Saturday, January 31, 2015

Taking us for a ride with our own cash

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, January 28.)
We have a pronounced aversion to TV commercials in our house. It’s the job of whoever is in possession of the remote to hit the “mute” button the moment an ad comes on screen.
Failure to do so earns a look of stern reproof – even sharp words if the reaction time is too slow.

I don’t know where my wife’s abhorrence of commercials comes from, but in my case I think it must be inherited. Way back in the 1960s, long before the first remote control units hit the market, my father made his own.
He wired the necessary bits and pieces and packed them into a decorative little pot that had previously contained Alberto V05 shampoo. In the lid he mounted an old-fashioned switch.

The device sat on a little table beside Dad’s armchair and was connected to the TV set by a cable that ran under the carpet. The moment the ads started, click! Blessed silence.
Dad was an electrical engineer by profession and made a lot of ingenious gadgets, but I reckon that was his crowning achievement.

The mute function is even more precious now than it was then. In fact we often leave it on through entire programmes, occasionally glancing up from whatever we’re reading just in case a subversive TV programmer has breached policy by showing something that isn’t a complete insult to taste or intelligence. Needless to say, they never do.
But even with the sound off, you can’t help occasionally noticing what’s on screen. And over the holiday period, my attention was captured by a commercial showing water being poured into a glass accompanied by the caption “Not Beersies”.

I briefly considered the possibility that this was an advertising campaign aimed at persuading everyone to drink water instead of beer, but dismissed the idea as ridiculous. Who would waste money on something so cringingly patronising?
The juvenile language – “beersies” – suggested some sort of spoof. I concluded it must be a satirical ad, the purpose of which wouldn’t be clear unless I turned the sound on – something I wasn’t prepared to do.

Well, more fool me. I must have been the only mug in New Zealand not to realise that a substantial sum of public money – our money – had been blown on a po-faced social engineering campaign exhorting us to do just that: drink water instead of beer.
Documents obtained by the New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union, a lobby group set up to expose wasteful use of taxpayers’ money, show that the campaign cost at least $1.2 million. That doesn’t include advertising agency fees, which were treated as confidential because of commercial sensitivity.

Moralistic advertising campaigns designed to change our behaviour are a gold mine for the advertising industry. But whether they have any impact is another matter.
This one, which was financed by the Health Promotion Agency, was clearly predicated on the assumptions that we’re a nation of drunks – which statistics prove isn’t true – and that a TV advertising campaign will magically convince us to change our ways, which is another highly suspect proposition.

Ironically, the Taxpayers’ Union also obtained the results of focus group research which showed that the people least likely to take notice of the campaign were “entrenched, high-risk drinkers” – the one group whose drinking behaviour needs changing.
So if anyone is going to be influenced by the commercials, which is improbable, it’s likely to be people whose drinking actually isn’t a problem. And as the Taxpayers’ Union points out, beer consumption is in steady decline anyway, although you won’t hear the alarmist wowser lobby mention that.

More damningly, the Health Promotion Agency disclosed that it conducts no cost-benefit analysis of its campaigns. In other words, no one knows whether the silly “Not Beersies” ads will make a blind bit of difference.
The HPA takes refuge in woolly, imprecise phraseology such as “long-term culture change”. That way it can’t be pinned down.

I’ve now made the supreme sacrifice by watching the ads – all six of them – on You Tube, with the sound on, and they confirm my most cynical thoughts about TV advertising.
The campaign is a crock. First, it’s patronising. It treats us as imbeciles who need help to make the choice between water and beer, and it compounds the insult by using childish language (“Beersies”) more suited to a day care centre.

It doesn’t even get the message clear, as the focus group feedback showed. Some viewers found it confusing.
But the most objectionable aspect of the campaign is that it pretends complex social issues can be addressed through quirky TV commercials. The underlying premise is lazy, deceitful and simplistic.

Government agencies like the HPA must be God’s gift to the advertising business. They have lots of money to throw around on social engineering projects, they are highly susceptible to advertising agency bullshit, and they obligingly don’t insist that the ads produce measurable results.
That leaves the agencies free to do what they most like doing – making commercials designed to impress other agencies and to win prizes at industry awards ceremonies, of which there seems to be least one every month.

It’s a lethal combination, then – a taxpayer-funded bunch of do-gooders on a mission to make us all better people, and an advertising agency eager to use the our money to make ads that don’t achieve anything.



hughvane said...

Well writ, sir. You might care to turn your attention now to our non-advertising Radio NZ National. It has adopted - for years that I can remember - the tactic of 'planting' a social-engineering item into National Radio's Sunday morning news bulletins at 6, 7 and 8 am. Sunday has become Social Engineers Day.

Jigsaw said...

Have you noticed that such government sponsored adverts often are placed just before the weather-presumably at the most expensive time possible.
Just as alarming-pick up a copy of Mana magazine at the newstand(don't for goodness sake buy one!) and just see how many private adverts there are-last time I looked I found one. All the rest are government funded institutions. How can this be?