You're probably familiar with the magazine Private Eye. If not, you just need to know it's the longest running satirical publication in the UK (maybe the world), is edited by Ian Hislop from 'Have I Got News For You', and is still remarkably fresh, irreverent and funny after 53 years in print.
I've read Private Eye since I was a teenager and greatly look forward to its slap on my hall floor every fortnight. It's hard to say which are its best columns, but I would highlight 'HP Sauce' - fearlessly covering failings in the House of Commons, 'Street of Shame' - exposing the press to scrutiny, and Rotten Boroughs - shining a light into the murky world of local government. There's a regular feature on the advertising industry too: Ad Nauseum. As is the Private Eye tradition, all writers are anonymous, so I have no idea who produces the piece - it may well be several people. It is usually very astute and revealing, so I'm surprised to find the latest effort doesn't quite live up to the promise.
Attempting to uncover hidden embarrassments and failings in the ad game, for some reason it misses its targets by a country mile.
First up is a report on the ASA banning of an ad from Ladbrokes, which showed the statue Christ The Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro wearing a sponsored football shirt. Obviously, the World Cup tournament is over now, so the ban is ludicrous - fair point. But the column goes on to say that the decision was doubly daft as the ASA allowed the humanist bus-side campaign which read: 'There's Probably No God.' I'm always very sceptical about the ASA's decisions, but I think the Eye is wrong here. It didn't offend me, but the Ladbrokes ad was driven by levity and could reasonably be seen as disrespectful. In contrast, the work from the humanists made a thoughtful comment on the nature of belief. The comparison isn't a valid one.
"The column mocks Talk Talk, claiming their ads will simply interrupt enjoyment."
Next, attention turns to phone company Talk Talk - which has spent £10m sponsoring The X Factor for three years. The column mocks this situation, claiming the ads will simply interrupt the enjoyment of the show and are, therefore, a waste of money. But that is true of any television advertising. The whole point is to disrupt the viewers' attention with the sponsor's message. As this has been the case since the 1950s, it's a bit late to claim it as a gross mistake. There's also a comment suggesting the use of the audience's own videos is an afterthought, designed to save money. This is highly unlikely. The whole campaign will have been closely and carefully planned long before broadcast. What's more, the deployment of crowd-sourced material is exactly where advertising is focused right now, cheaper or not.
Finally, the writer(s) go for Ikea. The retailer's typically left-field new campaign uses a concept whereby couples are hypnotised to see their unborn children. One pair see their daughter grow up to marry a hippy guru and bring him home to meet them. Oddly, Private Eye believes this idea has been filched from a BBC3 comedy called 'Cuckoo'. I say 'oddly' because, as the magazine acknowledges, the ad comes from a Swedish agency called Forsman & Bodenfors. Are we really to believe creatives in Sweden spend hours watching low-profile, British shows on digital channels, the better to generate ideas? Possible, but most unlikely.
I have no doubt there are hundreds of scandalous, amusing and eccentric stories to be pulled from the advertising business on any given week. I can think of a good dozen right now; it's that sort of industry. Private Eye has proven itself capable of finding and publishing them, but this current column smacks of desperation. As well as anyone, I know the pressing impetus to produce articles to a deadline. Nevertheless, if one is to be the scourge of everything nonsensical in advertising, it's essential your criticisms are highly sharpened and clearly valid. Otherwise you end up looking more silly than those you're lampooning.
Magnus Shaw is a blogger, copywriter and consultant