It's hard to tell when someone's trying to sell you something, says Emma Cook
nybody who reads a daily quality newspaper cannot fail to have noticed the ubiquitous cartoon strip-cum-ad campaign called The World of Oliver & Claire. Such is the spending power of Mercury Communications that these cartoon characters seem to have inhabited more prime newspaper space than Julia Carling's personal life.

Since the campaign was launched in February, it's been pretty hard to ignore the antics of Oliver, a bumbling office incompetent who can barely use the telephone and Claire - a cartoon baby who hovers over him lauding the benefits of a new business telephone system. The cartoonist responsible isn't any old cartoonist. For added authenticity Mercury Communications chose Steve Appleby, who has his own strip in the Saturday Times magazine. "Appleby seemed right tonally. He can comment on people's inadequacies in the office without getting vicious and has a wry approach to life," says Dominic Owens, manager of marketing services for Mercury Communications. Except there are few wry lifestyle insights in Oliver & Claire, just consumer messages about video conferencing, e-mail and freecall numbers.

``Right tonally'', means his style is barely discernible from editorial cartoons; you have to look twice to realise it's an advertisement. "We hope that people will see it as a regular feature," Owens argues "it wasn't a deliberate play on editorial."

By merging with the newspaper's style, a campaign such as Oliver & Claire can take up the best part of a page and still not lower the ``tone'' of the newspaper. So both parties are happy. The cartoon, part of an intensive campaign that includes radio ads and posters on the Underground, seems to be part of a much bigger trend on the part of advertisers to mimic editorial.

It is generally assumed that we, as post-modern consumers, thrive on parody, pun and pastiche. As knowing spectators, advertisers argue, we can appreciate the ironic interplay between different media as well as editorial, ``advertorial''and now, of course, ``advertoons''. Social commentator Peter York argues: "It's flattering to our intelligence to have a clever pastiche. The advertiser is saying: ``You're a person who's hot on detail. It's a fraud and you know it. But we've got every detail correct and there's the delight for a `post-modern' reader."

But is it a delight and how can your intelligence be flattered when you know you're being sold something? For this reason many consumers find these type of playful replicas downright irritating. As one reader explains: "In the way Oliver & Claire was advertised, I assumed it was going to be a proper cartoon. But it wasn't, I felt taken in and found it very confusing. And if serious papers appear to encourage it, what else can you believe in their pages?"

The danger is that advertisers rely on our "consumer sophistication" to justify the increasingly grey areas between sales and editorial throughout the media. They may claim it's their response to our broadening media literacy that leads them to mix and merge art, illustration, editorial and the straight hard sell, but that's not the whole reason. They also hope that if the execution is skilled enough we won't actually notice the difference between an advertisement and the medium it plagiarises - at least not straight away. They hope that in the few minutes we're taken in, we'll remember the service or product being sold.

"Overall, people respond far better to editorial than advertising," says Stefano Hatfield, editor of Campaign. ``The less they [the consumers] realise they're being sold to the better it is for advertisers." As a working philosophy, nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the creation of the advertorial, a collaboration between promoter and magazine to produce an advertisement that mimics editorial copy. In this month's Marie Claire, what first looks like an article on hair colour headlined ``Colour Made Easy'', is, in fact, a double-page promotion for colourist Daniel Galvin. While a six-page fashion shoot for swimwear entitled ``Beach Party'' is actually devoted entirely to the House of Fraser. As York points out: "Increasingly advertorials are done by the publishers themselves. They devise it in terms of house style and production values. Of course, there's a strap line that says `advertisement promotion' but people don't always notice it."

Glyn Davies, advertorials director for IPC's quality monthlies, which include Marie Claire, believes this type of promotion is more ``educational'' than hard hitting ads. "It's about being tailor-made for a specific market. We use the benefits of the magazine in order to sell to clients. It's good for a product that needs explaining. The main aim is to give the reader more information." In this way advertisers borrow the editorial voice to lend credibility to their message. The strategy is not restricted to glossy magazines. Readers of the Evening Standard last week were treated to a news page style "advertising promotion" on behalf of the Metropolitan Police, featuring four "articles" about successful Met operations, illustrated with a beaming portrait of Sir Paul Condon.

While some advertisers aim to mimic an editorial format in order to capture attention, others blatantly try to launch themselves into it. Benetton has succeeded over the years by producing a number of shocking images. Previous campaigns have shown a blood-smeared baby still attached to its umbilical cord, a man dying of Aids and a priest kissing a nun. When magazines refuse to run the Benetton advertisements it may increase their notoriety but does it sell more clothes? "It's not to do with direct sales - we do that through more traditional routes such as PR and catalogues,'' says spokeswoman Seema Merchant. "It's about raising brand awareness."

In this case, it has proved that courting editorial coverage is far more effective than impersonating it.