OPINION: Cowen on ... Harvester

I'm willing to bet that when FCA was folded into Publicis at the

end of last year, the latter agency's creatives weren't slavering at the

idea of getting their hands on the Harvester brief.



If there's such a thing as an advertising category that is atrocious by

definition, then the pub restaurant chain is stuck bang in the middle of

it. The sanitary towel sector has thrown up moments of subversive

humour, washing powders have attempted to break out of the "doorstep

challenge" stereotype, but through the years Harvester and company have

stuck stubbornly to their feeble marketing guns. As sure as farts follow

brussel sprouts, restaurant chains have been there, lazily serving up

unfeasible product shots that make the burgers in McDonald's ads seem

like reality TV.



To be fair, Harvester hasn't been content to lie unconvincingly to

viewers.



It's gone further than most to serve up some of the finest turkey

around.



By choosing The Christians' version of the song about global hunger,

Harvest for the World, as a backing track for its carrot close-ups, FCA

bravely plumbed new depths of inappropriateness.



Does Harvester care that its creative output has been consistently

garbage for years? I suspect not. The neanderthal "see food, want food"

approach that it's spearheaded seems to achieve the necessary awareness,

after all. Harvester is a comfortable number two in its category, behind

Brewers Fayre, catering ably enough for suburban families who want an

evening out once a month but can't afford to blow too much cash. All in

all, a comfortably naff public image would appear to rule out any

genuinely creative work on the account.



Things are changing, however. Last September, as FCA prepared to kiss

its existence goodbye, Harvester's parent, Bass Leisure Retail, was

earmarking a significant sum of cash for the chain's expansion.



It also began researching options for modernising the chain's

offering.



Could this mean the emergence of a different brief? A tasty relaunch

with lashings of credit to be had should Harvester's image be

transformed?



It might have done, had Bass' modernisation plans not run into a problem

- the customers. When the chain suggested replacing peas with something

more avant garde, for example, they got a resounding "no" in return. As

a result, Publicis had to update the restaurant's image without updating

the food.



So the agency has ignored the grub and focused on the quality family

time of an evening out. This approach is nothing new. In the US, the

Olive Garden chain uses ads showing Italian Americans pinching each

other's cheeks and the line: "Da Olive Garden: when yoor here yoor

family!"



This works Stateside, but such a rose-tinted view of family life would

leave the UK throwing up. So Publicis has given the ads a Royle Family

twist, celebrating the awkwardness and lovable incompetence of British

families. It's produced two watchable ads and one, featuring shagging

apes, that's rib-tickling enough for the BACC to shove it behind the 9pm

watershed.



All this is a welcome departure from Harvester ads of the past - and it

will probably do a job as far as awareness levels are concerned.

However, it also risks being spectacularly counter-productive. If you're

in one of the British families that dreads spending time together, then

an exhibition of tensions under the surface is hardly going to persuade

you to go and eat out - no matter how droll it may be. Like so much meat

in British restaurants, this might just be too close to the bone.