Live Issue - Are advertisers wise to chase the chav pound?

Agencies are trying to work out how they can exploit the chav market without alienating consumers.

The most defining feature of the chav phenomenon has been its adoption of brands that were once associated with the smart set.

This has meant that products from Burberry, Hackett and Tommy Hilfiger are more closely identified with Yates's Wine Lodge chavs than with the red-carpet set for whom they were intended.

The concept of chavs first became popular last year and has been absorbed into the national consciousness. Chavs are identified as a young, white, under-educated underclass obsessed with brands and unsubtle jewellery.

While Burberry's response to its adoption by the chav subculture has been less than welcoming, there are some brands which, sensing a chav pound to be exploited, have begun to embrace and identify with the market.

In a recent change of direction, HP Sauce has rejected its old glossy ads, which featured middle-class student-types creating the perfect bacon sandwich. Instead, it has started positioning itself as the "official sauce of Great Britain".

In order to exploit this new position, HP Sauce has sought to sponsor what it sees as the traditional pastimes of the British public, such as raucous hen nights and drunken punch-ups at weddings. Its ads have a distinctive chav feel.

Nick Mustoe, the chief executive of HP's advertising agency, Mustoes, explains: "If you want to intellectualise the term chav, it's about being proud of who and what you are and that it's cool to be an ordinary man on the street. We're tapping into this and showing that HP is not a posh sauce, it's about an ordinary British life of which you should be proud."

Ford is using a similar strategy to sell its vans. Its campaign also centres on the concept of pride - and with a big Union Jack design and their claim of "Great Britishness", the ads seem to target the Sun-reading white van man who is proud of what he does for a living.

But not everyone in advertising is willing to admit to targeting a group that comes with certain negative connotations. Cristyn Bevan, the account director for Ford Europe, rejects the idea of specifically chasing the chav pound. "Chav is a nasty, derogatory term used by middle-class twats to look down on solid, working-class people. To try to advertise to 'chavs' would have a real danger of backfiring," he says.

Neil Dawson, TBWA\London's head of planning, agrees. He would reject using the word chav: "Advertisers' use of terms like that leads to advertising that dislikes and patronises its audience."

A recent campaign from the telecoms giant 3, promoting new ringtones to "bling up your mobile", seemed to have had other ideas. The ad featured an animated character, wearing an earring and peaked cap and dressed from head to toe in Burberry chav gear.

WCRS, 3's ad agency, rushes to point out that this spot was not on-brand and that, with 3's broad audience, it would be a mistake to target any one group too specifically.

Middle-class guilt might play a large role in some agencies' unwillingness to acknowledge a chav social group. It's easy to dismiss chavs as an insignificant niche or an invention of the media, but there's no denying the fact that young, working-class people are an extremely lucrative market.

A Market Research Society paper, Geezerland - Exploring Contemporary Working-class Britain, says that this group of youths has a higher disposable income than the ABC1 youth market that marketers have traditionally courted.

While ABC1 youths are typically burdened by university debt, the chav market has been earning since the age of 16 and living for free with their parents, with many receiving supplementary income from them, the report claims.

Also, Dawson says that an ad strategy can benefit from associating a brand with a social group. He gives the example of Super Noodles tapping into the laddish lifestyle market, although this does come with a caveat.

The group identified as chavs has some less positive attributes. Dawson explains: "There is a risk of chavs being seen as a negative social group that nobody wants to identify with. You'd have to be very careful associating your brand with it and it would only work if you did it in exactly the right way."

Even then, it could be a risky business. Nick Southgate, the head of planning at DFGW, suggests that even those identified as chavs by agencies would be alienated by ads that try to represent them. "Chavs fight, drink, spread STDs and buy branded clothes and you wonder how much anyone could identify with this image and buy a product off the back of it," he says.

The idea of a brand defining itself as chav is also contrary to the way in which chavs adopt brands - traditionally, chavs have discovered and appropriated brands that are most definitely not trying to target them, with Burberry and Hackett the prime examples.

Burberry is beginning to tire of its chav association and wants to regain the ground that it once held among the county set. Last year, the clothing company discontinued its infamous peaked cap, an accessory which had become associated with football hooliganism. Burberry's overall sales for the last quarter were disappointing, blamed in part on the chav factor.

Mustoe argues that the adoption of elite brands by a downmarket demographic, such as chavs, is nothing new. "It's always been the case that where there is a high-end product, there will also be huge volumes of cheaper things that go out to the mass market. When this happens, you need some careful portfolio management," he says.

BMW is a good example of this. The manufacturer tweaks its models every three years, so there is an elite car for those who can afford it, while the older model is consigned to the second-hand market for the aspirational masses.

So far, Hackett seems to have accomplished this objective of appealing to both groups - while half its stock is emblazoned with the brand name that so appeals to the chav market, it also sells discreetly branded products for the more discerning customer, using the distinctly un-chav England rugby player Jonny Wilkinson to front its advertising campaign.

Indeed, France's LVMH, PPR and Prada are among those lining up to buy Hackett from its parent company, Richemont, illustrating how, despite its chav leanings, Hackett has managed to remain a desirable, upmarket brand.

The chav phenomenon is not a new one and, arguably, the name will be eventually supplanted by another pejorative term for the working classes.

But brands will continue to suffer and benefit in equal measure from their adoption by blue-collar audiences hijacking their image.

For advertisers, trying to hijack the chav market comes with risks and does not seem a suitable long-term strategy for many brands. There is a real danger of alienating the general non-chav public - not to mention the chavs themselves.