The Persuasionists - The hard sell as soft option

As a new BBC sitcom, The Persuasionists, lifts the lid on advertising, Gerard Gilbert asks why few TV writers have seen the potential for satire in the industry – and if this attempt is a missed opportunity
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The Independent Culture

At a party recently, I fell into conversation with "someone in advertising". While I was expressing the opinion that the likes of Sky Plus, TiVo and video on demand were sounding the death knell of TV advertising, as more viewers fast-forwarded through the ad-break, he calmly explained how the industry was already finding solutions, creating adverts that worked at normal speed and on fast-forward. This, he went on, was a temporary diversion, and the promised land would be reached when TV and the internet converge, and advertisers can pick us off one by one, precision-targeting our individual dreams and desires – or at least our online shopping habits.

Given the industry's pervasiveness, resilience and ingenuity, it does seem remarkable that so few TV dramatists, or serious comedians, have turned their attention to its dark arts. After all, the Whitehall/Downing Street hand in the politician puppet has been the subject of two great sitcoms – Yes, Minister and The Thick of It – while lobbyists (Party Animals), political PR (Absolute Power), partisan newspapers (Hot Metal) and the inner workings of television have all been skewered by satirists.

While there have been plenty of movies about advertising, until recently television could only boast a short-lived 1988 British drama, Campaign. For the most part, working in advertising was merely shorthand for a certain sort of character – glib, untrustworthy and insecure. And then came Mad Men, with its beautiful people in sharp clothes surfing the early Sixties zeitgeist as they chased Boeing, Kodak and Lucky Strike accounts. But the subject of Matthew Weiner's sublime drama is not foremost advertising itself, but five decades of changes in American society as reflected back from the lives of a bunch of Kennedy-era masters of the universe.

What sounded more intriguing within the confines of this article, was the news that a BBC2 sitcom about advertising had been written by someone at the epicentre of the British ad industry. The Persuasionists has been scripted by Jonathan Thake, an industry veteran at 35. In 2004, Thake created the suggestive Pot Noodle "slag of all snacks" campaign, which won the distinction of being the most complained-about TV commercial of all time. "That was until a friend of mine wrote the current most-complained about advert of all time," he says. "The Kentucky Fried Chicken ad with the call-centre staff singing with their mouths full."

I'm not sure where I picked up the idea that The Persuasionists was going to be The Thick of It of the advertising industry, but in the event it's more like The IT Crowd with ad-people – big and silly and surprisingly funny. "The Thick of It?", says a bemused Iain Morris, when I speak to him and the co-producer Damon Beesley (they both wrote E4's Bafta-nominated The Inbetweeners) before the preview screening. "When you look at all the constituent parts, you might think that that is what it might be – because it could be a whistle-blower type job, written by somebody in advertising. Actually, it's more about people and relationships and working in an office. The thing about advertising and why it's probably such good ground for a sitcom, is it's very in tune with the human condition. It's about how people behave, and using that, or abusing it more likely."

Starring Adam Buxton of "Adam and Joe" renown, The 11 O'clock Show's Iain Lee (in his first acting role), and Simon Farnaby, The Persuasionists might be seen as a wasted opportunity to do a savage satirical inside job, but Thake claims that, for all its goofiness, there's a core essence of realism. And while the opening episode features hapless "creative" Greg (Buxton) struggling to come up with a pitch for a brand of "cockney cheese", Thake says that fiction is not so far removed from fact.

"Some of the adverts that are in the series are ideas I came up with for actual campaigns, and presented to clients. One was an idea I presented to Birds Eye – that they should expand their Captain Birds Eye concept, but for their land-based products they should have Field Marshall Birds Eye, and for chicken and airborne products they should have Wing Commander Birds Eye. They weren't having any of it.

"I think my fictional agency is rather innocent and sweet, whereas the reality is much bleaker... nasty people doing coke in the toilets. No, not really. The reality is two people sitting around in their office doing the newspaper crossword, and someone comes in and says 'Oh God, haven't you got an advert for Tango yet?' And they go, 'Oh, yeah'.

"I'm going to live to regret saying this when I have to crawl back and ask for a job, but there are an unbelievable amount of stupid people who work in the creative departments, because it's so hard to quantify. If you're a doctor, then it's obvious as to whether you're any good at what you do, but with creative people you're never quite sure." (Thake has no intention of "crawling back" to advertising, as he has sold his second sitcom idea, Jeremy Smith Lives with His Mum and Dad – about a broke thirtysomething graduate forced to return to the parental home.)

In the meantime, there is room for a harder-hitting series about the advertising industry. For a while it seemed that a new American drama, Trust Me, could have filled that gap. Starring Eric McCormack, Will from Will & Grace, and set in a Chicago advertising agency, Trust Me was created by Hunt Baldwin and John Coveny, who were Chicago copywriters until they went to Hollywood and produced the LA crime drama The Closer.

The show was slick and clever, but what was most interesting about Trust Me was how "branded" it was – employing product placement at the same time as it seemingly exposed the dark arts of product placement. In a way, it was a type of TV commercial itself. "Branded entertainment" is very much part of the future of TV advertising – subtle, or not-so-subtle product placement thwarting viewers fast-forwarding through the ad-break.

Ultimately, however, Trust Me fell victim to the credit crunch. Filmed before Lehman Brothers et al, its shiny characters and their confident expectations suddenly made Trust Me seem a period piece, and it was axed after one season. Perhaps once the dust has settled from the present economic fallout, a new show will arise that does for advertising what, say, Nip/Tuck has done for cosmetic surgeons or The West Wing did for White House politics. Is it too much to hope that this time it's British?

'The Persuasionists' starts on 13 January on BBC2. 'Mad Men' returns on 27 January on BBC4


The Hucksters (1947)
Radio advertising is the target as Clark Gable tries to make it on Madison Avenue by getting a war widow (Deborah Kerr) to endorse "Beautee Soap" – but the client (a terrific Sydney Greenstreet) proves a handful.

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957)
Frank Tashlin's lively spoof of TV advertising has timid exec Tony Randall trying to persuade Jayne Mansfield to use her mouth in a commercial for "Stay-Put" lipstick, and finding himself inadvertently promoted as the world's hottest lover.

Madison Avenue (1962)
The time and the place are pure 'Mad Men', but this uneven melodrama has Dana Andrews fired from a big ad agency and desperate to prove himself better than his former bosses.

Every Home Should Have One (1970)
Ad-man Marty Feldman, tasked with the job of selling frozen porridge, decides to make the product sexy, falling foul of the "Keep Television Clean" movement.

How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989)
Richard E Grant and the 'Withnail & I' director, Bruce Robinson, reunite. When stressed ad exec Grant can't come up with a slogan for a pimple cream, he develops a talking pustule on his neck instead.