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Adwatch: Pester power at Pontin's

What do you think of when you hear the phrase "holiday camp"? Wet British summers? Regimental fun and Hi De Hi? You're not alone. Hardly surprising, then, that Pontin's was eager to change its image to boost business. The problem was, how.

The answer comes with a face-lift. Yes, at the ripe old age of 50, Pontin's has tweaked its corporate identity and has invested in developing new facilities - including improved accommodation and extra provision for children: abseiling, quad-biking and go-carts, amongst others. It also has a new advertising campaign.

The TV commercials which broke earlier this month tread adland's well- worn path by exploiting what is known in the industry as the "aagh factor" (letting a bunch of cute kids do the selling, instead of the advertiser itself).

The ads adopt the theme of Pontin's as "the party for kids". The idea is that a gang of children have formed their own political party to convince adults that the fun of a Pontin's holiday is their right. One poppet talks of "civil liberties" and cries: "Ban bedtime, we want to stay up later and have adults seeing to our every need!"

And, as in the brave new world of British politics, the strategy has been honed by focus group research. Cowan Kemsley Taylor, the advertising agency behind the campaign, explains.

"When we first won the business, we all went to Pontin's to sample it for ourselves," says Deborah Pullen, a CKT account director. It reinforced in the agency folk's minds many of the public's perceptions. While the atmosphere was warm and friendly, the image remained tired and old-fashioned. "But with Pontin's plan to update facilities, we felt there was a great opportunity to 'contemporise' the brand." Consumer research showed that mums are the key instigators of families' holiday plans, she adds. "Their prime concern is that the kids will have a fabulous time." Getting kids to articulate Pontin's appeal was a chance to use one of the advertiser's greatest weapons: pester power.

What make the ads stand out, however, are the children. Like Safeway's pint-sized stars Harry and Molly, the Pontin's kids really do shine through the bursting ranks of bland little faces with toothy grins who flog yet another pasta shape or chocolate bar.

The reason is the director. It was Tessa Sheridan's first ad, but she had already directed a short that picked up top prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival. "She spent a long time finding the right kids," Pullen explains. "We didn't want kids who looked too stage-schooly. We're talking to ordinary people, who don't want glossy kids: they want to see them how they really are."

Pontin's sales and marketing director, Simon Sheard, declares himself "well pleased" with the result. "Pontin's is a well-known, well-loved brand," he claims. "This is all about bringing it into line with Nineties tastes and needs."

Not that the idea is to lose touch with its core raison d'etre, he quickly adds. "Sir Fred [Pontin] always said Pontin's was about `a week's holiday for a week's pay'. That has served us well for 50 years. Our research shows that our customers are price-sensitive and want value for money. It also shows that if kids are happy, parents are happy, too."

The new campaign, he hopes, will serve to distinguish it from its better known (and bigger) rival, Butlins. "We've had a good think about our business and decided we want to be the leading UK provider of holidays for younger children - the pre-teen market," Sheard explains.

"Our research suggests older people go to Butlins." In this way, Pontin's hopes, it can grow its clientele beyond the current 750,000 visitors a year.