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It's good to ... shut up!

BT seems undaunted by signs that we are getting fed up with its deluge of TV advertising. Meg Carter tries to find out why there's more on the way
Why is BT doing so much advertising nowadays? Why, when you switch on your TV, is there a different BT ad in almost every break? Why is it so irritating? The little girl in the latest BT commercial might want to consider an average night on TV. There are BT ads telling us "It's good to talk", ads encouraging us to call abroad, ads to woo small businesses, ads urging us to get wired. There has been Maureen Lipman and her "ologies", Bob Hoskins and his cod psychoanalysis of how we don't communicate, Rory McGrath, Hugh Laurie, Ballykissangel star Dervla Kirwan, and even Brian Walden. And for what? To boost our bills.

With yet another campaign due to break later this week, BT, one of adland's biggest spenders, seems to be marketing consumers into submission. Or is it about to discover that for most of us, less is more? Research conducted for the company last year highlighted a potentially worrying trend. A source close to the campaign admits: "It signalled the beginnings of public disinterest, realising long-held fears that consumers might get fed up with 'all those BT ads'."

BT's response? Yet another TV campaign, this time a generic feelgood mix of images including pregnant mums and chirpy kids set to Elvis Presley's "You Were Always on My Mind". The idea was to position BT as a "good citizen". Heart-warming stuff, but what of the backlash?

Dominic Owens, BT's head of business advertising, insists: "We haven't yet found the volume of our advertising has affected likeability, but it is something we are extremely cautious about." Sholto Douglas-Home, BT's consumer advertising head, adds: "People think we spend a lot of money on advertising, but compare the advertising-to-sales ratio of any large company and I think you'll find it is no greater than many."

He may be right, but one thing's for sure - the amount of BT advertising force-fed to consumers has dramatically increased. At the start of BT's "Good to talk" strand in 1994, it made 15 to 20 TV ads a year. In 1996, extra investment was put into the strand, and new "Good to talk" ads are being made at the rate of 75 a year.

"We had a huge amount of new news to tell people," Douglas-Home explains. "There was news about new products and services, discounts and promotional schemes," he says. Oh yes, and advice on how we can all communicate better. This has become BT's unifying theme. The company has even produced a helpful guide for the inarticulate called "Talkworks". Then there is its TV programme, Now We're Talking, a guide to better communication hosted by Philip Schofield, broadcast on ITV and paid for by BT. High-handed, undoubtedly - and smug, too.

Life has changed considerably since BT could afford to rely only on Buzby, the tubby yellow bird who was the company's brand spokesman in the Seventies. New competition and technology have led to new products and services. Today, while the core aim remains the same - to persuade us to phone home (and anywhere else) and not defect to the competition, numerous new messages have cluttered the airwaves.

BT's advertising is now worth an estimated pounds 150m a year, but the company refuses to confirm the figure. BT still enjoys a virtual monopoly among a significant proportion of its private customers. With its habit of posting ever-increasing profits (not to mention its recent salvo against plans for a windfall tax) all this advertising is showy, to say the least. At worst, it is positively brazen.

On the consumer side, Hugh Laurie continues to lead the assault, supported by Friends & Family's staggering 40-plus commercials which will continue throughout the summer. Meanwhile, a third consumer strand, "The cost of calling keeps falling", enters a new phase this week when an animated campaign replaces the ads featuring a choir. The animated theme - details are still under wraps - will be shared by the business campaign in yet more ads.

BT recognises the risks. "While Bob Hoskins did an outstanding job at launch, he was over-exposed. People got bored," Miles says. So there is such a thing as too much advertising, then? Absolutely not, he retorts. "We won a gold at last year's advertising effectiveness awards, based on the incremental revenue the campaign brought to BT." This will no doubt prove reassuring for those receiving their quarterly phone bills this weekn