I had planned to write about the wonderful new campaign from Virgin
Atlantic featuring Iggy Pop, an unlikely advertising star if ever I saw
one but who nevertheless seems perfectly suited for his new role.
But in view of last week's tragedy in the US, it seems
So I thought it better to write about an ad that might change people's
lives, as opposed to their consumption habits. This is the new COI
Communications campaign for adult literacy skills by St Luke's (reviewed
by Tim Ashton on page 32).
Perhaps the most astonishing thing for me is the scale of the
Illiteracy takes many forms. Many journalists, for example, are
numerically illiterate. I've interviewed would-be journalists who, in my
book, would count as illiterate. I count myself as illiterate when it
comes to certain things: Ikea assembly instructions or video
Confronted with these, a sort of red mist descends and I swing between
anger, usually taken out on the object in question, and depression,
before helplessness sets in. My wife says it's like living with
So let's not underestimate what it means to be illiterate. Nor the
number who have some form of illiteracy. According to the Department for
Education and Skills, seven million adults in England lack these basic
skills. That's about one in five. And of those, only one million are
immigrants - meaning that six million are English-as-a-first-language
On a political level, it's hard to imagine a more shocking indictment of
the English schools system. Funny, isn't it, how at the same time
school-leavers are achieving record A-Level grades. Square that circle
if you can. So, if we are to call ourselves a civilised society, fixing
the problem is critical. No society can function for long if there is a
sizeable element that is disenfranchised and disengaged. No wonder basic
adult skills were the number one item in the Blair manifesto.
In advertising terms, the depiction of illiteracy is pregnant with
Getting people to do something about it is rather more difficult. The
crucial issue is in finding a way to make the illiterate confront their
problem. The whole campaign stands or falls by that. You can multiply
the £4 million advertising budget by ten, but if the target market
won't accept its shortcomings, it won't make a blind bit of
Just as blind people's other senses are heightened, so the illiterate
develop systems to cope. And one of the paradoxes of today's society is
that, even though its complexity demands ever-higher standards of
literacy, it is also increasingly visual and verbal. So while literacy
skills are more important than ever, it's never been easier to survive
So how does advertising break through that resistance barrier? There are
a lot of stumbling blocks. Make illiterates feel stupid or inadequate -
neither of which they necessarily are - and you've lost them. Ditto by
patronising or embarrassing them. Pussy-footing around the issue isn't
going to help either.
St Luke's answer is not to hide the issue - a mum is shown embarrassed
when her daughter asks for spelling help, a young man is mortified when
it's his turn at karaoke - but to defuse those feelings by having them
represented as gremlins.
When they first appear - long noses and distorted faces - you wonder
what's going on. Is it for Cellnet or Monster.com? Yet, since they allow
a truth to be told in a palatable way, the gremlins work. A parallel is
the way children can get away with telling people the most direct home
truths while adults can't. Hmm, maybe there's something in there for the
Tories next time they do a party political broadcast on education.
Dead cert for a Pencil? No, but an IPA Effectiveness prize would be
File this ad under: T for Thoughtful.
What would the chairman's wife say? Doesn't say much for your education
policy, does it Tony?