Last week saw Sir John Heggarty proclaiming most modern advertising to be sh*t. Perhaps there's something in the bracing Spring air, because this week ITV's commercial boss Simon Daglish has warned brands that '90% of content is crap'. Some livewires have suggested this is a 'Ratner' moment, recalling the time when the jewellery king called one of his tea trays 'absolute crap'.
It isn't, because Daglish isn't rubbishing ITV's output. He's referring to the shabby efforts of corporations to engage consumers via social messaging - specifically the idea that advertisers could commission programming or content with the express intent of promoting brands. And, on the whole, he's right.
In the UK, there is no tradition of TV shows funded directly by advertisers. Obviously, all commercial broadcasters use advertiser money to make their shows, but in most cases the advertisers have no influence on the creative process or format. It's different in the USA, where 'infomercials' are very common and interminable. Indeed, we call serial dramas 'soap operas' because they originated in America and were co-produced with detergent manufacturers.
"Most consumers don't give a hoot about the companies from which they buy their stuff."
That said, ITV has had a bash at directly advertiser-funded programmes and have failed.
Daglish reasons that most consumers don't give a hoot about the companies from which they buy their stuff and certainly do not want a one-to-one relationship with them. He's exaggerating to make a point, but I know what he means. Witness the Twitter 'Q&A' sessions various pop stars and products have deployed, in order to connect with an audience. The promoter of the session envisages a benign conversation, in which fans ask enthusiastic, upbeat questions. In reality, the participants often take the chance to post awkward or sarcastic queries and the process collapses. Recently, this has created very visible and embarrassing negative exposure for X-Factor winner James Arthur. And whoever suggested British Gas, at the height of bad feeling towards utility companies, to face their public on Twitter, should have long lie-down. The vitriol and abuse this attracted was both predictable and inevitable.
Of course, there is no danger of advertisers deserting the social platforms. For one thing, they are terrified their competitors will unlock the magic of these systems in their absence. Nevertheless, they are going to experience considerable pain if they don't smarten up their approach.
I remember a healthcare client asking me to put together an email campaign for them. Their idea was to send out a message a word at a time. In the wrong order. The recipient would then be required to print out all the emails and re-assemble the words to spell out a sentence. The client was amazed when I pointed out that nobody would bother to even read the instructions, let alone do the puzzle. They felt sure their 'household' name would be sufficient to spur the public into action.
This is a perfect example of advertisers' over-confidence. In my experience, big brands overestimate people's interest in their activities by a factor of about 100. This is what Simon Daglish is explaining. Even the mighty Apple, who probably have the best relationship with their users of all the famous brands, would have to admit their strongest connection is with a relatively small cross section of hipsters, designers and techies.
It's an uncomfortable truth, but customers' affection for brands is marginal. And in many cases, consumers actively dislike corporations and their messages. Invading their lives via tailored TV or social media will do little to change this. Persuading an audience to act still relies on those old dependables: value for money, product benefits and uniqueness. Without those elements, no amount of 'interaction' will drive sales.
In 2003, when the illusionist David Blaine suspended himself over the Thames in a perspex box for 44 days, he thought the public would arrive in their droves to pay homage and convey their good wishes. Instead, they made the journey to throw eggs at him. Unless brands begin to understand the true nature of their relationship with consumers, and build content accordingly, they lay themselves open to the same effect. That's only good news if you're an egg producer.
Magnus Shaw is a copywriter, blogger and consultant