OPINION: Mills on ... Scrabble

Very crudely, I suppose, you can describe nearly all advertising as fitting into one of two categories: that designed to attract new customers and persuade them to use your product; and two, get existing customers to use your product more.

Sometimes, however, ads straddle both categories, albeit accidentally.

The new Scrabble campaign from Ogilvy & Mather is a case in point. Ostensibly, its purpose is to recruit new purchasers from the generation under 35. This is the group for whom board games are something for children or their parents, and to be played on a wet winter's evening round the fireside with mugs of frothy Ovaltine. That's absolutely fine, and we'll return to that in a moment. But the ads will also tap into the nostalgia gene for many, myself included. "Yes," we think, "I must go and dig out the Scrabble from under the stairs." And that's fine too, but obviously it means we're not going to buy it.

I have an ambivalent relationship with Scrabble, having been taught to play by my mother who was, to put it kindly, a word fascist. Educated under a strict 3Rs regime and a crossword fanatic to boot, her bible was the 1955 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, to which she would refer whenever I tried to introduce words such as "zit" or "zap". Nevertheless, for people who love words, Scrabble is a game that combines entertainment with education and can be played across generations. I shall be looking into the cupboard under the stairs to see if I can get the family back into the game my youngest son used to call, in a way more apt than he knew, "Scramble".

I can see why Mattel, the maker of Scrabble, wants to attract the under-35 age group. To ignore it is tantamount to giving up and accepting eventual oblivion for the game. However, getting younger age groups to play Scrabble is a tall order. As advertising challenges go, it's intimidating - but then that's what ad agencies are put on this earth to solve.

This is a visual generation, one brought up with massive TV choice, computers, PlayStations and mobile phone text messaging. They may be good with their thumbs, but the visual experience is the one that turns them on, not words. Indeed, you just have to look at falling levels of newspaper readership among this age group to see the problem. And as for board games, well, they regard them with the same level of interest the rest of us regard cribbage.

Ogilvy's solution is, in some ways, the obvious one: use the format of the game to stimulate, amuse or titillate. There's no arguing with that, and nor with the media strategy, which uses cinema, print and out-of-home vehicles such as beer mats and postcards. But if the strategy is predictable, that's no reason for the executions to be also. "Thrash your boyfriend with a zucchini," one board display says. "Where else can you get points for farting?" another says (answer: the school toilets). Oh dear. Let's just say that the opportunity to do something stylish and witty has been criminally neglected.

And why not display a board as it really would be during a game? Or, failing that, show a board where, by inserting certain letters, you could end up with interesting words?

Alternatively, as those who have played Scrabble know, there are plenty of variants on the standard game that might interest the target market more. There's sex Scrabble, geography Scrabble, sports Scrabble. Who knows, you could even create a text messaging version based on abbreviations and numbers.

It's mean, but let me offer a possible explanation. Ogilvy couldn't find a copywriter who'd actually played the game, so they used two art directors instead. And doesn't it show.

Dead cert for a Pencil? No chance.

File under ... W for wordsmiths wanted.

What would the chairman's wife say? "The only letters I'm interested in

are G&T."


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