relevant advertising can go … well … anywhere


Well. I always chuckle when people bitch about advertising. Bitching in terms of ‘I hate it’ or ‘I can’t get away from it’ or any number of fairly acceptable reasonable bitches (on the surface).

I chuckle because when advertising is done right people cannot stop talking about it or say ‘I like this ad.’

The real point is:

Bad advertising looks bad everywhere.

Good advertising looks good everywhere.

If something is relevant, and done well, no one bitches. Period. End of story.

What made me think of this is an old article from 2000 I had in my files written by a Great Britain advertising person:


DROWNING IN ADS – Andrew Cracknell, Bates UK

I’ve always thought the most potent media space is a dentist’s forehead. What else are you going to look at? ‘Next time, use Colgate!’ And as you dig your nails in his back and fight back the screams your mind shrieks: ‘Next time, damn right I will!’

As far as I know, this hasn’t yet happened. But it’s surely just a matter of time.

It was 7.30 one blissful summer’s morning last year. I was driving to work and I’d stopped at a petrol station. In quiet contemplation, mind a thousand miles away, I squeezed the trigger on the nozzle and the reverie shattered as a loudspeaker above the pump crackled into life and screeched useless, unwanted, uncaring information at me.

saying nothing manI was barely awake and here was this urgent gob, haranguing me, spouting drivel of enormous interest to it and total indifference to me, hoping to part me from my money. I felt like Noriega when the Americans tried to force him out of his compound by bombarding him with loud pop music at point blank range, 24 hours a day.

And I thought: ‘Why can’t these people leave me alone?’  And then I realised; I am these people. And that bothered me. I made a mental note never to use that particular petrol station again – I’d rather run out of petrol – got to work and broached the subject of my incipient schizophrenia with Tim Broadbent, our owlish head of planning.

‘You’re too sensitive, dear boy,’ he boomed, putting a consoling hand on my knee. ‘Most people don’t hear it, they just cut it out.’

Then why do we do it?

Why should they have to?

And isn’t mindless shouting at strangers in public places something you associate less with responsible professionals and more with nutters on the Northern Line?

Now in raising the notion that there might simply be too much advertising, I could be casting myself as the Turkey Who Voted For Christmas. But I don’t see it that way. My point is that there is an unwritten, unspoken contract between advertiser and advertisee, and we could be coming closer to breaking it. That contract states that there needs to be a climate of acceptability, not just in content but in volume, for advertising to work at its most efficient. It has to be not just tolerated but welcome, otherwise it gets ‘cut out’ and we get a diminishing return on our investment. And I’m beginning to wonder if we aren’t breaching that contract, abusing our trust, overstaying our welcome – getting on people’s tits – with the sheer ubiquity of our output. And it’s worth noting that one of the findings of Pavlov on his dogs was that too much stimulation induces dementia!

Maybe unconsciously, but I’m sure it’s there, one of the things that makes the climate acceptable is public knowledge of the quid pro quo; without these ads, we wouldn’t be getting this TV programme/magazine/sports coverage. But what happens when things you previously thought were in the public domain, such as paving stones, Big Ben or the back of archbishops’ cassocks, start to sprout advertising – what happens then?

It’s like slapping a tax on breathing. 

Optimedia reckons that in 1980 we got 300 commercial messages a week, from fairly predictable sources, the places you’d expect to find them. Now we get more than 3,000 and they can come from anywhere. Can we possibly absorb more than a fraction? 

According to a Bates Consumer Link survey, nearly two-thirds of respondents said they find the volume of advertising to which they are exposed intrusive, painwith one in four even saying that it is now so irritating that it puts them off the product being advertised. 

That could lead us to take comfort in the belief that at least one-third actually like it. ‘Fraid not – they’re the remainder who, as per Tim Broadbent, simply block it out. We talk about ‘share of eyeball’ and we occupy spaces such as airport trolleys and baggage carousels ‘because that’s where we’ll get the businessman’. 

But do we?

Does the businessperson really read and note our little message on the luggage indicator board or listen to the irritating, incessant chatter on the Heathrow Express? Be honest – you’re business people – do you?  I feel sorry for the web people and the incontrovertible truth that so much web advertising goes completely unnoticed, that nobody clicks through. It’s sad that perhaps that medium is suffering more than others only because it’s the first that could be measured with total accuracy, and the results are unimpressive. But if the same measure could be put on the eyeballs and eardrums of the public as they walk down the high street, wander past talking posters, gaze round the shopping mall, glance at the sports stadium screen or, sacrilege of sacrilege to even suggest it, browse through a newspaper, would the results show anything different? 

The answer is, of course, it depends.  It depends on what it is they’re being asked to look at and how we ask them. 

With my background, I would say this, wouldn’t I? But given the volume and weight of the barrage we’re laying down against the public, creative standards are more crucial than ever. We’ve preserved the climate of acceptability only because the content of our advertising has maintained a reasonably affable standard and we’re not getting up too many noses.

According to a survey done by the PR company Propeller, the number of stories about advertising campaigns and the range of brands covered by the national press rose by more than 30%, year on year, in 2001. Some of this coverage would be unfavourable, of course, but a lot wasn’t and this survey tells us two things.

One is that there is a continuing, healthy and useful interest and curiosity about what we do. The other is that Propeller’s people ought to get out more. 

Higher creative standards will look after the ‘what’ we’re asking people to advertising talk to people hughlook at and go some way toward looking after the ‘how’. But even the most brilliantly written and conceived radio ad is going to pale at the tenth airing, especially if it’s blaring, uninvited and unwanted, from a crap speaker in a public space.

It’s too much to expect advertisers to voluntarily agree and act upon the notion that within this increased exposure lie the seeds of its own wasting. Nobody takes a collective view and precious few take a long-term one. But perhaps we could take a more realistic view of what is worth doing and what is nothing other than pollution. Just because space – be it visual or aural – can be filled, doesn’t necessarily mean it should be. But there is now a critical mass that says whatever it is, if anyone can see it, we must smother it with a slogan and a strapline. If you can get an electric current to it, even better; then we can shout the logo and make the strapline move. Did you know that, in the UK, there are now 400 companies dedicated to the sale of ambient media? Somehow, they’ve cornered the rights to urinal porcelain and the undersides of clouds. 

We should examine the downside of slavishly, lazily filling those spaces with undedicated messages. 

Well, how about this? Newly published research into public perceptions of advertising by the Advertising Standards Authority says that ‘entertainment is key.’  Essentially, consumers have higher and higher expectations of advertising. They believe it will have to continue to get better to get their attention. Continuing to get better is about more of advertising being clever or cleverer. 

Cleverer in its originality and in its ability to ‘engage and entertain.’  But is it particularly original to buy cheap media and then fill it with something you’d prepared earlier and already broadcast until even you were sick of it?

Is treating the proliferation of media opportunities as simply an increase in the number of ways in which you can stick your foot in people’s doors particularly clever? And then ramming your message in their faces, regardless of mood or context – is that entertaining?

There’s nothing wrong with a total stranger talking to you provided they’re engaging. And polite. So there’s probably nothing wrong with a talking petrol pump, provided it’s engaging and polite. But this isn’t going to work as long as we consider that ambient media, because it’s cheap, is worthy only of our recycled messages, left over from other mainstream media.

We should think about where we’re going; why we’re going there; what is the context and the relevance; and what is the effect, both commercial and social, on the recipient.

Then we should design ads accordingly.

Yes, it may cost more to produce dedicated messages, but you don’t stick a poster on TV because it’s cheaper copy. And if caring about how we fill the environment makes it prohibitive, maybe we shouldn’t go there. And in the long run, it may cost a lot more to get it wrong.


Ah. The main point <to the communications professionals in the world>. Caring about what we fill the environment <the space & place we elect to share the message> with.

That is the bottom line.

Because when creative people care, really care, the work is relevant and good <and effective>. But you must make a conscious effort to be good. It seems slightly absurd I had to write that, but, the bottom line is exactly that thought. When we care about doing good shit we do good shit. I imagine if you are a hack you cannot create good shit but if you know your shit you are fully capable of creating good shit.


Originally published March 2014

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Written by Bruce