As Stefano Hatfield noted last week, it’s little wonder that events
such as the Di/Dodi/Kia Cars farce contribute to the low esteem in which
the public holds advertising. If there is any consolation, it is that
journalists and the media are one of the few groups to be held in even
lower estimation (what this means for journalists who write about
advertising doesn’t bear thinking about).
It’s probably no exaggeration to say that people no longer care about
the media - except, perhaps, only enough to know they hate it. In this
unhealthy climate we have the case of the allegedly ’fake’ Carlton
documentary on the Colombian heroin run, the most damaging effect of
which is to confirm every public prejudice about the media’s fundamental
There was a time when canny marketers would slap an ’as seen on TV’
sticker on their products, the premise being that to advertise on TV or
be featured on a TV show was a guarantee of product integrity. TV’s halo
effect thus created a huge bank of public goodwill and trust from which
programmers and advertisers could draw to their mutual advantage.
How times have changed. Commercial TV is already under attack for its
lack of, trivialisation of, and sensationalisation of serious factual
programming. Now, whatever the truth of the Guardian’s allegations, the
genre looks holed near the waterline.
This is dangerous. Audiences may be small but factual programming is
what underwrites TV’s integrity and allows the public and advertisers a
basic level of trust in the medium. If you can’t trust a television
documentary, what can you trust?
At the very least, this trend disenfranchises a category of advertiser
for whom factual programming provides the right environment and
audiences. At worst, it threatens to disenfranchise the viewing
If the RAC was the old-style Times - snooty, for toffs from the shires -
the AA was the Daily Mail: straight-down-the-line Middle England. No
surprises then to see AA press ads ramming home the point. Under the
headline, ’Owned by its members, run for its members’, the ads target
disenchanted ordinary members of the RAC who don’t qualify for a share
of the sell-out loot. But even before the ads ran, hundreds of RAC
members had voted with their feet.
The interesting point is that like the building society movement, the AA
is a mutual company. Given the way building societies have rushed to
convert, you might think the AA’s mutual days were numbered.
This may be a misjudgment. Old-fashioned it may be, but mutualisation’s
strength is that it conveys a sense of ownership and community which
happens to fit the zeitgeist. In the right hands, mutualisation can be a
strong marketing and retention tool - as the Nationwide and Bradford &
Bingley have realised. Ask yourself this: if there is no prospect of
conversion and therefore a windfall gain, would you rather be a member
of an organisation owned by faceless shareholders or one in which you
and millions like you had a tiny stake? No contest.