Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Adwatch: Getting It Wrong

When I was a child there was a lot of talk about 'subliminal advertising'. This was mostly a concern that advertisers were flashing up subliminal messages in commercials without our knowledge, although it was probably an urban myth that this was actually happening. Today it is something that is expressly forbidden.

But some current commercials make me think that advertisers don't appreciate that viewers absorb commercials at both a 'subliminal' and 'liminal' (?) or conscious level.
To put it another way, we know at a rational level what the commercial is trying to tell us but because of the way it has been produced it can convey a quite different message, particularly if we are not giving it our full attention.

Exhibit A is the commercial for British Telecom IT support.
It features dozens of dancing gremlins wreaking havoc on an office full of computers as Peter Jones (the entrepeneur from Dragons Den) tears his hair out. It's a beautifully made commercial although the choice of Peter Jones is questionable since most viewers will be hoping that the gremlins will tear this most loathsome of the 'Dragons' limb from limb and put a stake through his heart.

My problem with it is that it shows only the negative of computers crashing and then, in the final seconds, shows the message 'BT 24/7 Support'.
If you are watching it with one eye whilst scanning the Radio Times the association of ideas is 'PC Hell' and 'BT'.
Of course, unless you're an imbecile, you know that's not what it's trying to tell you.
But to work at both a cognitive and emotional level, it needs to end with a positive and not with Peter Jones slumped over his desk with his head in his hands.
We need to see the friendly, smiling expert from BT quickly repairing the IT system. If they want to continue the sci-fi theme, the BT engineer could appear as a superhero and zap the gemlins with a laser gun.
Too corny? Maybe. But a TV commercial has only 30 seconds to convey a message to people who, if they haven't left the room to put the kettle on, may be talking or checking their email. Saying 'this is what will happen if you don't buy our product' is not enough. You need to show the trouble-free Nirvana they will enjoy if they do buy your product.

Exhibit B is the series of Nationwide commercials starring Mark Benton as the slobbish bank worker who brazenly explains to a customer the devious methods they use to entice customers and then rip them off.
In the final seconds, the customer leaves and is seen walking into Nationwide which, we are told, is completely different.

So, if I grasped the message, what's the problem?
Well, for 95% of the commercial we see a customer in a bank or building society being treated appallingly. The last few seconds show an external shot of a Nationwide branch. If I switch off the reasoning part of my brain (or am not fully concentrating) I assume that the encounter we've just seen took place in a Nationwide office.

I would love to see some objective, rigorous research on this commercial. I'm sure it has a high 'recall' rating, not least because Mark Benton is a popular and recognisable actor. And I'm sure that, shown a still from the commercial, a high percentage of people would say 'Nationwide'. The crucial question is how many people would say "He's the bloke who works for Nationwide'.
(If you read my last post, you may think that the commercial is conveying the accurate subliminal message that Nationwide are unprincipled bastards).
The Nationwide ad is at least 95% 'knocking copy'. It gives a long and detailed account of the devious practices of their competitors but tells us almost nothing about their own services or products.

Even if you give short shrift to my own amateur psychology, aren't these commercials ignoring some of the fundamental principles of advertising?


At 3:17 PM, Anonymous Consumer Choices said...

But are you actually a Middle Englander though? Do you qualify?

If you are, then maybe you could help me clarify the myriad unanswered questions in my latest post.

Keep up the good work!

Dan Drage - Editor, Consumer Choices

At 3:56 PM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

Dan: I'm a contra-stereotypical Middle Englander! A Daily Mail-hating, gay, socialist and as poor as a church mouse. So I don't meet any of the criteria in your post.
I chose the title because I'm roughly in the middle of the country on an east-west axis and because of the irresistable allure of alliteration.

The phrase describes a particular set of attitudes but becomes increasingly meaningless the closer you examine it - like other such generalisations as 'Worcester Woman' or 'the gay community' or indeed any other so-called 'community'.

The criteria in your post seem spot-on as far as what the marketing lunatics mean by Middle England.
I don't meet any of them, thank God.

At 10:39 AM, Anonymous Consumer Choices said...

We're just realising that our blog looks like an advert for our elongated subscription process, and i'm guessing that's why you chose to reply on your own blog rather than ours.

It's something that we're working on though. There's no agenda, i assure you that.

I was trying to provoke Middle England yesterday by trying to suggest most Middle Englanders can't even afford to be Middle Englanders! So they fall into the sub-section of faux Middle Englanders, or ersatz Middle Englanders, which would surely really piss them off.

I'm not a fan.

Thanks for delcaring your Middle England credentials though, i appreciate it.


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