OPINION: Mills on ... COI adult literacy

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

without them.

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?