I found myself drifting into Broadcasting House recently for an interview with Evan Davis – one of the top journalists in the Corporation.
I was there to represent the ad industry for a Radio 4 series he’s doing on people who lie for a living.
I didn’t know whether to be flattered or to sue.
My interview will apparently be sandwiched between a credit card fraudster and a transsexual. I suppose it’s good to know precisely where one stands in the moral spectrum.
“The thing about working in advertising is that one is used to being on the lowest rung of the moral ladder”
And I did momentarily wonder: how on earth could he trust anything I said?
But it was good fun to meet Mr Davis, and I say this as a hostage to fortune because he probably hasn’t edited the interview yet, and it would be well within his powers to make me come across as a complete tw*t.
The thing about working in advertising is that one is used to being on the lowest rung of the moral ladder.
But when you’re about to be questioned on Radio 4, you look to your conscience. You wonder if you’re going to come across as a mixture of Simon Cowell and The Cloven Hoof (as I believe Louis Walsh is sometimes known backstage).
Evan’s flow started with a discussion on early ads, where brands just lied in a straightforward way (and that phrase could only make sense to an adman or a lawyer): lines like “A Mars a day helps you work rest and play”. When even a household pet can see that it doesn’t.
Then we moved on through a middle ground of weaselly claims like “Nothing acts faster than Anadin”, when in fact all analgesics worked at the same speed.
Then Evan and my discussion arrived at today’s regulation-riddled world.
“If you think 90 per cent of your sexual successes are down to you rather than alcohol, you’re lying to yourself”
I’d spoken to several colleagues about the topic in the previous week, and all of them had expressed great regret that they couldn’t lie more.
Regulations, specifically for TV and radio ads, are tougher in Britain than anywhere in the world. And apart from anything else, that helps to explain Britain’s poor showing in international advertising awards festivals. Other countries’ ads are free to make far more exaggeratedly humorous claims than our legally compliant efforts.
Take alcohol for instance. Regulations forbid the linking of alcohol to sexual success, when it’s a pretty huge lie to suggest anything other than that. If you think 90 per cent of your sexual successes are down to you rather than alcohol, you’re lying to yourself.
Advertising lies are a fascinating topic on one level. People tend to develop their own lying-radar in the playground. For me, an ad in the back of my favourite comic for X-ray specs made me realise that the truth was somewhat elastic in the “dog eat dog food” world of professional advertising. I was eight at the time.
The revelation was rather like a primitive tribesman learning which berries are poisonous.
Of course, some of the lies are harmless. For instance, who would complain that the Patagonian Toothfish was re-christened the Chilean Sea Bass? Certainly not the fishermen of South America, who had made a scant living from the Toothfish before its renaming.
Or take the case of a friend of mine (ex-advertising) who invented a card game that teaches kids their times tables. If he’d called the game “Learn your times tables game”, no child would have wanted it. Instead, he called it “Hoo Ha”. They lapped it up.
These days, though, as marketing migrates onto the web, there is ever more need for transparency. As Siobhan Freegard of Netmums said to me once: lying just won’t work on online forums.
But marketing is a very slippery fish. Despite increased regulation and demand for transparency, it won’t all be as clean as laundry day in a nunnery from now on.
Instead, we’re entering a world where the sign-posts will all be blurred.
Product placement in TV programmes, for example, is much harder to spot than an ad in a commercial break.
Magazines are already much worse than that. A photographer friend of mine would rather work in the comparatively transparent world of advertising than in editorial, where she’s forced to include various brands in so-called editorial shoots.
Online has its traps too. A few years ago in the US there was a huge outcry about “buzz agents”; people who popped up in chat-rooms and who would advocate certain products. You’ve guessed it already: these were people paid for by the brands themselves to infiltrate this world, like members of our taxpayer-funded police force pretending to be Greenpeace activists.
Product placements, mislabelled advertorials, buzz agents. You tell me, are those berries over there poisonous?
I’m f*cked if I know.
- Read Steve Henry’s last column: Steve Henry: The more important advertising becomes to you, the worse it gets
Steve Henry was founder/creative director of Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury, the agency voted Campaign’s Agency of the Year three times and Campaign’s Agency of the Decade in 2000. He has won most of the major creative awards, including the D&AD Gold Pencil, the Grand Prix at Cannes, the Grand Prix at the British Television Awards, and the President’s Award at Creative Circle (twice).
In 2008 he was included in CampaignMagazine’s inaugural Hall of Fame, a collection of the 40 most influential people in British advertising overthe past 50 years. He now works as a creative consultant.
Steve has just launched Decoded, a ground-breaking programme that promises to teach anybody code in one day.