As Britain's unemployment rate slides below 9 per cent, businesses are crying out for highly skilled workers. But the Government's pet scheme for trai ning the jobless is a shambles.

The latest high-profile advertising campaign could prelude a mega-bid, says Nicholas Faith `After ICI, Hanson became aware that you have to carry the general public with you all the time'
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The Independent Online
HANSON'S new TV advertising campaign could be the prelude to a mega-bid, the artillery barrage before the assault. According to Christopher Collins, a Hanson director, the new campaign is designed "to increase awareness within Hanson's constituenc y - shareholders actual and potential, bankers, opinion formers".

But the company also admits that the failure to continue the long-running series of advertisements in the run-up to the abortive bid for ICI was a mistake. "If they'd advertised, the bid would have been better understood," says Steve Cooper, the account

director at Lowe Howard Spink, which has produced Hanson's commercials for nine years. "After ICI, Hanson became aware that you have to carry the public with you all the time."

There are hints that the campaign could be designed to soften up an American audience in particular: it is running on selected US channels, including CNN. The theme of the ad, a graduation party at which the successful student is bombarded with advice over his future career path, is a particularly American phenomenon. It echoes a famous scene in the 1968 movie, The Graduate, starring Dustin Hoffman, which Mr Cooper says "has a legendary status amongst '60s kids - Bill Clinton's generation". In

the commercial, as in the film, an older man advises the graduate to get into plastics.

But the campaigns have always been aimed beyond the narrow professional audience, "all of whom read the FT anyway", according to Mr Cooper. The potential audience includes Hanson's employees. As one media consultant puts it: "It's not good for employees to think that they're working for a shark."

It is also aimed at the employees of potential target companies, to reassure them that there is life after Hanson.

The idea of a regular campaign goes back to 1986, when Sir Tim Bell, then working with Frank Lowe, suggested the idea to Lord Hanson. The aim was two-fold: to "position Hanson as a company of which Britain and the Brits could be proud at a time when anyone who could take on the Americans was a source of great pride", as Cooper puts it; and to blunt the accusation that Hanson was merely an asset-stripper.

The campaigns, Cooper says, are "all in Lord Hanson's own image: ads of stature; six-feet three commercials". The basic theme - "a company from over here that's doing rather well over there" has not changed, but there has been a subtle shift in emphasis over the years.

The first advertisement starred Denholm Elliott and was full of figures. It said, for example, that Hanson made 250 million batteries a year. All except one of the companies mentioned has since been sold. The next featured Glenda Jackson, and in 1988 Hanson made a mock newsreel showing the relentless growth in the company's earnings per share over the previous 25 years by "investing in basic industries". It is the theme that has dominated the ads ever since. Indeed, a subsequent advertisement based on Orson Welles' film, Citizen Kane, emphasised the permanence of the Hanson empire: "here today, here tomorrow".

Characteristically, Hanson gets good value by advertising in the dog days after Christmas, conveniently between its results and AGM in early February. As a result, the total cost is probably not more than £2m, a pinprick in the company's £1.3bn profits.

Campaigns such as these have their limitations. The long-running and highly effective British Gas campaign did not help when Cedric Brown, the chief executive, had a whopping pay rise. Similarly, BA's high profile has not been of any use in its battles with Virgin, and Hanson's own ads did not prevent Lord White from getting into trouble over the racehorses owned by the firm.

Moreover, corporate ads are useless if they are used as an alternative to corporate reorganisation. The Woolworth commercials featuring the chairman plugging the "Wonder of Woolies" did not conceal underlying problems. When Rowntree went on the offensiveagainst a bid from Nestle it did not help that many of its products were so well-known: the public had never connected Aero, Kit-Kat and the like with Rowntree.

British Rail's attempts to avoid break-up after privatisation with ads costing £600,000, made by Hugh Hudson of Chariots of Fire fame, were too late and not credible. The theme, "We're getting there", naturally prompted the query: when?