Media Forum: Was 'hair gel' song wrong?

Was the recent Shockwaves content a mistake, Alasdair Reid asks.

Judging by some of last week's internet traffic, music fans were very cross about the revelation that the song Style Attract Play by Shocka (featuring HoneyShot) might be a craftily disguised commercial for the Procter & Gamble Shockwaves hair gel range.

The single was outed by the Popjustice website, which pointed out that it had slipped through the net and was getting airplay on Radio 1 (a publicly funded radio station that exists solely to showcase commercially available music products), thus subverting its integrity and public-service remit. The band, Popjustice pointed out, was created last year by the Saatchi & Saatchi content creation division, Gum, to perpetrate just this sort of outrage on British sensibilities.

Following the revelations, a wave of moral outrage swept the country, triggering apoplectic responses such as this one, posted by Cjfm2005 on YouTube: "Pathetic. There are 100s of talented, unsigned bands only too happy to work with brands if that's what it takes. But no, Saatchi & Saatchi thinks that spending an obscene amount on manufacturing a 'low-rent' Sugababes, so they can be forced to sing about hair gel is a smart idea. I hope Shockwaves ditch you for dragging them into this feeble, idiotic attempt at conning kids out of their pocket money."

The BBC acted quickly to implement a ban, and an ashen-faced publicity apparatchik was wheeled out to comment: "The track was presented to Radio 1 in the usual way, via a legitimate promotions company, and we were not aware that it was a promotional tool for a haircare product. As this is created by an ad agency with the sole purpose of selling this product, and we do not play ads, it is not something we would play again."

Critics are upset that a measure of deception was involved - yet Saatchis' involvement in the creation of the band was trumpeted in an article in The Sunday Times in April 2006. And Radio 1 production staff could have listened to the single before broadcasting it. So was it sly and despicable? Or rather clever? And will it have ramifications for ad-funded content?

Laurence Munday, the founding partner of PHD's content division, Drum, points out that advertising has a long-established relationship with the music industry, so it's a bit rich for anyone to act upset at this latest manifestation. But he adds: "That doesn't mean it was a good idea. There is a danger that, for whatever reasons, you foster negative views of the brand. As with any communications technique, there are advertisers who will deliberately go out and court controversy, while others will be more concerned about enhancing the customer's experience of the brand."

Much of that is echoed by Mark Boyd, the director of content at Bartle Bogle Hegarty. He says: "It's important when you are operating beyond traditional advertising sectors that you are sensitive to the different roles that people have in those sectors. They didn't bring the music industry on board and it feels exploited - so it's seeking to punish the agency and the band for that."

Interestingly, Mark Whelan, a partner at Cake Group, argues that this won't impact on the concept of ad-funded content - because it doesn't count as ad-funded content in the first place. But he does feel this initiative borders on the clumsy. He says: "The process should be to build an entertainment offering around a brand's values. This band was created first and then offered up to brands. It was more a sponsorship. No-one was ever going to be pleased about being ambushed by someone wielding hair gel."

But Matt Williams, the chief executive of the youth marketing agency, Making Waves, disagrees. He concludes: "The HoneyShot concept is a natural progression and a consequence of the adoption of pop music by brands. For years, bands have been harking after getting their songs on TV ads to maximise the reach of their single. I think we had got to the point where we were thinking, 'Where do we go from here?' This is exactly what Saatchi & Saatchi has done."

MAYBE - Laurence Munday, founding partner, Drum

"It depends on whether or not this single is any good. If it is, people will buy it and not care so much about who is or isn't involved. But there are better and less risky ways to engage with content and with this audience."

NO - Mark Boyd, director of content, Bartle Bogle Hegarty

"I applaud the initiative from the standpoint that it is an interesting attempt to find new ways of communicating with the audience in that category. What they got wrong was the whole issue of transparency."

MAYBE - Mark Whelan, partner, Cake Group

"Branded content has to be about honesty. It has to say: 'We are a brand entertaining you so that you might get to like us', like making a music TV show such as Orange Playlist. It was never going to work the other way."

NO - Matt Williams, chief executive, Making Waves

"It's an interesting piece of ambient media, and it's impressive they managed to get it on to Radio 1. While they may not have anticipated the kind of media attention that it attracted last week, I would question whether it has done them any harm. Good luck to them."