Stefano Hatfield On Advertising

Let's face facts: shock tactics are not so offensive in this day and age

What shocks you? OK, forget daily life, ignore the news and even the rest of the media, let's narrow that question down. What shocks you in advertising? FCUK puns? Wet T-shirted lipstick lesbian wrestling? The violence of video game ads? Perhaps, an occasional stray nipple or buttock?

I ask because I am entirely puzzled by the continuing occasional furore over the BBC digital TV promo last year that featured one giant head, below, formed from various floating heads coming together and then breaking up again. But, I appear to be alone.

Last week the BBC's board of governors weighed in against the promo (an ad in any language other than the BBC's) even though it appeared as long ago as November and December 2005. Aired around programmes such asEastEnders and Strictly Come Dancing, "faces" drew more than 1,000 complaints, and was taken off air early.

Now the governors' programme complaints committee, which considers appeals from viewers and listeners who have already been through BBC management's complaints process, has judged that "faces" was "potentially distasteful to any section of the audience". So, it was going to get complaints whatever time it was aired.

The committee also laid into those at the Beeb who had suggested the promo come off air because it had reached the end of its run - rather than in response to the complaints. That bit's fair enough.

However, as to the nature of the complaints, I am left bemused. I watched "faces" many times during that period, often with my nine- and eight-year-old daughters (they loved Strictly Come Dancing). The only conversation we had about it was to note how clever it was, how amazing it is what you can do on a computer, and maybe they would be able to do that one day.

Yep, precocious media kids being brought up in west London in an advertising-savvy household. Guilty as charged. But, are we really so different from the rest of the population? I am not belittling the issue at all. 1,000 complaints can't all be from the usual outraged man and his dog from Snodland. It's a serious number, because it still takes a lot to get the Brits to complain.

Perhaps I am on safer ground taste-wise, writing this for The Independent than I might be for the Mirror or the Daily Mail? But, in failing to recognise the potential scariness of the "faces" imagery, am I now a crap dad?

So, what is shocking? My wife hates The Simpsons, but the girls and I have ganged up on her enough to persuade her that it's acute social observation with a morally positive world view. Actually, that's bollocks. We just tell her it's funny, and she doesn't get the jokes because she's out of touch. But, there was a time when even Bart and Homer were shocking to some.

What's the point of all this? Well, maybe in media-land we really have all become too ivory-towered, too detached from the consumers we are supposed to understand in order to market to? Perhaps.

And then again, maybe parents have become too obsessive in their desire to mollycoddle their kids and protect them from scary things. I was one of those kids that used to hide behind the sofa at the original Doctor Who. What harm did it do to be scared a little? All kids secretly love it - and most are way more media-literate than their parents were at their age, and know it's only something on the telly made up by someone being clever. Or not.

THIS PAST week, Google launched its long-awaited video advertising service. It is - obviously, given the ubiquitous nature of Google - a major potential threat to TV broadcasters and their advertising agencies.

OK, it's not on the main Google search page, but on Google video and AdSense. OK, Google is downplaying the offer as being "complementary" to traditional TV advertising. And yes, the video ads will still have to compete side by side even with text ads. But, this is Google. Every major media player will be watching this with bated breath.

Although an advertiser could pay as little as 15p to reach a thousand viewers (I guess we call them viewers now, not visitors?), Google claims that the average will be three or four pounds, rising to a possible £10.

Very clearly there is also an opportunity here for real-time and live testing of ad messages. It takes the whole concept of direct response to a previously unimagined level. In fact, it is difficult to see any way in which the launch of the service does not constitute a massive potential threat to the status quo.

Why are agencies and broadcasters so scared? Well, for starters, there's the hard figures. Google has more than doubled its profits and increased revenue by 77 per cent, according to last week's second-quarter figures.

Net income was $721m (£389m) for the three months to the end of June, a massive leap from the $342m recorded for the same period in 2005. During the same time Google recorded revenues of $2.46bn, compared with $1.38bn for the corresponding period the previous year.

Agencies would be well advised to find a way to work with Google sooner rather than later. As for broadcasters? Be afraid.

ON A related subject, agencies are failing clients on digital marketing, according to a new report from Suki Thompson's Haystack Group. If anyone should know it's Suki. She's becoming the leading light in UK agency search consultancy in the blink of an eye, based on a combination of indefatigable networking and a genuine interest in her clients' business. Either that, or she's a bloody good actress. Anyway, according to her survey just 4 per cent (out of 85 companies) felt that their ad agency was keeping them up with developments in digital media. Four per cent! And 65 per cent said their agencies were simply not delivering in this area. Ad agencies and PR companies came out of the survey particularly badly, with media agencies and direct marketing firms doing better. "Clients just don't believe their ad agencies, or think it's a lot of talk and not much action," said Thompson. Now there's a thing. The London ad community increasingly feels like the last days of Rome.

SO THEY were handing out free mini Coke Zeros as a promo trial in the canteen the other day. Very nice and cold it was. So cold that it was almost indistinguishable taste-wise from the caffeine-free Diet CokeI am addicted to. Very black packaging with what unfortunately looked like collapsing towers on it? Now I hear it's aimed at men, and Diet Coke is now being aimed at women. Or is it the other way round? So, I can't I drink my Diet Cokes any more then? Can a man and a woman not drink the same Cola brand, or does sex always get in the way? It's all so confusing. Why do Coke and Pepsi keep fannying around with all these spin-offs? Just look after your main brands and put some proper money behind marketing them!

Email with photos of Suki Thompson that could be any less like her than the south London soul-boy shots used by the trade press


"Better stop dreaming of the quiet life - cos it's the one we'll never know." Oh my God! A kid plays Ronaldinho in his own mind, running all over the house, balancing, juggling, and all manner of other general football tricks with a balloon, before crashing it out through the window with a magnificent volley. "Stop apologising for the things you've never done." The Jam's "A Town Called Malice" cascades all over this ad, and I am freaking out watching it - it's like having a Big Brother camera on me aged 10 - and yeah, I do know that "Malice" was released a little later (1982), and OK, my hero was Peter Lorimer. The sheer energy of Paul Weller's genius married to the familiarity (for all little boys) of the balloon skills set-up makes this a captivating film, the longest in a long line of excellent ads for this brand by St Luke's... But, 1982! "Time is short and life is cruel..."

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