Claire Beale on Advertising

No prizes for guessing why children's TV programming is now in crisis
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Satisfaction, number 1: being able to say "told you so". Children's TV programming is in crisis, the television watchdog Ofcom moaned last week. Too many imports, too many cartoons, not enough diversity or investment. Told you so, said adland.

Told you so, time and time again. But did you listen? Too busy giving ear to the anti-advertising loudmouths obsessed with blaming adland for making kids fat. Never mind the national sell-off of school playing fields, the calorific crap that constitutes cheap school dinners, or push-over parents who can't say no to pester-power. No, blame everything on advertising, why don't you: easy target, and there might be some votes in it.

So they blamed it on advertising and banned some of it. Since the summer, any product high in salt, sugar or fat cannot be advertised on TV when a high proportion of children are watching. And so there was the writing. On the wall. When Ofcom banned "junk food" advertising, it trampled over the economics of commercial television.

You can't slash the amount of ad money broadcasters can make from children's TV, and still expect them to make lots of original, stimulating programming for our offspring. Commercial TV doesn't work like that. It works like this: broadcasters make programmes that attract audiences that advertisers want to advertise to. So advertisers advertise. And broadcasters use the ad money to make more programmes that attract audiences that advertisers want to advertise to. Ad infinitum. Simple, huh? Stop the advertisers advertising, and you stop the money for programme investment.

OK, that's simplistic. But there was never any doubt in advertising and media minds that banning ads from kids programming would harm the quality and quantity of that programming. Commercial channels exist to be commercial. If something doesn't make money, they won't do it.

Mind you, the ban only came into force a matter of months ago; the decline in investment and care in children's programming – on the main terrestrial channels particularly – kicked in long before. It's not a direct cause and effect from the Ofcom ban – the smartest advertisers in the so-called junk-food category saw the way things were heading quite some time ago; they might not have anticipated the full extent of the current ban, but they recognised the changing climate and shifted their marketing tack away from targeting children, on television at least.

So kids programming hasn't been a particularly lucrative genre for the mainstream commercial broadcasters, particularly with such tough competition from CBeebies and CBBC, and the raft of children's satellite channels and websites. But if the BBC is doing such a fine job for our kids, should we worry that standards are slipping elsewhere? Of course.

For starters, competition almost always keeps standards high; without decent children's programming in the commercial sector, the BBC will find it harder to maintain the quality of its output. Look at the current debate about BBC1's daytime schedule: with rival broadcasters toning down kids programming and gunning for housewife audiences, the BBC is thinking of shifting its kids' shows off BBC1 so that it can compete head-on for the grown-up audience.

Basically, whether it makes commercial sense or not, children deserve intelligent, original, educational and culturally diverse programming to eat their tea to. And, of course, there are still companies that want to advertise in a quality children's-programming environment. Heck, some of them might even want to sell our kids good food.

Satisfaction, number 2: few things in adland are as gratifying as a firm two-fingered gesture to a client that has dumped your agency. M&C Saatchi has just delivered a perfectly executed gesture of that sort to its old British Airways client, with its new television ad for the luxury business airline Silverjet.

I wrote about the BA ad account a couple of weeks ago. The airline moved its advertising to Bartle Bogle Hegarty in 2005 after 23 years with the Saatchi brothers' agencies; now BBH has just unleashed its first brand campaign for the airline, to much criticism. So it is with sweetly perfect timing that M&C Saatchi and its Immediate Sales subsidiary this week unveil their first work for Silverjet, a British airline with a small fleet of 767s flying between London, New York and Dubai. And its new campaign is a full-on homage to/piss-take of the famous BA ads that the Saatchis made in the Eighties.

Remember the iconic BA "Face" campaign from 1989? A cast of a thousand students were choreographed to make a Picasso-inspired face, set in motion to an aria from Delibes's Lakmé and directed by Hugh Chariots of Fire Hudson. Now, Hudson and the M&C Saatchi team have been reunited for the Silverjet ad. Same director, same location (LA and Utah), but this time, just a cast of four to make up the face. But then, this is not "the world's favourite airline": Silverjet is just hoping to be the airline of "a select few".

With an in-flight menu by Le Caprice, award-winning flat beds, fashionable carbon-neutral credentials, and, clearly, an advertising sense of humour, Silverjet could become adland's business airline of choice. At least for those without their own private jet.

Satisfaction, number 3: how smug the Labour Party marketers must feel watching the Tories scrabbling round for advertising advisers as speculation about the election mounts. David Cameron's attempts to recruit an ad agency have met with a lukewarm response from usually pitch-hungry agencies. Last week, both of the main political parties appointed media agencies (MindShare for Labour, PHD for the Conservatives), but David Cameron still seems embarrassingly short of advertising image-makers.

All right, a couple of old hands at M&C Saatchi are on board with the Tories. But the agency insists, somewhat sheepishly, that they're advising in a personal capacity rather than as agency commandos.

As well as PHD, Cameron has recruited a small agency called Goodstuff to provide some strategic media insight, but you can't help but think that all this is peeing in the wind without a big creative idea to hang it all on. Mind you, the problem seems to be that adland rather suspects that even with a big idea, Cameron's party is peeing in the wind. And no-one wants to back a loser.

The issue lies with the Tory brand. Great advertising needs to be built on a solid brand proposition, and – even after Blackpool – the Tories still don't have one.

Blair's Labour might have gone too far in bringing branding into politics (something that Saatchis' "Not flash, just Gordon" line for Labour seems to acknowledge), but packaging policies for attention-deficient voters is right up adland's street. The danger is that, now the Tories have scraped together some policies, there won't be any experts on hand to help sell them.

Beale's best in show sony bravia (Fallon)

It will probably become the done thing in critical advertising circles to lament the slow decline in Sony Bravia's ads from the stunning first pinnacle of Balls, through the interesting but not-so-good Paint to the OK Play-Doh.

Bollocks to that. Fallon's third Bravia ad, unleashed with meticulous planning last Friday, is a really fine commercial, intriguing, compelling, a piece of art that sells hard. Better than "paint", for sure, and way ahead of virtually every other TV ad.

It has 200 primary-coloured bunnies clay-mating around New York as daily life continues in bemusement around them. Created by Fallon's resident genius Juan Cabral, directed by Frank Budgen, and with a superb soundtrack from The Rolling Stones – "She's a Rainbow".

Like its predecessors, this ad required precision, scrupulous attention to detail and a host of craftsmen and women working at the top of their game. It's the sort of ad that gives the industry a good name; making advertising is not like making widgets, and (good) ads are not commodities that can be bashed out by whichever agency offers to do it cheapest. As a celebration of craft, of quality, Play-Doh is bang on brand for Bravia.

Quibbles: I love the romping bunnies, but not the purple iceberg that pops up in the middle of the ad. And the cubes of colour at the end are rather smudgy-dirty. But then, I wasn't watching on a Bravia. I wished I had been, so job done.