Hitting the breaks

Television advertising has thrived on music, humour and celebrity endorsement, but now faces death by Sky+
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The Independent Online

It was a long, protracted and messy birth. Noisy, too, although much of the noise was coming from the great and the good - a very British body of opinion that took on the character of a doom-laden Greek chorus.

It was a long, protracted and messy birth. Noisy, too, although much of the noise was coming from the great and the good - a very British body of opinion that took on the character of a doom-laden Greek chorus.

As independent television prepared to make its UK entrance 50 years ago, Lord Reith told his fellow peers in the upper house: "Somebody introduced smallpox into England and somebody introduced bubonic plague and the Black Death. Somebody is trying now to introduce sponsored television."

Apart from anything else, his use of "sponsored" was misleading. It carried with it the suggestion that advertisers would have some influence over the making of programmes. What was being proposed in reality was "spot advertising", to be slotted into and around programmes. Proponents argued that the advertisers would have no more control over programming than they had on the editorial policy of a newspaper. Their money would simply help to finance a second channel to challenge the monopoly of the BBC.

As the corporation's first director general, Lord Reith might have been expected to be protective of his own baby. But his forebodings were widely shared, it seems. The debate preceding the Television Act of 1955 occupied more parliamentary time than any single Act of the 20th century, as Jeremy Bullmore points out in his book Behind the Scenes in Advertising.

Bullmore, still working at 75, is a phenomenon in an industry where the average age is 33. Having retired from J Walter Thompson in 1987, he was brought back by the new parent company, WPP, as a consultant with unparalleled experience. "I started as a junior copywriter in 1954, one year and one month before television advertising was launched," he recalls.

He also remembers being distinctly underwhelmed by the newcomer, like many another adman. ITV had far from national coverage at the time, he points out. "Eventually, there would be about 15 regional companies covering the whole country, but that would take quite a few years." In the mid-50s, moreover, television ownership was not widespread. Just over two million living rooms had sets for the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953. By the first episode of Coronation Street, seven years later, there was a TV in 78 per cent of British households.

"The upper-middle classes thought television was vulgar," Bullmore muses. "They would have preferred to stick with the wireless. TV was for the servants, but it was considered okay to sneak into their quarters to watch during Wimbledon." Wealthier families who did own a set tended to keep it behind closed doors in a mahogany case.

There were no such qualms at the other end of the market. Advertising catch-phrases became common parlance by the late 1950s. Worked into the acts of variety performers and club comedians, they were guaranteed to raise a laugh. "You'll wonder where the yellow went when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent" lingered in the brain long after snatches of schoolboy Shakespeare had evaporated.

"Two distinct categories of commercial were coming out of the agencies," Bullmore recalls. "One was a prosaic attempt to convert print advertisements into television. The other recognised that TV was supposed to be entertainment. There were technical tricks, send-ups of game shows and plenty of jolly jingles." S H Benson, which later became part of Ogilvy and Mather, hired the songwriter Boogie Barnes as head of TV advertising. "Murray Mints, Murray Mints, too good to hurry mints" was one of his.

If the ads represented pure escapism, at least one of the programmes around them brought a grainy realism to British television. It's hard to exaggerate the impact made by Coronation Street when it was first broadcast on 9 December, 1960.

For the first time, working-class people saw themselves portrayed as flesh-and-blood characters rather than caricature figures of fun. The Street would confirm the five-year-old independent network's stature as a national broadcaster and, five decades on, it is still described as "the flagship of ITV programming" in a glossy new publication called How Much is it Worth? The Values of Fame. "This is the start of a marketing programme designed to re-engage the advertising community with television," says Justin Sampson, ITV's director of customer relations.

His ultimate customers are not just the ad agencies but the businesses that pay them to promote their products. There was widespread resentment among them at the above-inflation increases in airtime charges in the days when terrestrial television went unchallenged. Sampson is reluctant to comment on that, but he does concede: "One of the issues we have to deal with is the proliferation of new media. There has been a subtle erosion in the belief in TV as an advertising medium."

Hamish Pringle, director general of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, would go further and suggest that the notion of advertising-funded programming is under threat. Subsciption revenue far exceeds advertising as the main source of funding for Sky, he says. "Sky-plus is giving viewers the opportunity to skip the ads."

The fragmented market of multicultural, multichannel, multimedia modern Britain is very different from the more united kingdom that existed 50 years ago. Technology continues to drive the pace of change and Pringle predicts that more and more youngsters will watch TV on their mobilephones, opening up the possibility of bespoke advertising targeted at those who happen to be near a certain shop or restaurant.

He is also conscious of the ability of a well-made television advert to reach a mass market. On the wall of his office in Belgravia is a picture of Prunella Scales dressed up as Dotty in Tesco's hugely successful "Every Little Helps" campaign. The caption beneath claims that every £1 the supermarket spent on advertising generated an incremental £38 of turnover. In his book, Celebrity Sells, Pringle analyses the ad in some depth, and concludes: "The campaign paid for itself more than twice over, delivering a 225 per cent return on investment."

Fifty years ago, supermarkets were in their infancy on this side of the Atlantic and celebrity endorsement was largely confined to the cricketer Denis Compton promoting Brylcreem in newspapers and on billboards. Within 10 years, famous faces and supermarkets were calling the tune.

They drove television advertising forward," says Bullmore, "because they wouldn't give shelf space to products unless they were advertised on television."

Today, the power of the bigger retailers has increased immeasurably, and our culture is more obsessed with celebrity than ever. But one factor remains: a very good way of selling to the British is to make 'em laugh. "Unlike the Americans, we don't like the hard sell," says Bruce Haines, an executive with the top London agency Leo Burnett.

"We prefer to be tapped on the shoulder and seduced." Even by a dotty old woman with a supermarket trolley.