OPINION: CRACKNELL ON ... ADS AND THEIR CONTEXT

Do you feel uncomfortable at the image of a middle-aged jolly black man working on a laptop in a cafe in the new HSBC commercial? The point being made is how things are changing and I’m sure the image is to illustrate how portable computerisation has become. Unfortunately, what some people seem to see is a horribly patronising comment on how remarkable it is that black people now use computers.

Do you feel uncomfortable at the image of a middle-aged jolly black

man working on a laptop in a cafe in the new HSBC commercial? The point

being made is how things are changing and I’m sure the image is to

illustrate how portable computerisation has become. Unfortunately, what

some people seem to see is a horribly patronising comment on how

remarkable it is that black people now use computers.



It’s all in the eye of the beholder - and that’s precisely the

point.



What we have to be sensitive to is not what we show but what people

see.



And part of that process we should go through when producing ads is

assessing not just the commercial potential of the public reaction but

also the personal, social reaction. Maybe this reaction should be

informed by the fact that the public does seem to see a difference

between advertising and the environment that surrounds it.



This is nothing to do with imposed censorship. All creative people are

censors anyway. They automatically sift ideas and subjects they’re

interested in progressing and some of the decisions are based not on

commercial efficacy but on taste and even on personal moral values. And

it’s nothing to do with the usual argument about the viewer having an

expectation of a programme’s content whereas ads are unpredictable.



It’s to do with motive. An ad is seen to be there to flog goods, make

money. As this is not considered as lofty a goal as elevating public

sensitivities or educating the masses, storylines or techniques that

people would find acceptable in other broadcast messages are found

questionable in advertising.



Never did I feel this more forcibly than when I was creative director of

Ammirati Puris Lintas during the Rover Hostage Crisis, when a Rover

commercial depicting a hostage exchange caused a minor uproar. Using

human suffering to make money was seen to be utterly unacceptable. But

given there’s no great clamour for those who’ve made cinema fortunes out

of the Titanic disaster to give their money back, we can deduce there is

clearly a different value system at work for viewing ads.



There’s also context. I suspect that people automatically gauge the

relevance and appropriateness of advertising messages against their

ultimate goal and their sponsor. Most of the Benetton images wouldn’t

have caused confusion if they were used in social issue advertising. The

suspicion of hypocrisy in Oliviero Toscani’s claimed social concern

might be allayed if he were to run the ads without the Benetton

logo.



So it’s the logo that makes the difference? Well yes, that and the

cause.



Unlike programmes, each ad ends with the name of the people who bought

you the message and that can only be a stamp of approval of everything

they’ve just laid in front of you.



When a Martin Clunes throws up over his girlfriend on TV we all think

’how droll’. But if he does so in a commercial for a household name,

it’s that household name bringing it to us and we think ’how sad, how

inappropriate, how desperate’.



So no matter how much we’d like the same freedoms as the programme

makers, it’s unlikely we’ll ever get them simply because of the

different perspective in which we’re seen. And, if you’re interested in

the freedom of speech, it’s a very good reason to fear the growth of

sponsored programming.



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