Claire Beale on advertising

Why the world's biggest advertisers are suddenly starting to get political
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A girl stands in the middle of the road, staring into the camera. She blinks in slo-mo as you study her face. "Here it comes, here it comes" chirrups the poppy soundtrack. And it comes: full throttle, a barrage of advertising images selling a more beautiful you.

Tight bum, full bust, thin, thin, thin. Pills, lotions, scalpels, fingers down the throat: all the tools of the trade fly past. We see a girl getting thin, getting fat, getting thin, over and over. The message: "Talk to your daughter before the beauty industry does."

The cynics amongst you will already have guessed that this is, in fact, an ad. An ad about beauty ads. In fact, it's an ad from the beauty industry, for Dove. Or – let's be strictly accurate – it's an ad promoting Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty and the Dove Self-Esteem Fund. There's no body-lotion hard sell, though of course they want you to buy Dove... once you've reclaimed your body and got all kick-ass.

The ad's called Onslaught and it's a follow-up to the award-winning Evolution, which showed an ordinary woman being transformed into the sort of idealistic, unrealistic perfection that the beauty industry encourages us to pursue. You'll find both films on YouTube.

Both ads have a strong political message about how women's perceptions of themselves are twisted by the exploitative images peddled by the beauty industry. In fact, it's the sort of serious, focused campaigning that anti-advertising pressure groups aspire to.

Procter & Gamble also aspires to it. P&G, like Dove's parent Unilever, is one of the world's most powerful advertisers, spending billions on ads every year. And like Unilever, P&G is now using some of that money to strike a political note, campaigning for a cultural revolution. P&G's cause is black women. The company has launched a "My Black is Beautiful" campaign in response to research that found 71 per cent of black women feel they're portrayed worse than other women in the media and advertising.

A $50,000 grant has been set up by P&G's Tampax and Always brands, to support black women's groups, and a community trust fund has been launched to promote the health, education and empowerment of African-American women. Community discussions and pamphlets on the issues surrounding black women are also planned.

So why are the world's biggest advertisers suddenly getting so political? Is it simply, as cynics suggest, a way of breaking through the commercial clutter with a new, less obvious commercial message? After all there's no sign that Unilever or P&G intend to stop selling all their other brands that peddle the usual beauty myths.

Or are we seeing the emergence of a new social conscience rooted in marketing nous that can happily co-exist alongside a hard commercial ambition? The answer is probably somewhere between the two.

Of course it makes commercial sense to connect with your customers at a level that touches a nerve and touches their lives. Today's marketing philosophy is all about making personal connections with consumers, creating relationships, starting a two-way dialogue. Unilever and P&G get that.

And ultimately, it doesn't matter whether Dove is spotlighting the manipulative wiles of the beauty industry in order to then sell us something (Dove enjoyed two years of double-digit growth after it first launched the Campaign For Real Beauty). The important thing is that it's raising the issues. Similarly with P&G: who would ever argue that its support of black women was anything other than worthwhile?

The only shame is that two companies that between them spend the equivalent of a small country's GDP on advertising are actually committing such relatively small sums to these initiatives. If they are serious about fighting for their causes then more investment is required.

Dove could start by putting some real money behind Onslaught. At the moment you have to seek it out on the web, but it deserves a mass-market airing. And both P&G and Unilever need to put their money where their convictions are if they're to really bring a new meaning to the term "ad campaign".

Can you advertise your way out of a crisis? The Post Office is certainly hoping you can. With 2,500 branches to close by the end of next year, losses running at £4m each week, and splattered into the mire of Royal Mail strikes, this is one brand that needs serious help.

So what to do, what to do? Aha: go onto TV with a multi-million-pound ad campaign, dripping with celebs, a star director and created by one of London's hottest ad agencies.

A rather extravagant desperate measure, surely: after all, wouldn't it be better to plough the ad millions into improving Post Office services, keeping branches open, and cutting queues. You might think. You'd be wrong, though. Last year the Post Office spent £12m on advertising. That might sound like a lot of wonga, but £12m probably wouldn't pay for new carpets in the stores (watch the ad, you'll get the reference).

Whatever the Post Office might spend on advertising over the next 12 months won't touch the sides of the money pit that the organisation has become.

Much better, then, to try to put a human face on the problem, to give the Post Office a warm personality, to make it look like it's trying, win our support as it squares up to the challenges. And, crucially, to drive more traffic to the stores.

The new campaign is really quite a humble affair (well, apart from the money they've spunked on the likes of Joan Collins), nicely scripted, lovingly acted; the director is Armando Iannucci (TV wit and co-creator of Alan Partridge).

It opens in a rural Post Office, where sub-postmaster Ken is pouring ant powder on the carpet. Ad bores will recognise this as a swipe at the Post Office's old advertising (starring an army of ants), created by its previous agency Publicis. It's quite possibly the first example of inter-ad agency bitching to make it into a campaign.

Anyway, Ken is rallying the troops, eulogising about all the stuff the Post Office does beyond selling stamps. The Post Office is an institution, he says. "We're the people's post office". And to prove his point, Joan Collins rocks up, presumably to collect her pension.

Can the Post Office advertise itself out of a crisis? No. But I do think that this ad can help buy them some time and cut them some slack with frustrated customers. But the campaign needs to go hand in hand with some staff training to improve in-store service. Without that, and without some fairly swift visible improvements, the campaign will quickly start to ring very hollow.

Beale's best in show: NSPCC 'click' (SAATCHI & SAATCHI)

Seven per cent of children suffer serious physical abuse at the hands of their parents or carers; 4 per cent experience sexual abuse by a parent, carer or other relative. That's really all you need to know to understand how important the NSPCC's ad campaigns are.

Thankfully, Saatchi & Saatchi has a history of superbly hard-hitting, effective and creatively brave campaigns. The latest does full justice to that tradition. It's called Click. A little girl lives in an Alice-in-Wonderland-style fantasy world where, at a click, her toy giraffe comes to life, her shoes walk by themselves, multi-coloured fish jump in the pond, and a big, juicy, apple parachutes down from a tree.

But the magic ends when she gets home. Sitting in her bedroom, as ominous footsteps approach, she tries to "click" back into her magical world, but it doesn't work; she's helpless. "She can't change things with a click," comes the voice-over. "You can, at"

Click is not as disturbing as some of the earlier NSPCC ads. More is left to the imagination, but it's just as chilling for that reason. The contrast between the magical world and the real is starkly achieved. And the idea of clicking to a better life – clicking on the website to make a donation – is forcefully embedded enough to cut through the glut of charity ads.

Claire Beale is the editor of'Campaign' magazine.