PERSPECTIVE: Government ads are an easy silly season target for the media

Here is a test question. Who said this, and when?

"I can find no compelling evidence for the success of the police campaign."

The answer: nobody did. The quote, used in M&C Saatchi's ad refuting BBC claims against the police recruitment campaign, is intended to capture the spirit of the criticism. Forgiving M&C Saatchi's invention of a quote, what's the real story here?

From the moment any government campaign is unveiled, it will be dogged by two irksome paradoxes. On the one hand government advertising is often concerned with social change and such advertising offers a chance for the business to demonstrate its raw power on issues that matter. This fact alone will attract the media to advertising's case: government advertising is an easy target, because it's so visible. Policies are harder to get at, because their success or otherwise is always mired in a bog of contradictory statistics.

You will recall that the ads feature celebrities such as Lennox Lewis, Bob Geldorf and John Barnes describing difficult problems a policeman might face, and admitting they could not handle such situations. The viewer is then asked: "Could you? As one who couldn't, I would like to say a couple of things in defence of the campaign.

In ignoring advertising's most common function, which is to bring out the best in things, to make its subjects as attractive as possible, these ads build on the tradition of the best police recruitment advertising.

When Indra Sinha and Neil Godfrey created their brilliant "Could you turn the other cheek? press ad, a D&AD juror argued that it should be barred from the judging because "It's not advertising, it's journalism". Of course, the ad's creators took this as a massive compliment, they argued that if a potential recruit was put off by an advertisement, they'd never be able to cope with the reality. M&C Saatchi has continued that theme, invested it with some contemporary celebrity topspin and taken it on to TV.

More pertinently, the BBC stands accused of selective use of the available figures. Their figures were taken from 13 out of 43 forces, while Devon and Cornwall Police alone attribute 340 recruits to the campaign, three times the number claimed by the BBC in total.

There are doubtless some ways in which public money could be better spent on police recruitment (improving the conversion rate of initial enquiries to recruitment, for example), but the evidence suggests that the BBC's figure of £30,000 per recruit is way off target.

This story shows that the ad industry remains a sitting target for the media. People such as Malcolm Earnshaw of ISBA and Hamish Pringle at the IPA, not to mention the Government, clearly have a huge task on their hands to convince consumers and the media of advertising's worth.


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