Advertising: Work, rest and play
Not convinced your whites are whiter than white ... don't feel like chicken tonight ... think energy drinks are a load of Red Bull? Apparently, we just don't respond to advertising like we used to, and one man wants to find out why. Photographer Florian Jaenicke and writer Matthew Sweet meet Siamack Salari, coming to your living room while you ...
Saturday 12 June 1999
Culture Lab is Salari's construction. It might sound like a German techno collective, but it is in fact a highly experimental department within the heavy-hitting advertising agency BMP DDB. Its work aims to provide clients - all of whom are household names - with more detailed information about their consumers than they've ever had access to before. Salari and his colleagues spend days at a time in ordinary households, collecting video-evidence of their subjects' beliefs, aspirations and consumer needs. This is, advocates argue, information purified of the lies and wishful-thinking that pollutes data yielded from surveys and focus groups - those half-truths about your domestic habits with which you've fobbed off the many clipboard dollies who loiter around Britain's shopping centres.
Most people are exposed to approximately 3,000 advertisements a day, from radio, TV, newspapers, poster sites, logos on clothing and the sponsorship of cultural and sports events. Over the last decade, however, a consensus has grown among researchers that TV ads, in particular, are as good as useless: their effect upon product sales is too small to detect, and may even be nonexistent. And the reason? Since most of the products vying for our attention are essentially the same - what's the real difference between a Philips and a Sanyo CD player, for instance? - manufacturers have to persuade us that their wares possess less tangible advantages that aren't just to do with function and value-for-money. The iMac, for instance, got the edge on its competitors simply by looking more like a boiled sweet than a beige plastic suitcase.
Because consumers are becoming less easy to impress and more unpredictable in their habits, the traditional processes by which advertisers have collected information are beginning to look unsuitable for the job. The old method of classifying people by age and income is fast becoming obsolete as ABC1s, it seems, no longer behave like ABC1s. Forward-looking advertisers, therefore - suspecting that their old tricks are about to stop working - are scrabbling about for new ways of recognising the consuming subject. And Salari's methodology may hold the answer to some of these problems.
"You can draw much clearer links between people with how they behave than through how much money they earn or how old they are," argues Salari. "We look at how people relate. How much time they spend together. Whether they eat together. Whether their TV stays switched on all the time, or whether they just put it on whenever they want to watch something specific. What makes people laugh."
Salari, 33, is a Yorkshireman of Iranian descent. He went to grammar school in Ramsgate, took a degree at Bristol Polytechnic and went straight from college into product design. After a spell at The Henley Centre for Forecasting and NOP opinion pollsters, he moved to the ad agency J Walter Thompson, where he spent three years laying the groundwork for the behavioural research projects that have evolved, at BMP DDB, into Culture Lab.
Spending time with Salari makes you feel as if your own consumer habits are a subject worthy of a lavishly funded PhD thesis. After a morning with the Acacia Avenue ethnographer and his partner (and fellow Culture Lab researcher) Varindar Khambay, I wanted to tell them both why I love the intense fruitiness of Jolly Ranchers; about my dissatisfaction with the distribution of Idris ginger beer; how Amoy stir-fry sauces all somehow taste like Fairy Liquid; how I have an Olbas Inhaler on my desk - not because I have a cold, but because there's nothing so invigorating as making yourself sneeze, is there?
Salari and Khambay met through their mutual interest in observing consumer behaviour, and they're fascinated by the ways in which we relate to the stuff that surrounds us. "People buy instant meals from supermarkets and add cheese on top of the pasta ... " breathes Salari, like a entomologist who's just discovered a new species of boll weevil, "their own cheese. It's a form of appropriation." Khambay has discovered, by filming people doing their housework, that most vacuum-cleaner owners are not using their machines in the most ergonomically efficient way. "They personalised the product for their own use," she explains, describing how her clients were horrified to see video footage of people vacuuming their Axminsters in what the vacuum-cleaner manufacturers considered to be the "wrong" way.
The Culture Lab methodology involves melting into the background as much as possible. Households are chosen by researchers at random from a pool of people who have already participated in some focus-group work. Subjects are paid a reasonable fee for allowing Siamack Salari to follow them, palm-sized camcorder in hand, as they go about their daily business.
He arrives at their door as they're waking up, invariably wears jogging bottoms and a T-shirt in order to be as anonymous as possible. (For the same reason, he stays in local B&Bs and arrives at his destination by public transport.) He doesn't eat with his families, but snacks on their doorstep or in his car, and then returns to the house in order to observe them at their meals.
If the idea of a man with a video camera in your living room sounds Orwellian, that's because it is. Not just because of the obvious stuff - Telescreens and Big Brother and Winston Smith's forced look of "quiet optimism" - but because the roots of the technique lie in Mass-Observation projects of the Thirties. Mass-Observation attempted to compile detailed social documents, of which Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier is the best-known example. Orwell - socialist, journalist and former policeman - snooped around the houses of his subjects, measured their rooms with a tape measure, watched them scrub down in tin baths, clocked them emptying chamber pots and falling asleep in their chairs.
Salari goes no further than the bathroom or bedroom door. And through a process of trial and error, he has learnt to test the veracity of his impressions. "I once spent the whole day with a bunch of kids, running between the soft drinks cupboard and the dining-room table. They'd cottoned on to the fact that I was interested in soft drinks, but I didn't realise it until someone said, `Siamack, if these kids consume this much every day they'll end up in hospital.' You have to completely go against their expectations. Disrupt their awareness of what you're doing. That's how you get truthful, naturalistic material."
And what, I wonder, about the question of performance? Aren't the stars of his video footage going to alter their behaviour in a manner that's analogous to the focus-group fib? "They can only be on their best behaviour for so long," he explains. "After about half a day they'll give up. They start taking the piss out of you. The kids come down from their rooms and start throwing cushions at you. If a change of that sort doesn't happen, you know you haven't caught them. But if they swear in front of you, that's the ultimate."
As if anxious to dispel the notion that they might be a couple of voyeurs who nose around in people's washing baskets and biscuit tins purely for their own pleasure, Salari and Khambay seem eager to spill the beans on their own domestic life together. "We often spend a day rowing after Siamack comes back from one of his families," breezes Varindar. "Tell him what your nickname is for me," Siamack yells from the kitchen. "It's Fatboy Fat," she says.
Manufacturers and retailers are not the only organisations that might benefit from Salari's subtle take on a household's sensibilities. One of BMP DDB's more high-profile candidates is the Labour Party, with whom they have enjoyed a long and special intimacy. BMP's founder, Chris Powell, is a lifelong member of the Party, and once ran for a GLC office under its colours. His younger brother, Jonathan, is Tony Blair's chief of staff. It was BMP which oversaw the anti-GLC-abolition poster campaign in 1984, widely credited as the moment at which Labour awoke to the power of advertising. Shortly after this, Peter Mandelson invited Powell to join the Shadow Communications Agency. BMP has masterminded the advertising aspects of every Labour election campaign since 1987.
Labour, it is known, is currently hunting around for new and more reliable ways to measure opinion - methods which might yield more accurate and subtle results than the focus group. Indeed, the focus group has become so synonymous with New Labour - parodically, perhaps embarrassingly so - that some consider the Party's reliance upon it to be potentially damaging. Siamack's work would have obvious application to political organisations or pressure groups. If he can discover why Sainsbury's is haemorrhaging customers to Tesco, then he could, presumably, also tell William Hague what it would take to get former Tory voters to return to the fold. And if he can record his subjects' anxieties about their TV dinners, he should be able to tell the government whether people really gave a damn about GM foods.
"We do talk about politics," admits Salari. "I know what they voted. Sometimes they'll hesitate and say, `I voted Conservative in the last election.' And that's when you lie to them, and tell them you did the same. They'll ask why you voted Conservative, and you say, "Well, because I think Blair is a slimy git and I can't work out what his expressions are. John Major was Mr Grey, but you knew what he stood for and who he was.' And then they'll give their own reasons." So he tells them things that aren't true?
"Only in order not to make them feel self-conscious. It's about trying to get the most out of them in as relaxed a way as possible. If you can see that they're really tense about having voted Conservative, then it's the only way of getting them to talk about it. And to be fair, I have voted Conservative in the past."
Salari and Khambay pride themselves on their ability to have empathy and understanding with beliefs and opinions with which they strongly disagree. On one occasion, Salari visited a householder whose Nokia phone had a clip-on Union Jack cover. Salari asked why he chose it. "Because I'm a patriot," he said, staring him straight in the face. The idea perturbs Salari, but that's not going to dull his professional interest in the subject. "When I go back I'm going to try and explore that idea with him," he declares. "There's an ugly side to people's opinions and we don't try and cover it up."
For the client, argues Salari, "it's all about generating insights, coming up with new ways of thinking about brands or products or ideas and how they're used." And the questions he considers range from the mundane to the scarily fundamental - all of which may be useful to his clients, be they cereal companies, supermarkets or political parties. Why don't people crush empty Evian bottles in the way that they're designed to be crushed? What's the one piece of junk mail that people bother to read? Who do victims of crime blame for their misfortunes? Do people feel trapped in their lives?
Megan Wright, 32, is one of Salari's subjects. He's only spent two days in the house with her so far, but he's already taped the funeral of the family guinea pig. She lives with her two sons, her new-ish partner and their dog in an unostentatious suburb of Bristol. An advertiser would lump her in the housewife category, and see her as the ideal target for boneheaded adverts for washing powder and floor polish. But Megan is excellent proof of the growing irrelevance of such stereotypes. Despite the presence of her partner, she describes herself as a "single mother" because, she says, she does "98 per cent of the bringing-up". She also nurses an ambition to write radio drama. Is she likely to be impressed by images of Shane Ritchie turning up on a housewife's doorstep to show her how white her whites can be? Of course not. "It's insulting nonsense," she exclaims.
Her relationship with advertising is complex, ambiguous, and possibly quite typical. But it would probably come as news to most ad agency clients who imagine that a housewife's dreams can be answered by a zippy new kind of cream cleanser. When she talks about advertising, she uses words like "prey" and "victim". She bemoans her own gullibility when it comes to fancy packaging. "I will go to Marks & Spencer and buy their kids' meal because of the tasteful, cheerful-looking pictures on the boxes. It makes you feel like you're being a real mum. Pathetic, isn't it?"
Advertisers, she argues, attack her through her young sons, who clamour for Sony PlayStations, Nike Airs, football gear and Cheese String - Kraft cheese Singles in the shape of spilled intestines, which are, apparently, every nine-year-old's favourite snack. The boys won the war of attrition over the PlayStation, but 10-year-old Calum still protests about the non- U nature of his trainers. If it's caused her all this grief, I ask, why is she colluding with the advertising industry to make this process more efficient?
"Advertising's not going to go away. But I hope that participating in this project might help companies see that they insult and patronise people. I know we're not like the families I see in adverts. I'm a single mum with mixed-race children. But advertising reinforces the idea that families like ours are wrong in some way. But we're here, and we're not going away, either. If they look at families like ours, then maybe they'll start treating us more seriously."
Whether her right-of-reply aspirations will be appreciated by any of Salari's clients, it's difficult to say. But it's easy to sympathise with her aims. Don't you wish someone would, for instance, tell Cadbury's that its Coronation Street animations look like a hideous faecal nightmare? That a Crunchie bar produces barely registered satisfaction, not the combined spasm of a thousand G-spots; that the grey-skinned Norm simply makes the Twix look like a chocolate bar for wankers; that advertising needs more realism if it is not simply going to annoy the people at whom it is aimed.
Salari's techniques may make such a thematic realignment more likely. But they may also allow companies to indulge their fantasises of comprehensive surveillance and control. Strangely, it's an idea that's well-expressed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the Sherlock Holmes story, A Case of Identity. Says Holmes to Dr Watson: "If we could fly out of that window hand in hand, hover over this great city, gently remove the roofs, and peep in at the queer things which are going on, the strange coincidences, the plannings, the cross-purposes, the wonderful chains of events, working through generations, and leading to the most outre results, it would make fiction with its conventionalities and foreseen conclusions most stale and unprofitable." And profit, is, of course, what Siamack is hoping to generate from his observations.
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