This time it's personal

Cinema ads can go over your head. But try ignoring a living, breathing mini-drama taking place right beside you. Alex Benady reports on the latest sales ploy: the live advertisement
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The Independent Online

Picture the scene. You are in the cinema. The ads are running and you are settling down, waiting for the film to begin. Suddenly, the screen goes blank and the house lights come on. The manager appears, calling for a Sue McNorton to identify herself. A young woman stands up and the manager asks her to come with him. She asks: "What's wrong?" He bends over and whispers something in her ear. Her face crumples. "No, that can't be right," she wails, "I spoke to him a moment ago, he said he was on his way." The sound of a police walkie-talkie drifts in from the foyer.

Picture the scene. You are in the cinema. The ads are running and you are settling down, waiting for the film to begin. Suddenly, the screen goes blank and the house lights come on. The manager appears, calling for a Sue McNorton to identify herself. A young woman stands up and the manager asks her to come with him. She asks: "What's wrong?" He bends over and whispers something in her ear. Her face crumples. "No, that can't be right," she wails, "I spoke to him a moment ago, he said he was on his way." The sound of a police walkie-talkie drifts in from the foyer.

It's not often that you watch someone being told that their husband has been killed in a bike accident. It is an experience you will almost certainly never forget. But it is only after leading the sobbing woman away that the manager returns to announce that the whole thing was a stunt.

"Ladies and gentlemen, what you have just witnessed was a fictional scene," he says. "But last year 71 families had such bad news. Please watch the following commercial." It turns out to be a road-safety ad for Transport for London.

Perhaps "stunt" is too dismissive a word for the performance. It is, in fact, an example of the latest ploy by advertisers to grab our attention: the live-action commercial. But for some film buffs the experience is about as welcome as having a Dom Joly character walking up and down the aisles, screaming into his mobile phone.

Matt Mueller, the editor of Total Film magazine, says: "Cinema is an escapist form, so I am not sure that audiences will welcome the intrusion of live commercial messages. And when it comes to frightening dramas such as the road-safety performance, I can imagine that people could be seriously discombobulated. I am just not sure that is right."

But the tactics are defended by Justin Foxton, the 27-year-old South African actor who runs Comment UK, the company pioneering the genre in this country. "They are mini-dramas performed live by actors in real time to promote almost anything ranging from product launches to public-health messages," he says. Although the few examples to date have been in cinemas and shops, they could equally well occur in bars, sports venues, on public transport, even in schools and workplaces. "We can stage them almost anywhere, although a physically defined environment with a captive audience works best," says Foxton.

Other subjects to have been given the live-action treatment include the launch of a Sunsilk anti-frizz shampoo, for which two girls with big big hair stood up in cinemas and extolled the virtue of the product just after an ad had appeared on screen; and a promotion for Carte d'Or ice cream, in which a group sang a capella of their love of ice cream - in the aisles of Tesco.

A couple of actors talking up a product sounds like a curiously labour-intensive, low-tech approach. But Foxton claims that it is precisely those characteristics that furnish it with the one thing that advertisers value above all these days: memorability.

"In an information-cluttered, ad-saturated world where we are subjected to hundreds, if not thousands, of brand messages everyday, it is increasingly difficult for any one message to stand out. There is something about live performance that is unforgettable," he says.

Well, he would say that, wouldn't he? But the surprising effectiveness of the form is confirmed by Carlton Screen Advertising, which sells advertising for two-thirds of the 3,500 cinemas in the UK.

"Research shows that spontaneous recall of an average television ad might be 1 per cent. Cinema probably scores 10 per cent. But the drama of a live performance such as the one for Transport for London would be hard to forget. It would score near 100 per cent recall," says the promotions manager John Ridley, who claims that his research shows that cinema-goers enjoy the experience.

The performance advertisements have also received critical acclaim. Campaign magazine recently voted the TfL ad the third best cinema commercial of all time. Nonetheless, it's hard not to reflect that when £17bn was spent on marketing communications last year, live ads are a bit fringe, a bit marginal in their impact. But they reach more people than you might at first suppose. Even though the performances are in small venues, the audiences are surprisingly large. The TfL motorcycle performance, for instance, was staged 387 times over four weeks late last year and was seen by 54,000 people.

But that is only the starting point. The real significance of live-performance ads lies in their ability to plug into what is rapidly becoming the most prized and elusive medium of all among marketing people - personal recommendation, or what marketers call "word of mouth", says one leading academic, Professor Mark Ritson of the London Business School.

"The fact that this appears to be something very minor is its very strength. It makes it more personal. People ignore ads these days, but they believe their friends. This approach encourages people to share their brand experience. Which not only makes the numbers receiving the message much larger, it makes the message itself much stronger."

The idea of live advertising may be cutting-edge stuff for marketers in this country, but it has a surprisingly long heritage abroad. Foxton, a former drama student, set up Comment UK in London just three years ago to enter the rapidly expanding world of corporate theatre. "Businesses use actors in a wide range of training roles these days, often to replicate situations where it would be too difficult to use real people or to provoke reactions in the work place."

So in one way, live ads are simply a subset of something businesses do already. But ironically, this "the latest thing" also has roots in communications techniques created for less developed economies. "In South Africa there were no effective mass media. Few people could read and fewer people had access to television and radio. So if you wanted to get a message across to large numbers of people, you had to use live performance."

Live action was not only used by the apartheid regime to put its case, it was also used by its opponents, such as the playwright Athol Fugard, to mobilise resistance to the political situation. And the performances are also related to agit prop, a form of theatrical propaganda initially developed in Russia after the Revolution of 1917 to spread Communist ideology in a similarly undeveloped society.

A key feature of the technique was always surprise - just as it is with live-performance ads. "One of the reasons it works so well is that you don't expect it. It catches you with your guard down," says Foxton. This means that it has to be used sparingly. The moment that people expect it or grow immune to it, it will become just an intrusion that we will resent - which will negate its whole point. So although we are likely to see more live advertising, we will probably be spared the irritation of having some hideously embarrassing drama shoved in our faces every time we go out to buy a pint of milk.

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