Media: Don't be such a tease

Controversial? Certainly. Effective? Possibly. The CRE campaign illustrates the fundamental flaw with `teasers': it failed to get the message across. By Richard Cook
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THE COMMISSION for Racial Equality has got itself into a mess. In the past week, it has run three overtly racist ads, building up to the catchline, "What was worse? This ad, or your failure to complain?" The campaign has sparked an enormous row about the morality behind it.

At another level, though, it has drawn attention to an increasingly common advertising method - the art of the tease.

Think about it. You are sitting in a cab, minding your own business. A poster on the roadside catches your eye. "Are you sure", this poster asks, "that it's left at the lights?"

You know it is definitely an ad - after all it occupies a roadside advertising site - but there is no product shot, no catchy advertising slogan and most worrying of all, no product name.

Inside the cab itself, there is a somewhat smaller poster on the back of the seat in front of you. "Do you really want to go back for coffee," this one simply asks, "or do you want something more?" Again there is no more clue than that.

Perplexed, you turn to the magazine on your lap and, while idly flicking through, you glance at a double page advertising spread.

"Men think about sex 206 times a day," is all this particular ad says. It mentions nothing else.

It is at around this point, ad agencies hope, that we all start to think about who exactly is selling to us in these apparently shy and self-effacing ways. If we are especially prescient we might even guess the answers - Vodafone mobile phones on the billboard, Haagen Dazs ice cream in the cab and the Imperial Leather range of men's toiletries in the magazine.

But even if we do not get it at first we will, the advertisers hope, feel good that we have attempted to decipher the oblique clues contained in these seemingly random messages. And then, because we feel so pleased, this logic goes, we will be better disposed to the product or service on offer.

"The trouble is, because consumers are a lot more media literate these days, we also have to be ever more sophisticated in our teaser ads," explains Kate Stanners, one of the creative heads at the London ad agency St Luke's. "We have to create as much interest as possible on the one hand, but on the other we can't run the teasers for too long because people will just switch off.

"We also have to include some sort of pay-off at the end for people who have been intelligent enough to make the connection early on. The best thing is that these people will explain the ad to their friends."

Her agency is responsible for one such campaign. Two weeks ago it posted a series of ads written in French which seemed merely to espouse the benefits of various staples of French life. A week later a sticker appeared on the posters with the logo "As if By Magic Paris Arrived". Next week, the Eurostar logo makes its appearance on the posters.

"You've got to try so hard to get people's attention today that advertisers are increasingly turning to more off-the-wall techniques," admits Chris O'Shea, creative partner at ad agency Bank Hoggins O'Shea.

"When we launched the Daihatsu Move we started off with just a picture of Albert Einstein.

"People want to be surprised, and a good teaser can do that. But the danger is that the connection between product and ad disappears."

According to some recent research, consumer dissatisfaction with advertising is now sharply on the increase. Back in 1991, almost a third of the adult population agreed with the proposition that "I enjoy the TV ads as much as the programmes". Last year, that percentage was down to just 23 per cent. But then, that is hardly surprising in this age of media proliferation.

According to the media specialist Western International Media, the average UK adult is exposed to 250 TV commercials, 350 poster sites, 150 radio ads, 400 press ads and three cinema ads every week.

Is it any wonder, then, that we sometimes need to be teased?