Public relations goes nuclear

Adwatch
You can tell it's a corporate ad. The succession of strikingly shot images - a lighted match, a prism refracting beams of light, lush countryside, spinning ballerinas - seems laden with symbolism.

Another clue lies in the sonorous voice-over philosophically posing "big questions" concerning science. Or, more specifically, the science of power - nuclear power.

What exactly is being advertised, however, is not so clear. The company behind this new TV campaign, British Nuclear Fuels, is not "selling" nuclear power. BNFL's business is in nuclear fuel reprocessing - one reason why the resulting commercial is abstract rather than being rooted in our everyday use of what nuclear power generates. Nor is it attempting to woo investors. Rather, it is using advertising to inform and shape public debate.

"Obviously because of what they are - a company working in the nuclear industry - there is much uninformed fear about what they do. There is a need for them to enter the debate," says Chris Macleod, managing director of the advertising agency behind the campaign, Collett Dickinson Pearce. "Historically, some have said BNFL shouldn't advertise. But there is an argument counter to that: if others can put an opposing view, why shouldn't they?"

Which is why BNFL feels that the time is now right to put its side of the case.

"As a company, we have a duty to explain clearly what it is we do, to enable the public to make clear judgements about our activities rather than basing their views on misconceptions", a BNFL spokeswoman explains.

Advertising is an important part of this process, along with media events, BNFL's visitors' centre at Sellafield, which regularly attracts 200,000 visitors each year, and a range of educational programmes.

The challenge for the agency was to explain a complex issue - nuclear reprocessing - in an easy-to-understand way that would neither trivialise the issue nor bore the audience. The answer lies in the image of a match being lit, extinguished and relit. This is a simplistic translation of nuclear reprocessing, whereby you start with 100 per cent used nuclear fuel, reprocess it, and get 97 per cent back to use a second time.

CDP had already produced a previous commercial for BNFL, highlighting the new technology on which the company's business relies. The theme then was: "Where science never sleeps". The new campaign's line remains the same, although the brief was to position BNFL more clearly in people's minds as a world-class scientific company, and to give more detail of exactly what it is that it does.

"It's not a political campaign, but a classic corporate campaign trying to get to opinion-formers who, in turn, will pass the message on to others - the classic cascade effect," Macleod claims. The stylised approach will distance BNFL from the more political end of the nuclear debate, the company hopes. But does it succeed?

Without doubt the ad is stylish, visually intriguing and - in its own way - reassuring. (If the men in white coats have all the answers, what need any of us fear about the potential dangers of nuclear power, it appears to suggest.) However, for those people who are not currently being exposed to the rest of BNFL's carefully honed communications strategy - the educational materials, the visitors' centre, the PR - the impact is hard to gauge. According to one source closely involved with the initiative: "We're currently researching response. In the meantime, the most we can say is we've not received any complaints yet - which, with this subject, is saying something."

BNFL's pounds 4.5m campaign is running for eight weeks. A national poster advertisement continuing the theme launches early in September.

Meg Carter

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