Claire Beale on Advertising

As Honda's skydivers plummeted, its brand was heading heavenward
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The Independent Online

Blame Soichiro Honda. Or blame advertising fatigue. Live advertising is the topic of the moment. When Mr Honda said "difficult is worth doing" it's unlikely he had a team of sky divers spelling out his name mid-air, live on television, in mind. But in a bid to stand out from the car advertising pack, that's exactly what the company that bears his name did last Thursday night.

Of course, you know that by now. You couldn't escape the enormous pre-publicity for the ad event billed as the first truly live TV advert ever broadcast in the UK. You might even have watched it.

If you did watch it, live, you might have felt nervous, exhilarated, relieved. I did. So I can only imagine how the team that pulled it off must have felt. The sky divers managed their free-fall letter formation, H, O, N, D, A. And their adrenaline rush was infectious.

So it worked, literally. And it worked strategically. "Difficult is worth doing" has some flaws as a campaign line, and it says nothing about the cars, but the live ad and the line speaks to the values of the company: relishing a challenge, doing something different. But why did Honda take the risk of a live ad, which could have gone quite horribly wrong? Ian Armstrong, Honda's customer communications chief, said rather disingenuously on the day: "If it works, people will know who it's for. If it doesn't, they won't." Fat chance. Honda was desperate enough to get us tuning in that it hyped the event brilliantly. And if the idea hadn't worked, there'd have been endless analysis about how and why.

You have to assume it was a carefully-calculated risk they took (there was a back-up recorded version in case of weather or technical problems). But billing your advertising as appointment-to-view content is seriously brave. Are normal (non-advertising) people really that interested? Not often. Some people might have made an effort to catch the follow-up to Sony Bravia's Balls, or Dairy Milk's Gorilla, or Honda's Cog because the originals were so enjoyable. But in each case, they would probably have been disappointed. If you try to make "event advertising" you'd better deliver on the hype.

Did it have to be live? Well, really, that was all this ad had. If it had been "as live" it would have been boring, pointless. As a piece of content, Honda's live ad had little originality. Making shapes or letters in free fall is nothing new. However, risking a brand reputation that has been lovingly, and expensively, honed on such a high profile stunt is rare, and bold. Of course it had to be live.

And the event wasn't just a live ad, there was a whole communications campaign propping it up. The timing of the sky dive was advertised, which might seem painfully tautologous but in these days of dwindling media audiences it's one way to ensure people will actually see your commercial. In fact, the live ad was a sort of ad for the ad campaign proper by Wieden & Kennedy that broke over the weekend. So you had an ad for an ad for an ad. That's working it.

As an exercise in PR, too, the results were impressive. You didn't need to see the ad to know what it was about, what it looked like; you couldn't escape reading about it or hearing about it last week. And here I am again today. That's efficient advertising.

But I think Honda's live ad said as much about Channel 4 and its brand values as it did about Honda. The ad itself was actually made by Channel 4's in-house ad team, 4Creative, which has walked adland's awards red carpets more often than many a traditional agency. The live ad was another triumph for the broadcaster's creative muscle.

Channel 4 is also gaining a reputation for the creative selling of its airtime: not so much event advertising as event ad breaks. It's already experimented with themed breaks to showcase like-minded brands. The live ad break is another innovation.

For Channel 4 such concepts can encourage viewers to sit through the ad breaks, and might even draw in extra viewers to the channel itself. I tuned in for Honda and ended up sitting through the rest of the show it appeared in, Come Dine With Me. It was good.

Encouraging people to watch TV isn't difficult, we watch more than ever. But pulling in significant audiences to any one show, and then getting them to watch the ad breaks, is the challenge. Channel 4 is trying to find solutions. Full credit to Honda for having the balls to grab the opportunity.

* If live ads are one way to stand out from the advertising clutter, "dead" ads are another. A new Home Office advertising offensive against teenage knife crime pulls no slashes in its depiction of the horrors knives can inflict.

The campaign has had extensive media coverage, so you've probably seen some of the images. They are not just shocking, they are stomach-churning, grotesque. And they hit a nerve: knife crime is now a daily occurrence on London's streets, a parent's nightmare. We need this campaign. We need a whole programme of zero tolerance, but this is a start.

Shock tactics in advertising are nothing new, and the COI (which handles government advertising) is a master. Think of those anti-smoking ads with lung cancer victims in their hospital beds, or the drink-driving ones featuring parents of children who have been mowed down.

But to an extent, we've become immune to the messages, familiarity has bred indolence. Shock tactics are less shocking than they were.

Yet knife crime is raw, it has an uncomfortable proximity, the images from the campaign hurt. And the truth behind them comes straight from the target market. The ad agency behind the campaign, Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, recruited a "creative team" of kids who carry knives to help shape the strategy.

The horrific images showing open wounds and blades sticking out of bodies, are being distributed on the internet and mobile phones. A postcard showing a thumbless hand will be handed out by street marketing teams. And discussions and blogs have been set up on on the social network Bebo.

I wonder, though, whether knife wielders might feel even more powerful. I hope the worst offenders can be shocked into giving up their weapons, but, at the very least I hope the ads shock us into demanding new solutions to tackle knife crime.

Claire Beale is editor of Campaign