Peter York On Ads: Hold up a mirror - and blow some smoke in it

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PLU: People Like Us. Shared values not much talked about. No need really, there's so much that's just understood. You don't need to spell it out in that clunky American way: love of country, love of family, love of the Presidential office. Boom-boom. Awful.

PLUs can recognise other PLUs in a second, across a crowded room, from just a reference, an inflexion, a turn of the head. There are some people who think - in an existential Zen bongo-British way - that their little tribe are the only People Like Us around. An extraordinary bit of solipsism. There was a lovely sketch Harry Enfield did as Tim-Nice-but-Dim in the Nineties in which Tim declared his admiration for Tony Blair, his kind of PLU, Fettes and Oxford, an RP-speaking barrister. (The punch-line was Tim's utter shock at hearing TB had anything to do with the Labour Party.)

But everyone recognises the PLU call. Unless you're sectionable you must know roughly who your kind of person is and how they feel about the world. PLUness is hugely important in selling things. Houses for instance; gated communities for rich old folk who want golf-club talk and attitudes; liberal terraces in Notting Hill and Primrose Hill where we all think President George Bush is a tragedy for America; or Shoreditch/Hoxton where everyone grew up on visual irony.

You can see this in the wonderful marketing science of geodemographics, which demonstrates beyond doubt that birds of a feather flock together and explains what binds relatively tiny clusters, and then shows where they flock. It's clever stuff because it means if you can use a selective medium you can be very, very focused.

But sometimes the flocking is mainly mental, as in the reference group, that set of people in your head you check yourself against. The ideal imaginary friends, the dream team. (Jesus, for instance, used to feature a lot as a sort of one-man reference group until quite recently. As in "What would Jesus do?"). Marketeers try to know that too, those secret points of identification.

They affect the way you respond to advertising. A miss is as good as a mile if you show People Not Quite Like Us. The Old Money/New Money/Smart Money/Dumb Money divides, for instance, are central to marketing grown-up big ticket luxury goods (not frocks and scent). The distinctions between Chigwell and Cirencester style used to be deeply preoccupying. It's shifted now, of course, on a global axis, and what matters increasingly are the smart/dumb and the crass/"progressive" divides, "Values".

Picture, a loan-consolidator outfit, has been thinking hard about PLUness in its current commercial. "You know, I'm a sensible sort of bloke," says its main character. "Good job, lovely wife, two perfect kids." He's an office park/industrial estate Everyman, pleasant looking, shaved-ish hair. Upper-working, lower-middle with a small new-build-ish house on a modest estate. Core modern respectability and self-sufficiency. No transfer income here. "We're just a bit ... messy when it comes to money - the odd loan here, the odd credit card there. I wish we could put it all in one place. I need a loan company for people like me."

Stop right there. Who exactly had you in mind, Dave? Who's going to respond to this bat-signal? I think he's saying in code, not Trisha people. Testimonial clips in other loan consolidators' commercials have that Trisha factor, a bit sad and victimy and old and scruffy. But he's talking to all the Daves who'd rather see their debts as being "a bit messy with money" while they're in charge and mainstream on everything else. Not what Blairspeak calls excluded.

In the old sociologists' categorisation of the working classes Dave would probably have identified himself as "respectable" (as against "ordinary" or "rough"). Hence all the parading of the wife, children and home-ownership. It works only if you're a home-owner, of course. The cornerstone of these PLUs is a stake in the ground; a bit of equity in a house means you're well away from the benefit classes and in shouting distance of David Brent's wonderful world.

Peter@sru.co.uk

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