On the left of the picture is the portrayal of Hovis bread in advertising. On the right is a picture of the Hovis factory in Wigan. There can be little doubt that advertising uses wish-fulfilment to boost its appeal!
If you work in marketing, you will inevitably spend time trying to figure how the English respond to advertising. In the UK, whatever the product and whoever the audience, if the purpose of the message is to sell something it will almost certainly be approached in an indirect way. Very few companies have dared to ignore the English aversion to boasting or pushiness in any form, whether about product virtues, performance or value for money.
Take press ads for premium motor cars, for example, Jaguars, BMW’s, Mercedes, Audis and the like. If you look really carefully, somewhere at the bottom of advertisements for desirable high performance machines you will see, in a font no larger than a six or seven points, tiny figures for the time taken from 0-60mph from a standing start. You may need a magnifying glass. The implication from the manufacturer/advertiser is something like: ‘we know you don’t want us to flaunt the fact that you’re buying this car to burn off your idiotic neighbour, but just in case you are, here down at the bottom is the dynamite you’re looking for. No-one else will ever notice it’s there and so they can’t accuse you of wanting to show-off or being flash or a gas-guzzler.’ Have a look at this example;
The red circle marks the area where the performance figures lurk.
Another example; there is a new kind of payment card on trial in the market. This card allows you to pay for small goods and items simply by holding the card near to a reader, a bit like the Oyster payment system on the London Underground. To advertise this card, something of a revolution in payment technology, Barclaycard have commissioned an exuberant television ad that starts with a rather bedraggled man climbing into a roller coaster car. At the same time a very loud soundtrack kicks in, with a song, ‘More than a Feeling’ and the man starts to ride at great speed downwards through the winding, seemingly endless track spanning the city.
This goes on for 30 or 40 seconds while the music plays on uninterrupted. If you watch very carefully, for just a fraction of a second on his journey the man picks up something and in a flash waves his hand sideways as he rushes on. He is in fact purchasing something and paying for it by waving his card over the reader. You have to be lightning quick to even notice it, let alone work out what is going on. The overall impression is of a very expensive, elaborate installation built at great cost for a 40-second stunt that Barclaycard chose to introduce its ‘contactless’ card. Have a look at the commercial here:
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This tradition of witty, indirect, non-sales focused advertising is something for which English advertising agencies have become famous. Earlier memorable examples include the Nick Kamen Launderette commercial for Levi’s and the spot for Hamlet Cigars where the small overweight man is trying to accomplish a comb-over to get a flattering passport photo in an automatic photo booth. Nick Kamen is here:
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Broadcast in 1985, not only does it feature Nick’s finely tuned bod, but also the best soul track ever, ‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine’. Interestingly, the bum-hugging virtues of Levi’s are extolled in the visual and such was Levi’s attachment to the idea that great jeans were figure-hugging, that they completely missed the baggy jeans fashion some years later and lost traction in the market as a result.
And now the Hamlet commercial. In 1987 one of the first one minute commercials on British TV and voted the third funniest ad of all time. Gregor Fisher was the actor, Graham Rose the director. Back in those days it was a real pleasure to work with the creative geniuses at CDP.
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Pushing your product too directly is seen as American, un-English and altogether too earnest and self-promoting. In both of the above examples the products are invited into the commercial as a consequence of a narrative which is really about something else – looking – or trying to look – good in both these cases.
If you are working with groups or a community to get reactions to this kind of thing, you must be prepared to engage with a similarly indirect, humorous, disparaging, dismissive kind of banter from your respondents. Just as it is inappropriate for the maker of the message to be too pushy, so it is inappropriate for the receivers of the message to appear to take it seriously. This is one very good reason why groups are such an important component of creative development in the UK – or anywhere where a more subtle, not ‘taking yourself too seriously’ appeal is wanted.
For years I struggled with this dilemma, trying without luck to get groups to take the material on test seriously. It was only when I discovered what another writer has called the ‘sponge method’ where you really just allow the group to talk about the material in whatever way it wants for ten minutes or so and then pick up threads from their free association to redirect their attention to the main points you wish to explore, that I began to have success in these kinds of sessions. Unless you do this, you will never really know whether the group is serious or poking fun – and neither will they!
I believe that it is the very indirectness, [some would say subtlety, others obtuseness], of English advertising that has led to the success of the qualitative method for checking and developing this type of material. You just can’t get a feeling for responses to indirect messages from people who are themselves bound by a cultural norm of indirectness in responding to pretty much anything without spending time with them and having several goes at it. Trying to get meaningful responses on scales designating ‘clarity of message’ or pretty much any other direct Stimulus – Response type measure is fruitless because the point of this indirect style is to engage the English viewer in decoding the games, stunts, word-plays and irony as a normal participant in English life does in the face of all performances, stories and conversations everyday of their lives.
And, while all this is going on, the important selling messages sneak in through the back door. This is an especially fruitful route because such messages are implanted unconsciously, avoiding the risk of being dumped or rejected as boastful & irrelevant commercial trivia.
Over the years I have used these and other examples of English advertising to show clients from more direct, pragmatic cultures – like for example Americans, Dutch or Germans – why qualitative methods and free discussion is such an important tool in evaluating how communication appeals. Of course there are appropriate occasions for what I call ‘calculative’ advertising – like price comparisons or offers. But when you wish to cloak your product in the gentle comedy and performances of everyday life, the ‘English approach’ has proven itself unparalleled.
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