The Big Lie – the complete book online - 16 Tone

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Chapter 16

It ain’t whatcha say,
it’s the way howtcha say it


“Say, I’m going in a-swimming, I am. Don’t you wish you could?” But of course you’d druther work – wouldn’t you? Course you would!”

Tom contemplated the boy a bit, and said: “What do you call work?”

“Why ain’t that work?”

Tom resumed his whitewashing, and answered carelessly: “Well, maybe it is, and maybe it ain’t. All I know is, it suits Tom Sawyer”.

“Oh come now, you don’t mean to let on that you like it?”

The brush continued to move.

“Like it? Well, I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?”

That put the thing in a new light. Ben stopped nibbling his apple.

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Tom Sawyer, like many modern advertising men, believed that the best way to persuade someone of something was to hide the act of persuasion. More traditional advertisers argue that if the presentation is too oblique, the intended buyer may miss the point entirely. Ben might well have said, “You are a lucky sod, Tom. I’m off to the swimming hole”.

Should advertising by straightforward or allusive? On this issue, the Atlantic seems to be a great divide. The British usually characterise American advertising as too obvious and hard-selling, while American admen visiting Britain are astonished by the whimsical indirection of British advertising. These are generalisations; after all, the Americans invented the allusive “mood” commercial, and downmarket British retail advertising is little different from American examples. Nevertheless, the transatlantic difference in attitude is real. Clearly, Britons and Americans are not different species; the successful transference of so many American ways of satisfying consumer demands to Britain – from McDonald’s to Toys ‘R’ Us – testifies to that. But cultural considerations do have an influence on how consumers see themselves, and therefore help determine the right tone of voice for the sales approach.

Major advertising agencies on the whole are rather good at working out the “message” – what impressions must be made to improve the attractiveness of the brand. Consumer research, effectively employed and intelligently analysed, can tell them what people need to know, believe, and feel in order to commit to a brand preference. These ideas are set out in a formulation, generally known as the communications strategy.

Sometimes advertisers think that is the end of the process; they simply produce a literal statement of what they would like people to believe. Promoters of port wine, clearly reacting to research which showed its market was ageing, produced a poster for the 1998 Christmas season asserting the opposite: “You don’t have to have white hair to drink it”. The Stilton cheese promotion council doubtless commissioned similar research. The argument of its 1999 Christmas poster campaign was: “Who says Stilton’s only enjoyed by old men with a glass of port?” Simply showing young people gleefully consuming these products, as both campaigns did, will not change ingrained behaviour patterns.

A 1999 advertisement for the Mitsubishi Carisma took a literal approach to the car as status symbol, with its headline “What does your car say ABOUT YOU? IDENTIFY YOURSELF”. The bones of the research report also stuck out of the TV campaign British Airways used to introduce its new Club Class “cradle seat” in 1996. You could almost hear the motivational researcher intoning something along the lines of, “When he’s travelling on a long haul flight, the hard-driving businessman wants to be pampered, cocooned, revert to infancy, and have caring female cabin staff tuck him up for the night”. The resulting commercial showed a businessman’s adult face bizarrely grafted onto a baby in nappies, cradled in his mother’s arms in a 1940s nursery. This literal translation of the “communications strategy” ignores a fundamental consideration: whether or not the research analysis is correct, will businessmen accept having their infantile yearnings exposed when they sit down to watch the News at Ten, or talk about it the next day with their colleagues?

In advertising, as in any kind of communication, the way you say something, the body language, and the overtones, is often more important than what you’re saying. The social environment of this and every advertisement is determined by four factors: the product field (air travel), the medium (television news programmes), the brand (British Airways), and the nature of the consumer (self-esteem of the businessman). All of these influence the way in which the message is perceived. And each has its own set of conventions. The mood of the message, as well as its content, must be consistent with the way these forces interact.


Of these four environmental influences – the product field, the medium, the consumer, and the brand – advertisers are keenly sensitive to only one: they are usually well aware of what surroundings are appropriate and inappropriate to their own brand image. It may seem perverse for a manufacturer to launch a lawsuit against a retailer which starts selling a lot of its brand, but that is what happened when the Superdrug retailing chain began stocking Givenchy perfumes. Superdrug had got its supplies from pirate wholesalers, and Givenchy sued, because it felt the brand’s presence in this discount chemist chain would cheapen its image. Becoming an authorised perfume retailer is an involved process requiring satisfactory completion of a detailed questionnaire, the submission of photographs of sales assistants and a promise not to taint the scent by selling it within fifty feet of a food counter. The European Commission approved a distribution agreement which restricted sales to shops appropriate for upmarket fragrances. When both Superdrug and Tesco complained to the Office of Fair Trading in 1993, the Monopolies and Mergers Commission found against their claim that Chanel, Givenchy, and Yves St Laurent had unfairly declined to accept them as retailers and had put pressure on glossy magazines to refuse Superdrug advertisements offering their brands. In effect the commission determined that it can be in the public interest to preserve a system which keeps prices artificially high.

Not just retail shops, but even consumers can be seen to be the wrong sort for the brand image. While motor car marques such as Honda and Toyota are more popular among older consumers because of their reliability, the aspirational advertising for these brands never features people of their age. Many products traditionally associated with the youth market – soft drinks, jeans, and beauty and cosmetic brands – are now bought by a much larger and older constituency. Yet brands like Levis, Pepsi, and Nike are relentless in their advertising efforts to preserve their street cred amongst teenage consumers. Advertisements always reflect the image of the customers the manufacturer would like to have, rather than showing those who may actually buy the brand, as suggested in this advertising anecdote:


An obese man waddled down the concourse at Newark Airport, a soiled, slogan-splattered T-shirt stretched over his enormous belly. Coming the other way was a well-dressed executive with a briefcase. He walked up to the fat man and said, “I’d like that T-shirt to add to my collection”. For fifty dollars the fat man took it off his back. The businessman, who was the American distributor of Absolut Vodka, folded it carefully into his briefcase, and walked away to phone his office and tell them to stop selling Absolut Vodka T-shirts.1


If the wrong kind of retailers and consumers can detract from the brand image, so can advertising communications which are at odds with the conventions of the product field. Air carriers are aware, for example, that the most important anxiety affecting their customers is too highly charged ever to be mentioned explicitly: safety. Yet advertisers often fail to comprehend that what may be an excellent way of selling an impulse treat like a sweet, for example zany humour, is not an appropriate method of persuading people to buy, say, life insurance.

Advertising analysts often attempt to categorise advertising appeals by the price of the goods involved, e.g. light-hearted ads are okay for cheap items, like tea, while high-ticket purchases, such as cars, require a more serious approach. A more useful classification lies in the emotional anxieties surrounding the product. By this yardstick, there are three broad classes of goods which seem to demand a particular style or tone of voice.


Self-indulgent/frivolous products: cheap treats like tea, sweets, and snacks, but also fashion, which can be very expensive. In this category, almost anything goes. Advertising can be irreverent, outré, silly, it doesn’t matter. The only motivation is to have a good time, to satisfy an impulse, and facts get in the way. The 1993 campaign for Häagen-Dazs ice-cream broke new ground by showing the naked intertwined bodies of consumers enjoying the product. By adding stylish, voluptuous sex to conventional taste appeal the advertising joined two kinds of sensory indulgence, and justified a higher price.


Self-expression products: cigarettes and drinks, which can be low-priced, but also cosmetics and jewellery and the retailers who sell them, as well as cars, all of which are expensive, The most valued element of a gift purchased at Asprey is the labelled box it comes in. Self-esteem is paramount here, and the presentation must never damage it. (When’s the last time you saw a funny send-up in a perfume commercial?)


Serious products/services – banking, financial services, politics, portrayals of business in general, etc. All of these involve money, where caution and probity are the watchwords. Presentations must be conservative. (Would you trust a financial adviser whose ambition is to be the life of the party?)


Fourthly, an advertising presentation must be appropriate to its medium. Some obvious physical factors affect how ideas are received in each. Size, for example. When a client sees his new television commercial for the first time, advertising agencies take care to show it on a large screen in a viewing room, where it will seem more impressive than on a television monitor. The advertisements we see in cinemas are more commanding for this reason. Roadside posters, which whiz by in a flash, are only suitable for a vivid instant impression, usually graphic. They are the quintessence of advertising; an axiom in the trade is that if you can’t reduce an advertising concept to an outdoor poster, with one image and a few words, it isn’t an advertising idea. However, posters which appear on the wall across the tracks in the underground or inside public transport have captive audiences with little else to do. Unlike newspaper readers they can’t even turn the page and so these media lend themselves to discursive verbal argument.

There are important psychological considerations, too. These derive from the ambient circumstances. Most media exposures are relatively private and intimate. Television advertising takes place in the home usually, often in the presence of children, and its conventions are those which surround the hearth. In this setting there are restrictions which are peculiar to advertising: displays of nudity and bad language, for example, are forbidden, although commonplace in the surrounding programme material. Reading is an intimate experience, and so different rules apply. Whilst newspapers are very public media, magazines are a more private world in which embarrassing topics, such as piles and tampons, can be discreetly discussed. Magazines are often chosen to reflect personal enthusiasms, and can build up an emotional relationship with the reader, a chief selling-point belaboured by magazine space salesmen. With the advent of television, radio listening was displaced as a family activity, and has become a generally private experience. Its primary characteristic is that it’s instant – topical and ephemeral. Cinema advertising is unique: the only occasion on which one is intensively focused on advertising together with a crowd of strangers in a public place.

All advertisements borrow authority from the medium in which they appear. Anything published – no matter how silly – gains some credibility. Even the most vulgar of the tabloid newspapers carries the advantage of topicality and confers the authority of the printed word. New clothing designers achieve acceptability by advertising in the pages of Vogue and Absolut Vodka ads acquired panache by being published in the snobby American weekly, the New Yorker. Orson Welles’s radio production of H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds would not have caused mass hysteria if he had chosen to make it as a movie. It famously caused panic in jittery pre-Second World War America because radio then was the primary medium for fast-breaking news.

Some advertisements are deliberately crafted to take account of the environment in which they will appear. “Have you got anything smaller, Guv?” is a meaningless headline for a cigar anywhere except on the taxi card in which it appeared. “Kill your speed” was the theme of the 1995 UK road safety campaign. It still lingers at some safety black spots throughout the country, where it acquires a strong emotive force, because the word “kill” is unusual in the context of the British countryside, and the road is precisely the “point of purchase” for this selling idea.

Outdoor advertising is different. It confronts us in the street – a public place – where public conventions apply. This is why people found the realistic photographs on the posters of the clothing retailer Benetton, such as the one of a newborn baby, streaked with blood and vernix, so shocking. They would be less offensive in a magazine, and unremarkable in the context, say, of the British Medical Journal. Which is precisely why this advertiser chose to use the most public medium – for its shock value. Many outdoor signs, from traffic notices to “keep off the grass” notices, are instructions regulating public behaviour. These stimuli are not surrounded by an artificial media environment; they are real. No media experience is as topical and as realistic as the one which takes place in the street. An American visitor to Britain in the mid-1960s thought the two words which appeared on posters everywhere at the time represented a type of “big brother” campaign sponsored by the government to maintain public morale in a period of economic crisis. “Take Courage” was, in fact, an exhortation to drink a brand of British beer.

The famous 1914 war recruitment advertisement featuring Lord Kitchener (Uncle Sam in the US) gained enormous force because it appeared in the public arena. A young man would find it hard to ignore unless he were wearing a uniform. It was felt to be so successful that the same theme was recycled in both countries for the next world war. Similar social pressures strengthened the celebrated 1979 Conservative Party poster featuring a familiar street scene, a dole queue, over the headline, “Labour isn’t working”. Political parties, with their tradition of public rallies, have always understood the importance of advertising in the public arena. The Tories, in the past, were particularly favoured by the fact that most of the best poster sites were block-booked long-term by tobacco companies, which could be persuaded to release them to a party which they felt would support their interests. Politicians soon came to appreciate how much spin-off publicity a poster could generate. During political campaigns, new outdoor posters are now regularly unveiled by leading politicians for the benefit of press and television journalists, who dutifully reproduce the photo opportunity. For the price of hiring a few poster sites, or even one, for a brief period, the party gains extensive nationwide exposure in other media. Other advertisers have cottoned on to this game, where advertising blurs into press management. A 1998 poster for the charity Age Concern featured an attractive woman with big breasts in a bra, over the headline, “The first thing some people notice is her age”. Because the youthful-looking 56-year-old model had a colourful personal history the charity counted on provoking a lot of tabloid-style journalism. It put the poster on one mobile hoarding and attracted several hundred inches of coverage in the national press and ten hours of broadcasting coverage. Putting aside the moral question of whether substituting prurience and sexism for ageism may be counted an advance, the charity made a good publicity investment.

Because posters have the unique ability to challenge private attitudes in public, they are hard for the passer-by to ignore. For this reason they are often chosen to draw public attention to provocative advertising in questionable taste (see Chapter 27). Apart from that, advertising agencies generally fail to exploit the emotional context of the medium, and prefer to focus its stopping power on cryptic allusions and riddles. Cigarette brands such as Silk Cut and Benson & Hedges started this surreal fashion in the late 1970s, as advertising restrictions forced them to say and show less and less. Hutchison Telecom launched Orange, a new mobile phone service with solitary words reversed out of black: “Laugh”. “Cry”. “Talk”. “Listen”. These tied into a complementary television commercial which was not greatly more forthcoming. Advertising for the Economist news magazine introduced a minimalist white-out-of-red format in 1988 with cryptic wordplay, e.g. the words “Attracts magnates”. Other serious publications, the Financial Times and the Telegraph, quickly imitated this style.

Radio used to be promoted as the ultimate creative medium, because its dramas are played out in the theatre of the mind, where anything is possible. The classic example peddled by radio time salesmen was the American comic Stan Freberg’s audio simulation of filling Lake Michigan with hot chocolate and dumping whipped cream into it from a B52 bomber, while an ICBM popped the maraschino cherry on top. The punch line was “Let them try that on television”. Today television could visualise that, and any other unlikely exaggeration, though there’s a loss of audience involvement as the imagination plays no part. Although they can have a lot of fun with it, radio is unpopular with “creatives” because most of them are spawned by art colleges, and they have little interest in the non-visual. It’s also hard to win acclaim for radio work. Because it’s non-visual, ephemeral, and cheap, it won’t be reviewed in the advertising trade press.

As they appear within the context of so much light, witless entertainment, the tradition that radio commercials are supposed to be funny has become ingrained. The response of the “creatives” is conditioned: they seem to find it impossible to handle radio advertising without trying to get a laugh. So, when the seriously sexy Häagen-Dazs television and press ads were “adapted” to radio, it could only be done through subversion: the radio campaign mocked the core idea of selling ice-cream through sex. The real creative potential of radio as an advertising medium, its quiet one-to-one intimacy, is largely neglected. It’s not a stage, like TV, more like a counselling room. It harnesses the power of the imagination, and, of course, that most powerful emotional force, music.

Few adults in Britain can hear “Air on a G-String” without thinking of Hamlet cigars and relaxation, nor “Going Home” without conjuring up a nostalgic picture of a northern town and Hovis bread. Yet it took a long time for the British advertising industry to appreciate the emotional valence of music, both classic and popular. The simple trick, of course, is to match the desired emotion to the mood of the music. Nevertheless, it’s a trick often missed, because usually the selection is made not on the character of the music but because the title or the lyrics are appropriate. So “Up on the Roof”, a hymn of urban ghetto escapism, was used in a British Airways television commercial to describe a different kind of upward mobility: the delights which awaited the traveller upstairs in Club Class. The racial theme tune “(Say it Loud) I’m Black and Proud” was borrowed to describe a cup of espresso coffee. While it’s fashionable to decry this custom as vandalising the icons of popular culture, it is the advertisers who run the risk by trying to redirect the appeal of such powerful feelings. Million-selling pop records like “I Heard it on the Grapevine”, “Stand by Me”, or “When a Man Loves a Woman” carry a lot of emotional baggage. If they’re not relevant to the emotional mood of the sales pitch, it will be overwhelmed.

Advertisements which strike the right tone of voice for the brand and its environment powerfully assist their impact. Too often, however, as agencies slavishly follow the latest adfashion, the tone is inappropriate. The presentation must be internally consistent. Misplaced accents garble the message or cloud the impression. This affects both visual and aural elements. The upmarket Nikko hotels chain aimed for a distinctive style in its American advertising, using dark thick-lined drawings in the style of the painter Edward Hopper, an artist indelibly associated with an atmosphere of seedy hopelessness. A campaign aiming to broaden the appeal of the Victoria & Albert Museum as “an ace caff with a nice museum attached” counteracted its demotic appeal by using the sublimely plummy voice of art critic Brian Sewell to deliver this observation.

Over the past couple of decades, conceptions about how advertising works have moved away from specific claims of performance towards associating brands with the right kind of feelings. The ultimate expression of reliance on “tone of voice” is the total abandonment of an explicit message. This new phase in advertising began in Britain on 28 October 1991, with the first commercial sponsorship of a TV drama. The distributor of Croft Port associated its name with the immensely popular drama series Rumpole of the Bailey. The company bought the privilege of book-ending each episode with a five-second animated sequence showing a shadowy bottle of Croft Port transforming first into the sculpture of Liberty on top of the Old Bailey and then into a caricature of Leo McKern, who played the part of the slovenly, cantankerous, claret-snorting barrister. The bibulous Rumpole, of course, offered a natural connection with port, though perhaps not quite the youthful image most alcoholic beverages, even port, seek these days. Yet the marketing manager for the brand felt his outlay of £300,000 was well justified, “We’ve calculated that to get us the same exposure through commercials would cost us closer to £1m”. This advertiser was happy to abandon control over his message. In his calculations he made no allowance for the “effect” a television commercial might have had, as opposed to the values generated by the Rumpole association. This is the embarrassing but logical conclusion which advertising agencies must face because they have abandoned any coherent efforts to establish the true effectiveness of their contribution.


While it’s no substitute for an idea, the manner of delivery is essential for the favourable reception of a message. Four factors determine the right tone of voice for an advertising message: the nature of the consumer, the product field, the brand, and the medium in which the message appears. In effective advertising, all work in harmony.

1 Paraphrased from Carl Hamilton, Absolut: Biography of a Bottle, Texere, 2000.


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