The Big Lie – the complete book online - 8 Attention

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Chapter 8

Hello, sailor


In the mid-1970s, cryptic posters started to appear in bus shelters all over Britain. They showed a small girl and the message: “My name is Amy, I like slugs and snails”. That’s all. No brand name, no logo, no attribution of any kind. The posters stayed up for weeks, so someone was making a massive advertising investment. But for what purpose? Speculations in the popular press boosted casual interest into a national obsession. Finally, a press release published the results of a survey showing the high levels of recognition this poster had achieved. It also revealed the name of the lavish advertiser. Adshel, the company which owned the poster sites, had put up nonsense ads as a way of demonstrating the strength of its medium; Amy was the daughter of its sales director.

The advertising agents who stand in the doorways of the strip clubs on the Reeperbahn in Hamburg wear jaunty nautical caps with shiny brims to invoke maritime tradition as they pluck at your sleeves. The girls in the doorways leading to Soho’s basement venues display different credentials, but their aim is the same: to engage your interest.

All models of how advertising works must concede that the first task of an advertisement is to gain attention. Subliminal speculation apart, it seems evident that unless an advertisement is noticed it is unlikely to have an effect except upon the bank balance of the advertiser. It’s not an easy task. As professional viewers-with-alarm and advertising agents keen to increase budgets are fond of pointing out, advertising messages beat about our heads each day like a rainstorm on a tin roof. And not only when you’re expecting them. At breakfast you may find a message from Kellogg’s on the milk bottle and another promoting BT’s daytime rate on the boiled egg, the latter courtesy of a company called Eggsvertising. There are adverts on the taxi you hail and others inside when you take your seat. At the shopping centre, advertising displays keep pace with you on the escalator. Inside the supermarket you push them along on your trolley and tread on them under your feet. As you hole out on the golf course, under your ball is an ad for Glenmorangie whisky. And in the clubhouse, if you’re male, as you empty your bladder your eyes fix on a message as inescapable as graffiti, though probably far less interesting.

The kinds of people who bother to count these things are always producing mind-numbing statistics such as “The average 35-year-old British adult will have seen some 150,000 different commercials – most of them half a dozen times or more”.1 In the US of Advertising a citizen only five years older will have seen a million commercials. And that’s just television. The average American, it is estimated, is pelted by some 3,000 advertising messages every day. The British, apparently, are not yet so besieged. According to a 1997 report by the Henley Centre, the typical resident of these islands will see around 250 television advertisements, 350 poster sites, and 400 press ads per week. Although that’s not counting the sales missives that drop through the letterbox, the telephone calls, the slogans on shopping bags.

It’s not just paid-for advertising that besieges the mind, of course. Everyone wants to put in his tuppence worth. The media provide free lodgings for the commercial interests of the PR profession and self-interested pundits, arousing the angst of thinkers such as Saul Bellow:


TV, politicians, entertainers, academics, opinion makers, porn videos, Ninja Turtles, et cetera. The list is tedious because it is an inventory of what is put into our heads day in, day out. Our consciousness is a staging area, a field of operations for all kinds of enterprises, which make free use of it. True, we are at liberty to think our own thoughts, but our independent ideas, such as they may be, must live with thousands of ideas and notions inculcated by influential teachers or floated by “idea men”, advertisers, communications people, columnists, anchor men, et cetera.2


So why haven’t we all gone ga-ga? Some observers maintain that Western PR-driven society is indeed a bit scatty, but it would seem that most of these messages are simply ignored. Evolution has provided us with a pretty efficient sensory filtration system which is attuned to our survival. Like animals prowling the jungle floor, while we are bombarded with sensory perceptions, we concentrate on those which are of self-interest. And the more immediate our needs are, the more alert we are to the signals. One doesn’t take much notice of policemen, taxicabs, public lavatories, or fire exits. Except when one needs one. Manufacturers of pain relief products don’t need to lure us with sophisticated advertising bombast and sleight of hand. The tiny ad placed in the corner of your newspaper with a simple headline such as “Haemorrhoids?” will be invisible to most people most of the time. But if you happen not to be sitting comfortably, the odds are your eye will notice it.

Another key to survival is to keep watch for the unexpected, so unusual signals are also likely to penetrate our consciousness. Even through the shutters of sleep odd noises and sensations are woven into dreams. And so there is a sixth sense which man has developed to a far greater degree than other animals: curiosity. Wonder about our world and the urge to manipulate it is instinctive in all mammals, particularly primates. It’s another result of evolution. An immobile green frog in a green landscape is invisible. If it leaps, or turns red, it will be noticed. So, if a message is different from what is expected, it will be rewarded with a flicker of attention. To resolve curiosity. It is why we keep turning the pages in a banal novel, listen to The Archers, and like to gossip. To find out what’s new. Novelty has a magnetic attraction; when we see the word “new” in an advertisement it’s hard not to read just a little further. Where products themselves are new and different, they will catch the eye without the need for extravagant decoration – the first ballpoint pen, the first digital watch, the first mobile phone. But as most products are alike, the advertiser’s resort is to make the communication unusual: the boring old frog turns red. The signal will be perceived, but unless you want to mate with this frog, or eat it, the perception will remain uninteresting. With repeated exposure it will become part of the background: you now know there is such a thing as a red frog; its usefulness, however, is undemonstrated and the novelty fades.

Thus, there are two ways in which advertising can penetrate the barrier of selective perception. It can be personally and immediately relevant, or it can simply be unusual. Sex appeal, advertising’s favourite “come hither”, has elements of both and is always a reliable head-turner. Because most advertising “creatives” feel most products are boring, they rarely try to make them personally relevant by tapping whatever inherent interest they may have. Instead, they go to absurd lengths simply to attract attention.

A tedious technique known as “teaser advertising” deliberately withholds information to arouse our curiosity. Posters are its favoured medium, because the campaign is conducted outdoors, entering unbidden into our public lives, thereby gaining both topicality and “street cred”. They’re something to talk about, and can generate, as “Amy” unquestionably did, that most prized advertising bonus, word-of-mouth publicity. Teaser campaigns aim to create an air of public excitement and stop traffic like a strip-tease artist. A famous one did exactly that. When the picture of an attractive girl appeared on Paris billboards in 1981 promising to take her bikini top off soon, it caused a number of car accidents. Further wing-denting occurred two days later when the same model appeared topless, with the further promise to reveal all soon. A couple of days later she did, but with her back to camera. The point of the exercise was explained by the slogan: “Avenir: the advertiser that keeps its promises”. Like Adshel, Avenir owned outdoor poster sites.

More conventionally, advertisers aggravate our curiosity with visual or verbal puzzles: enigmatic messages or images which require us to supply our own solution. The thinking is that this invites the consumer to participate mentally. When the solution is revealed in a following advertisement, he feels clever and basks in his success, inspiring a warm conspiratorial relationship with the brand. After all, sharing a joke is a good way to introduce yourself to someone. Another theory might be that he finds it a pointless intrusion into his life, an irritating waste of money, and therefore, when the brand behind the trumpery is revealed, hates it.

In 1994 the letter O, plus an exclamation mark, blossomed on posters all over Britain. Was it advertising that round mint with the hole, Polo? Or Perrier, which had based previous advertising on the French word for water, “eau”? Nothing quite so exciting. Subsequent blue and green posters showed a photograph of a car with the caption, “the Omega from Vauxhall”.

Advertising agencies are fond of “teaser campaigns”, if for no other reason than that advertising budgets must be doubled to correct the original impression. This profligate razzmatazz may be appropriate for new car launches, which large sections of the public consider newsworthy events, but few products can claim such a high level of genuine interest. In the mid-1980s a television teaser, a short scene placed at the beginning of an advertising break, mysteriously showed two men in a derelict house. One of them said, “No one listened when they built these. What they needed were homes and not houses”. Then the word “Orchard” flashed on screen. After the skein of intervening commercials, the word “Orchard” reappeared, and the two men were indeed now wandering beneath a grove of fruit trees. The revelation that they were now talking about the Midland Bank’s new mortgage plan, for some unexplained reason called “Orchard”, was perhaps less eagerly awaited by the general public than a sighting of Vauxhall’s latest motor car.

Sometimes the riddle is too baffling. When some familiar actors appeared on TV whispering conspiratorially while the message “Have you heard the Wispa?” appeared on screen, the logical assumption was that it was a trailer for the return of the popular police drama in which they had made their names, The Sweeney. Viewers may have been disappointed to discover it was just the launch of another chocolate bar from Cadburys. A 1988 teaser poster for a new board game consisted of three words reversed out of black: “Where is UBI?” A woman called the game company Waddington to claim her prize, because her car number-plate was UBI. Wrong. It was not a hunt-the-number-plate competition, and the game was not made by Waddington.

Here’s a teaser: which irate consumer said this about advertising teasers?


It is such a grotesquely extravagant waste of other people’s money. With some advertisements, especially those for cigarettes, you have to look at them for half an hour to guess what they are selling. I don’t have the time. The only person that does is the person who makes them up. It is too clever by half. If someone tried to do that with my money, I’d kick them in the teeth.


Answer: in a rare display of intemperance, David Ogilvy, one of the most revered creative figures in the history of advertising.

Each new generation of advertising “creatives” rediscovers other desperate measures for seizing attention: the audacity of printing the advertisement sideways or upside down, silencing a radio commercial or showing a blank screen on television. The favourite tactic is to borrow interest from another source, and it can involve extraordinary contortions of reasoning. Over the headline, “How evolved is your long haul airline?” a 1994 press advertisement for South African Airways borrowed the well-known visual metaphor from T. H. Huxley’s 1863 anthropological perspective on Darwinism, Man’s Place in Nature, which shows a procession of three ape ancestors metamorphosing into the skeleton of a human being. In the SAA version, the three primitives were businessmen wrestling with heavy bags by a luggage conveyor, while the fourth strode away with a smaller case. Was the airline going to tell us something about an improved baggage-handling service? No, the copy burbled about its culinary reputation and wine list. There was no mention of baggage-handling.

Some campaigns are based entirely on nonsequiturs. A 1998 newspaper series for the Corby trouser press pivoted on the headline: “Quote of the day from Corby”. For example, “As I hurtled through space, one thought kept crossing my mind – every part of this capsule was supplied by the lowest bidder” – John Glenn. Taking up half the space of this small advertisement, this concept bore absolutely no relation to the product or the copy argument, apart from a feeble diurnal link: “Make every day a Corby trouser press day . . .”. The company had second thoughts and abandoned this whimsy the following year for a campaign which made the straightforward point that a trouser press removes wrinkles, and thus anxieties.

A campaign seeking to raise funds for the London Zoo would seem to offer a wealth of natural emotional appeals. The 1994 advertisements chose instead to invoke a famous Monty Python sketch with the headline “Dead parrots are not funny” over an engraving of the extinct Paradise Parrot. A paintbrush guaranteed against loss of bristles might appear to possess a distinctive appeal. But the 1996 press campaign for Harris No-Loss Paint Brushes confined this promise to the strapline beneath the logo. Attention was commanded instead by a photograph of a powerfully built man with a menacing glare wearing a kind of leotard with the logo of a slavering dog on the chest. He was not identified, but was perhaps meant to represent a gladiator in a TV game show, and he was holding a cup of tea. This visual puzzle required a headline to explain it: “You’re more likely to invite him to afternoon tea than lose bristles from a No-Loss Paint Brush”.

People, even ordinary people, are usually seen as more interesting than products, even extraordinary products. So they are a frequent source of borrowed interest. Pictures and short biographies of real consumers or employees are conventionally used to define the appeal of everything from Scotch whisky to faceless companies like IBM. Even dull businessmen can function in this role. Usually it is the job function, rather than the personality, which carries the clout, as in the 1990s “Do you know me?” campaign by American Express, which used informal snapshots and short biographies to profile such hidden luminaries as the founder of Toys ‘R’ Us. In business-to-business advertisements, of course, this approach is a commonplace, as in this arena leading businessmen qualify as celebrities, the most potent form of borrowed interest.

Advertising borrows ideas from anywhere, even modern art. The artist Gillian Wearing created a 600-picture library of photographs of people whom she had stopped in the street and asked to write something on a card and hold it up. She entitled her work: Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say. The most salient was a prosperous-looking businessman whose placard read: “I’m desperate”.In 1998 a Volkswagen television commercial appeared which played the idea for laughs: the businessman in this case held up a card saying “At weekends my name is Mandy”. As few mass market consumers would be aware of the original work, this is a borrowing of technique, rather than interest, which amounts to plagiarism. Volkswagen neither gained permission nor made a payment, although Levi’s, which exploited the same idea in the US, did so.

There is a simple way of establishing whether the interest in an advertisement is on loan from somewhere else. Open your weekend colour supplement, or any magazine, and cover the brand names with your hand while you look at the advertisements. Could the same idea be used just as appropriately for another brand – or even another product category? A campaign becomes a brand property only if the idea would not work with any other brand name. Most advertisements fail this test.

As “creatives” employed in the industry tend to share the same topical interests, see the same films, and pay closer attention than the general public to advertisements, fads arise and proliferate. The business often seems to be chasing its own tail, with campaigns resembling, even consciously mimicking each other. As fashions shift, so does the presentation of the brand, which conflicts with the need to maintain a consistent image. Worse, the borrowed interest, the cuckoo in the nest, may bring with it unfavourable associations which undermine the very qualities which are valued by the prospective purchaser – the ad may be arresting, but is counterproductive. This is most clearly a danger when the advertisement emphasises negative consequences (see Chapter 15).


Gaining awareness is undeniably the first step towards an effective advertising presentation. Unfortunately, a very large percentage of advertisers and the agencies which create their ads take this reasoning no further. Like a drunk at a party, their entire focus is on gaining attention, without any concern for the impression they’re creating. After all, you can easily measure whether an advertisement has been seen and noted. The possibility that the selling appeal may be obscured or even undermined by the presentation is ignored; in any case, that’s more difficult to measure.

Yet advertisements which are personally relevant do not have to amaze, tease, shock, or entertain. In the classified advertising sector, accounting for about one-quarter of all newspaper advertising expenditure, most of the ads are composed by non-professionals. There is ready evidence that many of these advertisements work: people respond, goods are sold. Classified advertising pages are closely scanned, because people who read them are always attuned to a specific need, whether it’s a job or a particular make of car. By and large, all the copywriter has to do is to present relevant information coherently.

Modern industrial society is full of distractions, and so was the jungle. Survival has always depended on distinguishing between relevant and irrelevant stimuli. Consumers become quite practised at this from an early age. Many advertising practitioners aim no higher than capturing attention, using hyperbole, shock, sex-tease, and humour, without any concern for the residual emotional effects of these tactics. Standing on your head or unbuckling your trousers may attract an audience, but however flamboyant the initial display, effective advertising must establish a personal relevance to the consumer. It does this by identifying and exploiting our anxieties.

1 Winston Fletcher, How to Capture the Advertising High Ground, NTC, 1994.

2 Saul Bellow, Something to Remember Me By, Secker & Warburg, 1992.


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