Mark Wnek on advertising

Bush's win is a lesson in using a simple, single-minded campaign
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The Independent Online

George Bush's victory in last week's US election should serve to remind communications industry professionals - particularly ad people - of some fundamental, though oft-neglected, laws of modern communication.

George Bush's victory in last week's US election should serve to remind communications industry professionals - particularly ad people - of some fundamental, though oft-neglected, laws of modern communication.

While it may seem strange to the British that Bush, with his evident intellectual shortcomings and his - at very best - mishandling of the Iraq war, could possibly be re-elected, I suggest his victory has been a foregone conclusion since the tragedy of 9/11 and subsequent embarkation on the war against terror.

Wars and national disasters give presidents, kings, dictators and prime ministers the two most important elements of modern-day communication success: a huge audience and a powerful, single-minded message to hit them with. While a US president can get on air whenever he chooses, the public - even a public as supposedly unsophisticated as greater America - can spot a trumped-up television opportunity from a mile away.

So, from the point of view of communications, the "beauty" of ongoing wars and recent (presumably imminently repeatable) terrorist disasters, is that they give leaders the opportunity to get in front of the people via the airwaves as often as they please, always with compelling, single-minded subject matter.

Bizarre as it may seem to the British, people from giant, historically unruly, "wild frontier" nations like America and Russia equate making war with strength. From Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great to Stalin and Putin, Russians worship strength, however crudely or cruelly manifested. Ivan the Extremely Intelligent would have been assassinated seconds after his coronation lunch.

America too loves its leaders to rough-house. They like their prez to invade Grenada or threaten to bomb Cuba, to large it in an air-force bomber jacket or to gaze down on the nation from the back of a horse, as the decent and smart president Jimmy Carter discovered after his election mauling by Ronald Reagan.

OK, John Kerry is no John Kennedy. He came across as lugubrious, city-fied, decent and undynamic. To be fair, he had no option but to cover all the bases; to divide his campaigning across all manner of subjects and thus fragment its impact. Normally the incumbent would have to match the challenger subject for subject. Instead, the war gave the President the luxury of a single tub-thumping default positioning of unbeatable psychic resonance, impact and clarity: George Bush goes to war against terror.

Apart from the almost 59 million people who got Bush's simple positioning and voted for him, 40 per cent of the nation - some 75 million people - simply didn't care who governed them. These kind of percentages are typical in modern UK elections too, give or take 10 per cent. This huge rump of people who either don't react to public communications or do so only to very simple, consistently presented ideas do, however, buy food, clothes, cars, magazines and insurance. Advertising to them is hellishly difficult. Impact and clarity are all. The only way to succeed is to momentarily tease or knock them out of their agendas and, in that instant, deliver your message.

On the evidence of the recent Campaign magazine poster awards, UK ad agencies are neglecting these crucial precepts. Other than the brilliant gold medal-winning Volkswagen Polo poster - showing King Kong holding a sore foot after stepping on a Polo - and the now perhaps too familiar Economist work, there wasn't a single poster on show that would give pause to a real person (as opposed to an advertising awards juror) going about their business in the real world. And that was the alleged best of the best.

How much advertising of any kind today genuinely stops and engages you long enough to embed its message in your brain? How much advertising is single-mindedly created for the busy person in the street, as opposed to the "expert" on an awards jury? Is your advertising over-complicated, diffuse and doomed to failure John Kerry, or impactful, single-minded, instantly comprehensible George W?

The etiquette minefield of an American in Paris

My dozens of regular readers will remember last week's piece about psychopaths in the upper echelons of American business. A particularly gruesome story - one which I have to preface by informing you that it was told to me by an untrustworthy member of UK adland - suggests that the ad business may not be immune.

It concerns the American CEO of a global advertising group attending a meeting with his French agency managers in Paris. To set the scene, you need to remember that while France is in many ways a flamboyant and bohemian culture, in business it is protocol-mad.

The meeting took place in the board room and everything was going smoothly until... The American CEO was a heavy smoker. At some point in the middle of a presentation he suddenly cleared his throat - something which sounded like a baby elephant throwing up a bucketful of slugs. He then reached for an empty soft-drink bottle and deposited the contents of his throat into the bottle.

I imagine the reaction of the impeccably mannered Parisian ladies and gentlemen around him to be like the wide-eyed people in those Bateman cartoons, but more muted and beau monde and internalised.

Spent, the American blithely turned back to his notepad and the meeting continued, each subsequent presenter's sensibilities mangled by the magnetic, hour-long spectacle of the greeny wending its way down the bottle, like a Lava lamp from hell.