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