A view from Dave Trott: An advertising story
A view from Dave Trott

An advertising story

In 1950, radio was the biggest entertainment medium, every family listened to it.

The programme most families listened to was Dick Barton – Special Agent at 6.45pm.

It was a typical cliffhanger – every episode ended with Dick Barton about to die, only for him to have miraculously escaped by the next episode.

At the same time, the BBC was producing radio programmes for farmers.

(Britain imports two thirds of its food, more than any other country – it was essential that farmers grew as much, and as efficiently, as possible.)

These programmes were like the print magazines: Farmers Weekly and Stock Breeder.

They were full of speciality news about prices, crops, markets, new techniques; they were dry with technical information only farmers would be interested in.

But the BBC was a public broadcaster, so they needed to make programmes for everyone.

Godfrey Baseley was given the task of creating a farming programme that would be relevant to farmers but wouldn’t be too dull for non-farmers.

He went to the Midlands for a conference among farming folk about the problem.

One farmer, Henry Birt from Lincolnshire, farmed blackcurrants and seed crops and he said one thunderstorm could wipe out his entire crop – he said farming wasn’t boring, in fact it could be terrifying with all the suspense of a cliffhanger.

He said “You ought to make a farming programme like that Dick Barton show” and everyone laughed, except Baseley.

Because that combination became the birth of an entirely new kind of broadcasting.

Baseley saw that although he couldn’t combine farming with a thriller, he could combine farming information with the lives of ordinary farming folks.

So he began a radio show that was 10% specific advice related to crops plus 30% general agriculture and horticultural content, and 60% stories about the lives of country folk.

He began with three families: one was a poor but modern farmer, one was a poor and old-fashioned farmer, and one was a well-off bigger farmer.

And that was how the first episode of The Archers started in January 1951, it began by delivering farming information interwoven with stories.

But would it work, interweaving information with stories?

Well, 70 years later The Archers is getting close to its 20,000th episode; at its highest point, before TV, it had 20 million listeners.

Even today it still has five million listeners (a million of those on the internet) and although The Archers is only on radio, it has a bigger audience than Coronation Street’s four million viewers and EastEnders’ 2.7 million viewers, both on TV.

So it seems the public does enjoy information interweaved with a story.

That is what advertising was during its golden period, the period when people used to say the ads were better than the programmes.

Before then, in the 1950s, advertising had just been bashing people over the head with constant repetition of information.

Then for several decades, under Bill Bernbach’s influence, advertising delivered information wrapped up in entertainment, and people loved it.

Then, about 20 years ago, advertising dispensed with information and became purely emotional, a patronising ploy to manipulate people by outflanking their rational mind.

Currently it seems advertising has reverted to the 1950s – the advertising campaign is dead, just make a single commercial and bash people over the head with it until they submit.

The result of this trend?

According to Hootsuite, in the UK alone 42.7% of people are using some form of ad-blocker.

So what’s the answer, batter them with more and more stuff they don’t want?

Maybe it’s time to take a lesson from the longest-running radio show ever.

People are happy to accept information as long it’s wrapped in entertainment and stories

Dave Trott is the author of The Power of Ignorance, Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three

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