Claire Beale: The cause, of course, is the main thing

Advertising: TalkTalk is sure of a happy ending however this web tale concludes

"For the first 19 years of his life, Johnny Razor wasn't Johnny Razor at all. He was Malcolm Weatherly, and he was born in Mile End Underground station on the night of 17 September 1940."

In fact, if I'm honest, he wasn't actually Malcolm Weatherly either. He was a thread of fiction spun by Nick Hornby and woven by a handful of other famous writers – Robert Harris, Tom Stoppard, Richard Curtis. And now maybe you.

You see, Johnny Razor/Malcolm Weatherley is the star of a new online story begun by Hornby and then completed, in 50-ish-word chunks, by as many people as possible, famous and not.

It's a charity initiative launched today by the telecoms company TalkTalk. The idea is to create the world's longest collectively written story. So you can go to the website, www.theforever story.com, read the contributions so far, and add your own.

And every time a new person takes up the plotline and gives it their own unique twist, TalkTalk will donate £1 to the autism education charity TreeHouse. It wants to raise at least £50,000.

The idea comes from TalkTalk's ad agency, CHI & Partners (the agency's "H" is for Johnny Hornby, half-brother of Nick, brother-in-law of Robert Harris, so you can see some connections there). And as advertising strategies go, this one's clever.

The cause, of course, is the main thing. So the strategy is designed to get TreeHouse better known (which is happening as I type). PR and celebrities are umbilically linked, of course, and inviting punters to chip in guarantees strong personal connections and word-of-mouth. Not to mention a bit of ego-stroking (my 50-odd words pick up the thread from Tom Stoppard, probably the first and last time our names will ever nuzzle in print).

So CHI's idea guarantees some buzz, none of which would have happened if TalkTalk had just quietly donated the money. The strategy also drives the TalkTalk brand. The Forever Story resonates with TalkTalk's USP of cheap phone calls, and visibly marks it as "a brand that cares".

The end result should be a unique piece of literature with hundreds, if not thousands, of authors. And, more importantly, £50,000 – or more – to help raise awareness of the work that TreeHouse does to alleviate the financial and emotional pressures of looking after a child with autism. It might just sell a few more TalkTalk connections, too.

It's the classic win-win situation, and reflects advertisers' growing acknowledgement of the power of doing good and giving something back. Brand beneficence is very much of the moment. The Forever Story will become a brand utility: an interesting piece of entertainment, a fun bit of interactivity, a way for us to raise money for a charity, all "brought to you by" TalkTalk.

It also ticks TalkTalk's corporate responsibility box. Advertisers are increasingly looking for ways to make their brands useful or entertaining, instead of simply always serving up pretty advertising campaigns. It's a strategy that also chimes with the gnawing sense that overt consumerism is no longer acceptable, and that we should all be putting more effort into helping others, improving society, saving the planet.

If that's the case, and some rather influential people think it might be, the advertising industry has a real challenge on its hands. WPP's Sir Martin Sorrell recently told an industry conference that adland needs to rethink its attitude to selling. We've all become too used to the idea of aspirational consumption. "Our view, counter to what you might expect our industry to argue, is that conspicuous consumption is not productive and should be discouraged," he said.

So, in a climate of economic downturn and anti-consumerism, how do you make advertising that encourages people to spend money that they might not actually have on things that they might not actually need?

Well, maybe you don't. Maybe you take £50,000 (a drop in the ocean of money it costs to make and run an ad) and you donate it to a charity. But you do it in a way that encourages consumers to engage with your brand through a vehicle that they will find entertaining and satisfying. Maybe you do some advertising, too, but all your overt commercial messages will then be underpinned with an understanding that you're not just take, take, take.

As old-style consumerism withers and a new age of sustainability and well-being emerges, brands and their marketers will have to radically rethink their approach. Maybe Johnny Razor/Malcolm Weatherly will show the way.

****

News just in from America suggests that advertisers in the fashion and beauty business might struggle in this new caring society, and not just for the obvious reasons.

Of course, peddling expensive perfumes, make-up and clothing in a new age of what the futurologist Faith Popcorn calls "Lagom" (Swedish for "just enough") will be hard enough.

But fashion and cosmetics advertisers might also find their controversial penchant for size- zero models comes under greater pressure. The trouble is, new research suggests that breaking the size-zero habit could knock sales. A study by Villanova University and the College of New Jersey suggests that using thin models in advertising could actually be better for sales than ads that use softer, more normal images of female beauty.

The study found that, when young women are shown advertisements featuring thin models, their self-esteem plummets. But their estimation of the desirability of the product being advertised goes up. Basically, the thin models made the women feel less attractive but made the brands they're advertising more attractive.

If the findings are borne out, they could raise some serious issues, particularly in the light of societal changes. There's no doubt that the growing backlash against unrealistic images of beauty chimes with the emergence of a more nurturing, health-conscious society.

With Dove leading the way, some fashion and beauty brands are distancing themselves from the use of painfully thin, computer-enhanced models. And if advertisers aren't taking the initiative themselves, there's a looming threat of political intervention. The French parliament has already discussed legislation to ban the use of very thin models in ads.

The suggestion that these positive changes might prove commercially damaging will present marketers with a real conundrum. Clearly, "doing good" might come at a financial cost, and that's something plenty of advertisers will have to start thinking about.



Claire Beale is editor of Campaign

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