Category Archives: Advertising

Changing the world is the only fit work for a grown man

That’s a quote from an ad man called Howard Luck Gossage (great name; great quote) and is the title of a new biography about him.

He ran his own agency in San Francisco back the 1960s when all the action was taking place in New York (Bill Bernback, David Ogilvy, Rosser Reeves).  He had, what seemed at the time and perhaps still now, some pretty crazy ideas about the way advertising should work, which now that I no longer work in an agency, seem exceedingly sensible.  From the book, they include:

Didn’t believe that it was all about growth and the money.  It was about maintaining the quality of the creative work and the culture of the agency.  The agency never grew to be more than 15 people.

He thought about the point of advertising.  As he put it “there is precious little awareness, and no real enquiry into the economic, sociologic or philosophic bases of advertising”.  I would say that this is still the case. I was raised to believe that the point of advertising is to make money for the agency and make money for the client.  No sociologic or philosophic enquiry there.

He believed that pumping out advertising with no real sense of who was receiving it and how it was being received was not only wasteful but unethical.  He said: “I will go further and say that it is not only wrong to attempt to influence an audience without involving it but it is unethical and dishonest”.  Strong words, but this kind of accounts for, at a guess, more than 50% of advertising these days.

He had a theory of the way things work (cybernetics, via Norbert Weiner) which could be applied to advertising.  Cybernetics (roughly) is about recognising that there are feedback loops in the natural world.  So for Gossage, he saw the creation of information loops as beneficial and indeed a life-enhancing way of making people respect others and accept responsibility for their actions.  So, his ads featured ways to engage the audience so that they could help create the next round of work.  No feedback, change the ads.  By involving the consumer and getting their input into the campaign, it was evident that they were enjoying the work and more work would evolve that encouraged further feedback.

In this “he viewed advertising less as a commercial bludgeon and more as a conversation between equals”.  And “people like to be treated as human beings rather than consumers and they react very well to it”.  ‘Go Compare’ anyone?

He was, perhaps unsurprisingly, anti-billboards because he believed that no media owner had the right to sell that media because a billboard interrupted a view that belonged to the people.

One of Gossage’s ads that stopped the Grand Canyon getting flooded

He ended up working on saving the Grand Canyon from getting flooded (via an ad campaign), then helped make the Sierra Club famous before using his skills to launch Friends of the Earth.  To him, this is what advertising should be for: “advertising was too valuable an instrument to waste on commercial products…it justified its existence only when it was used for social purposes”.

So, he said all this, but was also well ahead of his time in terms of thinking about social media, PR-generated stunts and interactive.  What’s interesting is that the back cover of the book is full of modern-day advertising greats talking about how great Gossage was.  For example, Jeff Goodby says “The best of Gossage is the best of advertising ever done, and what’s really amazing is the the work he did foretold what’s happening on the internet and social media right now”.   To me, it’s more interesting to take his thinking in the round – to consider the points that I’ve highlighted above, not just the interactive/social media bit.  It would make for a very different, more purposeful industry, where that purpose is beyond just trying to make money and sell stuff.  Maybe one day more of his ideas will come to pass.  I hope so.

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Free to go shopping?

Been thinking about this a lot recently and finding it very hard to describe and articulate, but here’s a go:

When it comes to what’s actually important and what makes us happy, do we really know?  I’m not entirely sure that we do.  I’ve decided this as a result of thinking about shopping and consumerism.  It seems to me that integral part of what Western society deems as important is to shop and buy things.  Either more things than you’ve currently got or better things that you’ve currently got.  And in buying those things you will be happier.  Having stuff – more stuff or better stuff – is a way to feel better.

To buy that new shirt to continue to be fashionable and feel good when you’re in the pub, or a magazine to know what’s fashionable or a new phone because it’s better at letting you stay in touch with your friends and feel connected.  It’s even called Retail Therapy because therapy is a way (apparently) to feel better about yourself.

So, buying things is correlated to feeling better.  I would suggest that we accept, blindly, that having more stuff is the natural thing.  It’s not even talked about.  It’s an unspoken narrative in our society.  It doesn’t need to be said or even discussed because everyone understands it and believes it.  Like the sun coming up in the morning.

And to a degree that is, of course, true.  Having a new thing can be great.  You go to the shop, you get to choose what you want, pay for it, take it home and use it.

But, what happens if you don’t buy anything new?  You don’t buy more or better stuff?  Typically this means you don’t have the means.  So, you’re either poor or unemployed.  Both of which are socially undesirable.  Or if you have got money and don’t buy more and better stuff then you’re a bit weird for not doing what everyone else does.

So, putting myself in the unemployed and ‘have the money to buy not buying category’, I currently haven’t bought any new clothes (except for some socks) or electronic equipment or just basically ‘stuff’ for about a year.  Still buy food, drink, travel and some second hand things, but no ‘more or better’ new stuff.

How does that feel?  Well, pretty good.  Which isn’t supposed to be the case.  Right?  If the narrative of shopping is that if I buy more and better stuff then I’ll feel happier, then the converse – not buying any new or better stuff should be that I feel worse.  Right?  I should, in some way, feel deprived, or left out, or somehow ‘lesser’ shouldn’t I?

Absolutely not.


So, what do I feel about not buying stuff?  Unburdened by the need to.  Not having to spend (waste?) time engaging in deciding what to buy and then buying it.  Getting to enjoy, use and appreciate the stuff that I have got.  Finding interesting ways to use the stuff I have got to do new and different jobs that I might have previously bought something new to do.  Glad that I don’t have that occasional moment when I look at something and say ‘why did I buy that?’

But, perhaps the most interesting feeling that’s come up as a result of not buying more stuff is around freedom.

 Yes, I’m lucky enough to live in a democracy, get to vote and speak my mind, but when it comes to shopping, am I free?  The easy answer to that is ‘of course!’  I can go to any shop that I want and buy whatever I want (as long as I have the money).  However, the freedom that I feel is about the choice as to whether I want to shop or not, rather than the freedom to buy what I want when I go shopping.

This is vitally important distinction.

So, there is absolutely freedom around shopping.  But the freedom is around which of the many products that are available, is the one that I want?  I am free to choose the blue one or the red one.  Nike or adidas.  Apple or Sony.  Toyota or Honda.  And it takes a lot of tine energy to decide which is the best one to go for.

Buy to make you happy.  I’m free to choose which one I do buy.

However, I’m not free to decide whether or not I want to buy in the first place.  Will buying more stuff or better stuff make me happier?

This is not a question that is posed by our society.  At all.  Consider the evidence.  All the advertising and marketing spend, all the packaging, all the window displays.  They all are suggesting that we should buy them and in many instances, that what they are offering is in someway superior or different from the other available options.  The Ultimate Driving Machine.  Washes Whiter.  Refreshes the Parts Other Beers can not Reach.  They are all pushing the same thing.  That buying them is a good thing and will make you happier.

Where is any communication, from anyone, as to whether either buying more or better stuff or not buying more or better stuff is going to make you happier?

I can’t think of any.

So, I’m talking about a different sort of freedom.  If we were really free then we would be free to make that decision. Wouldn’t we?

I would contend that because there is no debate on this – one that stimulates a discussion so people can weigh up whether buying more and better stuff or not buying more or better stuff makes them happy – means that we are not free.  We don’t have the freedom to choose because we are only ever presented with one option.  Buy to make you happy.

I’m not saying that buying nothing makes you happiest.  That would be stupid.  Maybe a smart phone really does make you happier.  But does that sixth pair of jeans?  It’s not about absolutes, it’s about having a conversation about the principle and people deciding for themselves.

I think this is really fascinating.  We spend so much time shopping, talking about buying more or better stuff and spending money in the process in the belief that it makes us happier and we don’t even discuss whether it actually does.

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You are the most important person who has ever lived

Was talking to some students the other day and remembered that great John Berger quote about advertising – ‘Advertising sells you an unobtainable future’.  Just because Wayne Rooney wears Nike boots doesn’t mean that you’ll play like Wayne Rooney if you wear Nike boots.

Anyway, I’m currently doing some work with WWF around their ‘Think of me as evil?’ report and in it, it talks about the fact that a large amount of advertising appeals to ‘extrinsic’ values – namely it encourages us to be concerned with status and our outward appearance.  This is in opposition to ‘intrinsic’ values which are linked to being concerned with each other and the environment.  Broadly.  This makes intuitive sense, but what’s the reality?  So I decided to take a walk down the street and find out.  So, in a sort of GCSE Media Studies analysis, here’s what I saw.

There was a lot of, what can be regarded as ‘neutral’ messaging, just told you what’s available.  So, stuff like:

Okay, then I can buy that – it’s sort of ‘Just The Facts’ kind of work.  It’s public announcement advertising from the commercial world.  But, what about that extrinsic stuff?

As it turns out, there was quite a lot, so here’s just three:

Ummm, so, buy this hair colour and it ‘transforms’ you.  Really?  If I was being generous I could say that it’s true – it transforms your hair colour.  But, I think it’s fair to say that it’s trying to say a fair bit more than that.  But maybe it can.  Maybe changing your hair colour can transform you into a different person.

Next up is the end-line on a bus side for Pandora jewelry.  Buy Pandora and you are promised an Unforgettable Moment.  So, let’s be generous again.  Let’s say the most likely opportunity for that to be true is when someone buys it for someone else and in the act of giving it, it could be an Unforgettable Moment  i.e. the same strategy as a diamond ring when you ask for someone’s hand in marriage.  But, it’s not a diamond and it’s not asking a hand in marriage.  So, can that be true?   I think that Pandora is writing cheques it can’t cash (or at least guarantee) there.  It’s definitely closer to the ‘unobtainable future’ there, I’d say.

But, my personal favourite was this, for Venture portraits:

Run that by me again?  Your current family situation is the ‘most important story ever told’.   So, more important than ‘War and Peace’, the story of mankind, anything by Shakespeare, the Bible, Koran or the life story of Ghandi or Mandela or any other historically significant figure or even the person standing next to you?  Your family contains the ‘most important story ever told’.  Ever told.  If there was an Extrinsic Hall of Fame, this would be in it.


Sustainability. The end, but the means?

I’ve been having a few chats recently about the fact that the sustainability debate, in the UK at least, is confined to a minority.  The sort of person who reads The Guardian, watches Channel 4 and knows that there is social value in being a globally-concerned individual.  That’s all well and good, but whilst they might be the heart and soul of the debate and movement (if it could be called a movement), they’re too small in numbers to make any real difference.  The action has to be in the mainstream.  In terms of media, it has to be with The Sun and ITV1.  The question is, how do you make that happen?  How do you get sustainability to become a mainstream issue?

Government regulation aside, there seem to be two options.  Popularise the existing narrative.  Or change the narrative.  The first option is to make ‘being green’ more popular; more attractive; more socially acceptable.  This is entirely possible, but it hasn’t happened yet – there seems no appetite for it so far, but who’s to say that there will be in future?  However, I don’t see Ant and Dec giving a way an electric car on their new gameshow before sticking up their ‘How To Be Green’ wallchart from the centre pages of The Sun any time soon.  But it might happen.

In thinking about the possibility of being an alternative narrative, it seems important to make a distinction between the means and the end.  At the end of the day, we, as a nation (and a species), need to live in a more sustainable way.  This is the desirable ‘end’.  It’s the ‘means’ to achieve that end that I’m interested in.

To use an analogy – and one that helped get us in this mess in the first place –  is that in the 1950s President Eisenhower’s council of economic advisors stated “The American economy’s ultimate purpose is to produce more consumer goods”.  So, the ‘end’ was an thriving economy based on the production of more ‘stuff’.  How do you make that happen?  There seem to be a number of different ‘means’ that could have been used to achieve this.  It was the 1950’s so you could have created a narrative about it being your duty as an American to buy things in the ideological fight against Communism.  Or you could could create a narrative where people would feel more altruistic by encouraging them to buy bigger and better gifts for friends and relatives.  Or you could create a narrative whereby you can achieve greater personal fulfillment and happiness by buying more things.  It seems that the latter was the primary narrative that was chosen as the ‘means’.  It certainly wasn’t a narrative around ‘please buy more because our economy depends on it’.  So, the means were different to the ends.

So, why, when it comes to the issue of sustainability, should it be any different?

Now, it’s likely that it will be a combination of narratives to help achieve the sustainable end that’s required, but looking beyond the current means = end thinking might move things into the mainstream a little bit quicker.

If you know what those alternative narratives are, you might just help save the world.

10:10’s ad that blew up in their face

Finally got round to seeing the banned 10:10 ad (10:10 being an organisation that encourages people and businesses to cut their carbon output by 10%).  It features a number of ‘real life’ scenes where people (school kids, office workers) are asked to commit to actions that will reduce their carbon footprint. Those that don’t, get blown up with blood-splattering effect. (It’s fairly gruesome, so don’t watch if you think you’ll get upset)

It was written by Richard Curtis and features a bevy of stars, so on paper, it was an easy thing to say ‘yes’ to.  Which is what I suspect happened.

Is it right or wrong though?  Should it have been banned?  It depends on what they were trying to do. If they subscribe to the ‘shock-charity-ad’ school of thought (e.g. babies shooting-up for Barnardo’s) then they’re right on the money.  It got banned and got loads of PR.  Well done.

But was this the right approach?  I doubt it.  I would have thought that they’re objective was to encourage people to change their behaviour and reduce their carbon footprint.  But the ad isn’t really about that.  It’s about people getting blown up and that’s what it will be remember it for.  (In comparison,  the shock in the Barnardo’s ad is directly linked to what the Barnardo’s are campaigning for – protecting children from a less than ideal future).

Again, it’s the thing I keep coming back to – that the Climate Change movement are framing themselves as the heroes (in the ad they all live) and those that don’t subscribe to their point of view as the villains (they literally die).  That is such a poor approach to get people to change – it basically says ‘you’re an idiot and deserve to die if don’t do what I say’.  Okay, the ad might just be able to get away with it if it was laced with black humour, but it’s not. It has no charm.  For those that aren’t buying the Climate Change argument, telling them that they’re stupid is only going to harden their point of view because they already disagree with you.

I think what you need to do is take the time to understand why people aren’t acting in a more sustainable way and work out what you need to say to encourage them to do so.  And what you come up with has to have a clear benefit above and beyond the current action that you are wanting to change.  My suspicion is that those who aren’t currently motivated to change by an environmental message will not be convinced by a environmentally-led message.  The Climate Change movement have run out of road on that one.  So, you’ll need to be more creative in the approach.  It’s back to the VW Fun Factory (on a previous post) for short-term tactical actions, but for more durable behaviour change it’s into the realms of social engineering like the 4-day week.

Whether they thought about any of this before they made the ad, who knows.  But it must have good fun at the shoot!

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You need to say more than one thing to get people to change

Went to the IPA last night to hear a talk about the anti-smoking case study that’s been short-listed for the 2010 IPA Effectiveness Awards.  It was a panelist of the contributors and they started with a fact which determined the way they approached the whole campaign – that 76% of smokers need more than one reason to stop smoking.  So, given that advertising theory states that you should only have one message at a time, how can you give mulitple messages at the same time and hope that they’ll stick?

The answer was to involve various parties, all with an interest in people stopping smoking and all capable of coming at the problem from a different angle yet able to advertise in and around the same time.  Those parties were the British Heart Foundation (BHF), the NHS and the Cancer Research UK.  Each came at the problem from their distinct point of view and with a different tone of voice.  In combination, they created an ‘additive and complementary effect’.

There were another couple of points that were interesting too.  Anti-smoking legislation (e.g. no smoking in public places) and taxation (now over £6 a pack) obviously work, but its advertising that provides the emotional prompts that work with these things. 

Smoking is irrational, because rationally, you know it’ll kill you.  So, you shouldn’t use rational advertising – you need stories told with emotion as they will ‘work harder and last longer’.

So, what does this mean from a sustainability point of view?  It seems that the anti-smoking lobby have moved from one message to change one behaviour to mulitple-messages to change one behaviour.  However, when it comes to sustainability, there are multiple behaviours to change.   What to do?  One suggestion the panel had was to wrap different behaviours into one campaign – apparently the ‘Change4Life’ campaign contains 8 messages.  However, I’m not sure that this is the best way – with ‘Change4Life’, the messages seem to get lost as they are not individually distinctive enough in the same way that the anti-smoking messages were that were covered here.  On this, I can see the benefit of using advertising as it can use emotion to reverse irrational behaviour, but who would pay for those multiple messages, productions and airtime?  The government is cutting spending, and there don’t seem to be as many charities that are focussed on this issue as they’re are with anti-smokng to pick up the tab (WWF? Oxfam? Carbon Trust?  Maybe)

Anyway, it was an interesting talk and here’s the link to the 20 min video they made to talk about the case study.

And here are some of the ads:

British Heart Foundation ‘Fatty Cigarettes’:

NHS testimonal (there’s loads of these):

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The Future of Marketing? – The ‘Why Don’t You?’ Approach

In the 1980’s the opening title sequence of the children’s TV show ‘Why Don’t You?’ included the line ‘Why don’t you switch off your TV set and do something less boring instead?’

If the opening titles are a form of marketing, then the producers of the programme can be seen as taking a fairly suicidal approach – to actively encourage people to use less of what they have to offer.  Yet conversely, this approach maybe able to breathe life into the marketing function today as it struggles with the seemingly opposing forces of promoting business growth and sustainability.  One example that walks this line well is the current E.ON campaign as it claims that by signing with them, you’ll use less energy and pay less money.

As Jeremy Davies, E.ON’s Brand and Communications Director says:

“We genuinely want to engage with people about the energy issues that matter to them. We wanted to give consumers a clear, simple and honest answer: helping people use less energy, means they will have lower bills and lower bills mean happier customers who want to stay with us for longer.”

So, as you’d expect, it’s still about the £, but it’s about measuring Customer Lifetime Value, with the understanding that you’ll take a hit on the Average Revenue Per Customer per year, but you’ll keep them for more years.

As a result of E.ON promoting lower consumption and reduced bills, it should steal share from the competition.  If they are successful, then the total revenue from their growing customer base will be greater than the total loss of revenue from encouraging all customers to use less.  So the company will grow.

But, the marketing is interesting because it counters that fundamental belief in advertising and marketing – encourage consumers to consume more.  And (via research I bet) they have to use a long-copy ad to explain this different approach so consumers could get their head around it.

Thinking into the future, E.ON’s ‘Use us and use less’ philosophy could easily be transferable to categories where consumers are routinely encourage to consume in excess, in the same way that Virgin enters categories with poor customer service with its cheeky customer service/consumer champion attitude.

This maybe some way off for E.ON, but if the marketing community are looking for a way to reconcile their profession with the issue of sustainability, then they could do a lot worse that look at E.ON.  Can a clothing retailer promote that its items look better with age?  Or a consumer electronics company talk about the durability and longevity of their products for a change?

The question for marketers is if E.ON can do it – Why Don’t You?

Social engineering for the good – Hand washing in Africa


Might be useful in the future – here’s Radio 4’s In Business that looks at Health (called ‘Now Wash Your Hands Please’ broadcast on 29th July 2010).  The first piece in the programme is about getting Africans to wash their hands.  About 1 million people die every year as a result of not washing their hands and this is a great example of an NGO working with the corporate sector (Unilever) in a Public Private Partnership.  It’s about highlighting the health issue and how Unilever has created new sizes of soap and used its marketing expertise to get the product and message out there.

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Stopping Smoking is Easier than Stopping Shopping

As part of the MSc, I think it’s going to be useful looking at different government campagins to encourage the public to change certain behaviours.  They include:

Stop smoking

Wear seatbelts

Anti-drink driving


Turn heating down

If you take Stop Smoking, which is probably the one which will have the most written about, it’ll become apparent how difficult it is to get people to stop and yet people know that they will die.  So, you’d think that getting people to buy less will be easy.  But I don’t think it will be.  Anyway, here’s a bunch of anti-smoking ads.  The interesting thing is that:

a) the all kind of look and feel the same

b) they look like they’ve been created to win awards, not to stop people smoking

c) why are they using posters?  How can a simple poster message be expected to stop an addiction?

Anyway, here they are for reference:

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