Mark Wnek on Advertising

Video killed the radio star, and TV can do the same to politicians

It is said that most major social and cultural trends eventually arrive in the UK from America. One which seems remarkably slow to arrive is the long-overdue acceptance that General Elections are won on television. It's tempting to say that Labour do understand this and, indeed, Tony Blair is a TV dream.

It is said that most major social and cultural trends eventually arrive in the UK from America. One which seems remarkably slow to arrive is the long-overdue acceptance that General Elections are won on television. It's tempting to say that Labour do understand this and, indeed, Tony Blair is a TV dream.

But that is to forget that Blair came to power when he did because of the untimely death of John Smith; it is also to assume that Labour has a raft of telegenic successors waiting in the wings when they do not - although Gordon Brown's essential intelligence and integrity always shine through.

The Liberal Democratic leadership, as now seen a lot on TV, are also a pasty, unprepossessing bunch. Charles Kennedy comes across as a man so evidently in a permanent, draining life-or-death struggle with his own inner demons that even his extraordinarily timely new status as a family man doesn't render him electable. I mean that in a caring way, because he seems like a nice guy - just not someone in whose shaky hands you¿d like to place your life.

Biggest losers in the TV stakes are the Tories with a sinister-looking line-up missing only a butler called Lurch and a disembodied hand. Of all the parties, the Tories should know better - their two most extraordinary leaders, Churchill and Thatcher, being masters of the airwaves.

Then again, I genuinely believe that Michael Howard does have an editorial-bias case against the BBC. Downhill with a following wind, Howard is a good-looking, statesmanlike man. But he does have ticks and peccadillos; verbal and physical. His worst feature is the face he pulls when he is doing what psychologists call "active listening" - really concentrating every fibre of his being on what some carping have-not in some shopping mall is saying to him: his eyes boggle, his lips simper; he really does look stark-staring bonkers. I don't know who edits BBC news footage, but the amount of times they cut to Howard pulling that face is by any standards excessive.

Had a Tory party leader been selected for packaging, as well as content, then none of this would have happened. It's all well and good bringing in the marketing genii, like Lord Saatchi, at General Election time, but there's little anyone can do with a fundamentally flawed product. Political parties need to add marketing and communications nous into the leadership selection process - the phase of the process we marketers would call "new product development". Accuse me of being shallow if you like, but the fact remains that politics happens in front of TV cameras and the camera never lies.


General Election time is also time for a plethora of related topical ads. Most are rubbish, but a new press ad by agency Fallon for Skoda is a cut above. It shows a new Skoda saloon which comes with a whole load of features at a low price, with the line: "Feels John Prescott, costs Gordon Brown."


Last Thursday, The Daily Telegraph ran a sidebar on political slogans which reminded me what fun elections used to be before they got all over-spun, po-faced and homogenised. I particularly like the old US slogans, "No taxation without representation", and Herbert Hoover's immortally puckish 1928 slogan, "A chicken in every pot". The best British one was Saatchi & Saatchi's "Labour isn't working" for Margaret Thatcher in 1979. The weirdest one was Jeremy Thorpe's - soon to be destroyed in a gay sex/murder-for-hire scandal - for the Liberals in 1974: "One more heave."


One of the few ways in which political parties behave differently from commercial brands is their reliance on negative campaigning, known in advertising as "knocking copy". You rarely see this kind of advertising in the UK - although it's still sporadically popular in the US. One of the reasons for parties using this approach in elections is that the competition is well-defined - in Labour's case, the Tories, and vice versa. Whatever anyone says, negative campaigning is an essential element of elections, because British people need their national leaders to have a bit of devilment and argy-bargy about them - we are, after all, a pretty war-like and aggressive race. I loved Labour's cheeky and assumptive party political broadcast last Friday night, entitled "Michael Howard's CV" and set to the Gladys Knight hit single "The Way We Were". Yet again, though, the weedy Lib Dems are off the pace: they're only going to talk about positive things. Yawn.

Skipping to scupper inferior ads

A new report published by Accenture says that the amount of "ad-skipping" viewers with personal video recorders (PVR) will leap from 2 to 22 per cent during the next five years.

I don't need any research company to tell me this. Indeed, I've been predicting it for years - in this publication for months.

But what I find extraordinary is the reaction by advertising professionals - on the agency and client side - to this kind of research; particularly the more or less unanimous acceptance that advertising revenues must dive because of increased ad skipping. This acceptance is most unpalatable in the case of the many ad agencies who seem almost gleeful in their haste to pooh-pooh their erstwhile birthright - advertising effectiveness - and to declare themselves integrated or other such specious tosh.

You'll notice such utterances never come from the mouths of the top-rank creative agencies like Bartle Bogle Hegarty, Mother, DDB, Lowe, etc. What such agencies know is that people will indeed skip ads - if those ads are crap.

Wonderful advertising is, like any other wonderful spectacle, a magnet for viewers and ever more shall be so. An acceptance that ad revenues will dive is an acceptance that the majority of advertising will fail to rise to the "quality challenge" set by PVRs, and remain as mind-numbing and anodyne as it is today.

It's one thing for ad agencies to believe that they are uniquely positioned to provide their clients with a whole range of creative and communications services beyond advertising; it's quite another for suit-saturated ad agencies, who have long ago ceased to be top-rank creative advertising practitioners, to bad-mouth the industry as a whole.


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