Adwatch: Pricking the consciences of pinheads

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The Independent Online
Changing how we think and act - over and beyond what products we buy - is, perhaps, the toughest job advertising has to perform. Witness the long-standing battle against drink-driving waged by the Department of Transport and the war against racism being fought by the Campaign for Racial Equality, whose latest advertising broke this week.

The CRE is renowned for hard-hitting tactics. Recent ads include one showing faeces and a dead rat being pushed through a letterbox beneath the line: "And you get annoyed about junk mail." Last year's campaign included a picture of three identical brains, European, African and Asian, plus a tiny brain labelled: "racist".

"Standing out has always been the key as much of the advertising work and media space is donated free," explains CRE's head of strategy, Colin Han. "We've found through experience that the more striking the ad, the more likely we are to have it run and get it talked about." The latest campaign, however, marks a significant shift in tone.

Soft-sell tactics have been employed for a poster and cinema ad focusing not on "anti-racism" or "equality", but "people". The ads, part-funded by the Home Office, are part of the European Union's 1997 Year Against Racism.

"Last year's work theme was `All different, all equal'. This year's approach is a natural progression from that," Mr Han says. The new poster shows the earth as seen from space, surrounded by tiny stars. The text reads: "Don't you like your neighbours?" By a small star in one corner is a single word: "Move". But it is the cinema commercial which marks the greatest change. The film, which comprises just over two minutes of black and white images, is part pop video, part Coca-Cola or Nike ad.

The theme is life stages. And so we see different vignettes relating to birth, school, religion, love-making, marriage, old age and eventual death with the odd quirky insert, including a white man and a Sikh sitting side by side as they wait for a train, each picking their nose. Each section mixes white and black people sharing the same experiences.

Surprisingly, the commercial was made by 14 different directors of different races and nationality. The advertising agency behind it - Saatchi & Saatchi - randomly allocated each a particular life stage. The only proviso was that all should be shot in black and white.

"There wasn't a brief, as such," Saatchi copywriter Kes Gray explains. "By opening it up to different people's notions of what humanity is, we definitely got a better film." The desired effect was "to strike some chords", he adds. "While ad-men tend to hone things down in a somewhat ruthless way, leaving the ball in the directors' court produced a more thoughtful approach."

The end result is a haunting film crowned by a final frame dividing the screen into two - black and white, linked by an equals sign. It certainly creates an effect. But does it over-simplify an important issue?

Purists have criticised the CRE's use of advertising for trivialising the problem. However, Mr Han insists, the advertising has been designed to make people think: "Our core aim is not to target the converted - or the preachers of racism, for that matter - but those in the middle who don't have a view and should."

While advertising cannot achieve this alone, it has helped considerably, he believes. "We monitor both attitudes to ads and attitudes to racism over time," he adds. "Without doubt, people do feel happier in a multi- racial society than they did ten or 20 years ago, but we still have a long way to go."

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