OPINION: BEALE ON ... VODAFONE

There is a breed of businessman (women are much less prone to this) who cannot hold a meeting or eat a meal without proudly displaying their mobile phone in a prominent willy-on-the-table position.

Chances are the phone in question is the latest kitchen-sink-included gizmo (clutch-bag size, totally unsuitable for stubby male fingers, reassuringly expensive and advertised in all the fattest glossies), and the proud owner hasn't a clue how to do anything but make phone calls and send text messages.

It's a common failing among the over-30s, though, incidentally, flirting by text has apparently now become one of the most popular forms of seduction; a study by MORI found that 35 per cent of us use our phones to flutter our eyelashes and blow in ears, generally to good effect. (Not unconnected, perhaps, MORI also found that 31 per cent of us have also had an argument as a result of a text message.)

Anyway, encouraging us to use whizzy add-on services such as texting, photo messaging, data services (highlights of Premiership matches on a one-inch-square screen, anyone?) and voicemail will be crucial for the growth of the mobile operators. Vodafone has 13 million UK customers - about a quarter of the whole market. But the market itself is heading for saturation point; the trick now is to wring more money out of each individual customer in mature markets.

Vodafone's average revenue per user was up £5 to £297 for the year to the end of June (well ahead of rival Orange), but the company needs to keep pushing this. And the more comfortable we all are with using our phones for a range of services, the more successful will be the launch of the new 3G services late next year, which is the bigger picture.

Which brings me to the embarrassing little poster campaign currently trying to encourage those tech-illiterate phone-snob businessmen to use their voicemail more efficiently. If Vodafone wasn't the global communications giant it is (123 million customers worldwide) with the UK marketing muscle it has (£53 million adspend), it would perhaps be unfair to pick on this shameful little ad. It's certainly not the most high-profile example of Vodafone's current advertising, but it does exemplify much of what jars with Vodafone's confusing communications strategy.

To be honest, I don't understand what's going on in this ad. The line asks: "When your biggest customer calls, how do you greet him?" The picture shows a man humping a tree. What sort of client are we talking about here?

Then there's that execrable "Now is good" tag that Vodafone appears to like, a contender for the worst strapline ever. It's certainly not something that you ever hear people say, unless it's in a hammy foreign accent.

Not only is it intensely irritating, it simply doesn't work. And why "Now is good", when the ad is about the very fact that "Now is very bad, please leave a message"?

Talking of appalling copywriting, and I feel a bit awkward pointing this out, why is the client a "him"? "Them" would have worked equally well, and as there's no sensitivity to the rhythm of the words, "him" can't have been a decision based on the poetry of the sentence structure.

This ad would have worked so much better if it had dispensed with everything but the bottom line, which at least has the virtue of a direct simplicity.

Instead, like so much of Vodafone's advertising, the message is obfuscated by a jumble of nonsense words and images. Advertising by international committee, I suspect. Perhaps that's why they finally felt the need to pop the "How are you?" apologetically into the bottom corner. Vodafone should be ashamed.

Dead cert for a Pencil? Any sharp object will do.

File under ... N for nonsense.

What would the chairman's wife say? "I am off to the arboretum, darling,

for a little bit of tree-hugging."

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