What a week it was for . . . BT

When it comes to annoying advertising campaigns, Mark Simpson knows who to call
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Complaining about advertisements is not the smart thing to do in the ironic Nineties, but British Telecom's latest offering slops over from pathos into bathos with such vomitory abandon that complaining becomes an issue of public health.

Its VE Day offering featured a mock-1945 street party, with Man of Peace Terry Waite's voice reminding us that "there were smiles, but if you look closely the eyes were often sad".

Alas, Terry reminds us, today "we still behave badly to one another", but luckily, "there hasn't been a Third World War, and in Northern Ireland, the Middle East and South Africa, people who were fighting are now talking. And while there's talk, there's hope." Final shot: returning soldier greets jubilant wife at street party with BT logo superimposed.

Corporate ads are always in danger of becoming a type of vanity publishing, in which a faceless corporation disseminates an image of itself it is in love with, usually tied to some nebulous humanistic message, and hopes the public will buy it. Even given the astronomic pretensions of this kind of advertising, the VE Day offering manages the impossible and has even more grandiose ambitions than the recent Stephen Hawking BT ad.

Perhaps this shouldn't be so surprising since the bigger the spend, the bigger the egomaniacal, moralising tendencies - and BT is the biggest spender on TV ads: a record £44.3m last year. That's £100,000 of yours and my telephone bills spent every day to tell us that every time we don't use the telephone there is an outbreak of unhappiness somewhere and someone's granny dies of loneliness.

What makes these ads so breathtakingly awful is that they don't seem to care whether they are caught twisting your arm or not. The "It's Good to Talk" campaign portrays Bob Hoskins (like Waite, an avuncular "trustworthy" figure) walking uninvited into people's houses, listening in on their telephone conversations and offering us unwanted advice that is little more than emotional blackmail. And, like BT's campaign itself, Hoskins comes too close. This is no actor - this is Bob Hoskins, forcing his round, slightly menacing (are those eyes twinkling or staring?) face up inside your TV screen telling you to call your Nan.

If its recent advertising campaigns are anything to go by, it would appear that BT has decided that, as the main provider of domestic telephone services, it is actually selling the milk of human kindness. BT, you see, doesn't just have a monopoly on domestic telephone calls, but on love itself; just as VE Day became national nostalgia for a lost national connectedness, so BT would like you to think it hooks you up to humanity, that it is the soul in a soulless world. And, as is always the case with those who think love is on their side, it feels it can afford to be a bit of a bully.

Of course, the exploitative sentimentality was always there. The Eighties Beattie ads starring Maureen Lipman as the clingy Jewish mother played on the guilt of sons everywhere, but in a comical and self-parodic way which now seems wistfully gentle next to Big Bob's collar-feeling.

But, alas, BT's new in-yer-face approach works. Its profits have risen £800m since the "It's Good to Talk" campaign began, taking profits last year to £2.75bn. Perhaps it is not completely pedantic to point out that the only party for whom it is unequivocally "good to talk" is BT - a vast, hugely profitable corporation that is about to embark on its next round of job cuts. It emerged this week that 12,000 will be lost in the next 18 months, leaving BT with about half the staff it had in 1989. Call me a hopeless romantic, but you can't be all these things and humanity personified.

Real competition is coming, and meeting it will require massive investment on the part of BT. That is precisely why our consciences are being mugged in our living-rooms so mercilessly right now. From BT's point of view, these are the last golden days. No wonder their ads are now so often bound up with a sentimental nostalgia. Ironically, the hi-tech designer Thatcherite BT, which replaced grim old red phone boxes with tractor cab-style booths and sprightly corporate logos, now looks more than a little scared of the future.

There are smiles, but if you look closely at the faces of BT executives, you'll see that some of them are sad.

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