Department of Work and Pensions under fire for spending £8.45m on 40-second Workie monster film

There's a place for cuddly characters in public information, says Gillian Orr, but it's not pension reform

Gillian Orr@gillian_orr
Wednesday 21 October 2015 20:56
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Quirky campaign: The 40 second advert sees Workie stalk a small business owner in a park only to be ignored
Quirky campaign: The 40 second advert sees Workie stalk a small business owner in a park only to be ignored

Admittedly, it was always going to be a difficult advertising brief to tackle: inform the public about the importance of workplace pensions. It's hardly sexy stuff. But you have to wonder what exactly went on in the brainstorming session when the creatives involved came up with a giant furry creature called "Workie" who is - and I quote pensions minister Ros Altmann here - the "physical embodiment of the workplace pension." In other words: don't think of the money that you put away each month as a collection of notes; instead picture a giant tie-dyed Furby.

The 40 second advert sees Workie, who also bears a striking resemblance to Sulley from Monsters Inc (if he'd dropped some acid), stalk a small business owner in a park only to be ignored. A nanny who is entitled to a pension – silly goose – looks the other way as well. Poor Workie. No one feels inclined to listen to his boring old chat.

"This is a fun and quirky campaign but behind it lies a very serious message," says Lady Altman, who apparently had a hand in the creative too. "We need everyone to know that they are entitled to a workplace pension – and we need all employers to understand their legal responsibility to their staff, but also to feel more positive about engaging with workplace pensions."

The campaign, created by a firm called Engine, cost the Department for Work and Pensions £8.45m – which, considering the rate at which Iain Duncan Smith et al are cutting benefits, might have been put to better use. Labour's shadow pensions minister Nick Thomas-Symonds dismissed Workie as "the UK's most expensive monster".

Elsewhere, the department has been receiving stick for hopping on Future Day (yesterday was the date that Marty McFly travels to in Back to the Future 2) by tweeting a picture of Workie in the film's time mobile machine, the DeLorean, with the accompanying rephrased quote: "Pensions? Where we're going we don't need pensions... erm, ACTUALLY YOU DO." Sure enough, the campaign comes complete with its own hashtag: #DontIgnoreIt. See, this is what happens when government ministers try to be cool. It's more embarrassing than finding a parent on Tinder.

When asked why they took such a bizarre approach, Altman told The Independent she wanted "something different; something a bit disruptive; something to catch the eye" She continued, "It's meant to make pensions a bit fun and funny. That's the whole point. Pensions aren't just something frightening."

It might be bonkers, but could the DWP be on to something? It wouldn't be the first time a government has adopted a curious mascot for a public service announcement. Last year Gaz and Leccy, two colourful curiosities, successfully helped promote the benefits of smart meters in the UK. And the Green Cross Man, introduced to teach children about road safety, contributed to halving road accident casualties when he tipped off schoolchildren in the Seventies. (David Prowse, who played the green-clothed superhero, calls it his proudest achievement. And he was Darth Vader.)

Likewise, around the world there are dozens of crackers mascots. The United States has Thirstin', essentially a waving glass of water with a baseball cap, who reminds people to be mindful of how much H2O they use. Then there's Captain Glucose and Meter Boy who educate the public about diabetes. And in India they have Mr Poo to urge people not to defecate in public ("Take your poo to the loo," goes the accompanying jingle).

But with reactions to Workie on social media ranging from "embarrassing" to "a complete waste of public funds", the Tories will need a huge rise in pension enrolment to justify the expense. They're already £8.45m down.

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