CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/REGIONAL STEREOTYPING - Caricatures can cause ads to fall flat if they annoy the viewers

WH Smith last week felt duty bound to apologise to Geordies for

portraying them as overweight, vulgar couch potatoes. This comes as

quite a surprise - not that WH Smith could offend an entire region of

England, but that it was aware of the problem.



Northerners have been proving problematic for advertisers over the last

few weeks, mostly because they don't seem to be considered in the

planning of campaigns. Recent Sainsbury's research has suggested that

many in the region are failing to respond to Jamie Oliver fronting the

brand on TV because Oliver himself is unpopular there. You get the

feeling that decent regional research should have shown up this

potential glitch in the approach.



But the concerns of England's regions seem only to be considered when

it's too late.



There's more evidence of this in the cast of characters used in ads.



It's increasingly the case that regional characters are only considered

for comedy cameos in ads. Gentle Scottish or Irish accents are used to

sell everything from Shell to The Carphone Warhouse, while brands such

as Warburtons and John Smith are stripped of their genuine regional

heritage.



The only northern frontman that springs to mind is ITV Digital's Al.



There are several obvious explanations for the disappearance of positive

regional characters from UK ads. First, there's the trust issue. It's

not that English regional accents aren't trusted, it's just that they're

not trusted as much as the Scots or the Irish. Second, the UK ad

industry revolves around London and so it's natural for agencies to

assume that England does too.



Of course it could just come down to self-preservation on the part of

agencies and advertisers. When regional characters become the central

feature of campaigns they tend to cause more problems than they

solve.



Coca-Cola's ad featuring Newcastle United came across as patronising and

false - as did the McDonald's "Fog on the Tyne" and "Ferry Cross the

Mersey" work. In some cases, the only way to make an accent recognisable

is to go to such an extreme that it becomes a caricature.



Not all caricatures are insulting. Glaswegians loved the presentation of

themselves as hard men in the Ikea launch campaign that ran in the city.

Well, who wouldn't? The problem comes when ads expose discrepancies

between the country's image of a region and its own image of itself.

Ambrosia ads featuring rustic accents were offensive to modern Devon

residents.



The rest of us probably thought they still spoke that way.



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