being judged 'too high-brow'.

The poster campaign ran on 500 sites in 31 towns for three months in the autumn and winter, at the depth of a recession. It was a downmarket campaign aimed at comparatively unresponsive, downmarket, ad-fearing people. But it slowed the decline in Skol drinking by an estimated 6,630 barrels, generating profits of three times the advertising spend of around pounds 500,000. It worked. That little jab of cultish humour when people saw Jim Bowen's face; when they read the copyline 'Great, super, smashing]' - it dug into thousands of brains, altered the social chemistry of hundreds of thousands of brief encounters.

When you don't have any money, when you're trying not to spend money, when you're closer to understanding the real value of things than you have been in years . . . you're still, in fact, hardly close at all. You're still possessed by names, you still, on a secret level, perhaps a more furtive level now, organise your life around brand colour-schemes, the shapes of containers, inspired by the echo of jingles, voiceovers. Advertising won't let you alone. Why? Because you don't want it to. You want to join in. Yes you do.-

(Photograph omitted)