The World: How Aussie TV show is reviving public opinions

The success of The Gruen Transfer means the Australian ad industry is fast becoming must-see TV. Kevin Johns reports.

Some countries put their ad industry on a pedestal, just one notch down from film and TV. In Australia, however, there's been a nagging worry that the public sees advertising as one notch up from used car sales.

That was until May last year, when the industry's credentials received an almighty boost from the most unlikely of sources.

By the time the ten-part series The Gruen Transfer finished its first run on ABC - Australia's non-commercial broadcaster - it had sparked more public interest in advertising than anything before or since.

The Advertising Federation of Australia reported record numbers of inquiries, and ratings were impressive. According to the measurement body OzTam, the half-hour show achieved a 29 per cent viewing share during its prime-time Wednesday evening slot among 25- to 39-year-old and 40- to 54-year-old audiences.

It also became the highest-rating entertainment programme launch in ABC's history. Not bad going, and with series two set to air next Wednesday (18 March), there's plenty of belief the success will continue.

The show is named after Victor Gruen, the shopping-mall pioneer. The Gruen Transfer refers to the split-second when, according to the programme-makers, "the mall's intentionally confusing layout makes our eyes glaze and our jaws slacken ... the moment when we forget what we came for and become impulse buyers".

Its format is somewhere between Have I Got News For You and Never Mind The Buzzcocks, albeit with TV commercials, rather than newspaper headlines or music, forming the basis of debate.

Accompanied each week by a team of semi-regular panellists, captains Russel Howcroft, the managing director of George PattersonY&R Melbourne, and Todd Sampson, the chief executive of Leo Burnett Sydney, shed light on the tricks of the advertising trade while discussing a mix of high-profile, contentious and catastrophic creative work.

The biggest talking point of each show is a segment titled The Pitch, where two rival agency chiefs face-off to sell the unsellable.

Among others, viewers were shown spoof ads promoting whale meat and holidays to Baghdad, as well as a mock TV spot for the outsider Australian political party, The Democrats.

"They're supposedly 'unsellable' but as the show's producers have come to learn, there's very little in life you can't find a positive angle on," Rowan Dean, the executive creative director of Euro RSCG Australia, which created the winning Democrats ad, says.

It was an on-air victory for Dean that has since brought real-world rewards. "We simply reminded people what The Democrats stood for, in a humorous and contemporary way. It led to The Democrats contacting us, and we've been working with them for the past six months now," he adds.

It's not the only example of on-set action filtering through to everyday life. Sampson and Howcroft have both become minor celebrities since the show aired, often approached by strangers in the street; the former even came third in a Most Sexy Men On TV viewer poll.

The duo have developed an entertaining on-screen rivalry, too. Sampson, the opinionated planner to Howcroft's considered "suit", says of his adversary: "I seldom agree with what Russell says, not because I know better or he's wrong, but because of how he says it. He's got that knowing private schoolboy look that sets me off".

Despite, or perhaps because of, the publicity it brings for those involved, The Gruen Transfer hasn't been everyone's cup of tea. Several big-name network agencies decline to get involved, concerned at how it appears to the public and clients alike.

Dean says that while there will always be detractors, the majority of the Australian agency world see The Gruen Transfer for what it is "and recognise the ultimate winner is the industry itself, as the public is being tutored in how to appreciate quality creative work."

And as series two gears up for launch Down Under, the show could soon be making its debut overseas. ABC's commercial arm has sold a number of one-year options on the format across European countries, including the UK.

Jon Casimir, the executive producer on The Gruen Transfer, is confident the show would work in different markets, as long as careful attention is paid to the tone.

"What we're making is a show about people. The show doesn't work unless it's built on the notion that advertising understands people. That it's based on insights, strategy and research. It's about the way the public is seen, understood and, to some degree, manipulated or persuaded. And that's applicable to almost every country in the world with a strong media. The more interesting the advertising culture, the better placed to do it," he claims.

Having spent a decade in London agencies before moving back to Australia in the 90s, Dean is positive about The Gruen Transfer's chances in Britain.

"There are so many great characters who work in the UK industry, and such a culture of provocative banter and probing critique, that audiences would enjoy it enormously. The danger would be if it descended into aggressive bitching - the producers in Australia have taken great care to avoid that."

As for Sampson - who, like Howcroft, will be involved one day per week for ten weeks filming season two - he's taking it all in his stride. "It shows the brilliance, stupidity, fun and cleverness of our industry. I've always tried to be honest, keeping in mind the responsibilities I have to the people at Leo Burnett and our clients. It's not acting, we're just doing our job in front of 1.3 million people every Wednesday night," he concludes.

Who says nobody watches ads any more.

- Kevin Johns is the managing editor of B&T magazine in Sydney.