Is there such a thing as too much empathy? 

Back in the 1970s, a less politically correct age, there was a standby formula for television advertising known as 2Cs in a K, which would feature two women by a washing machine engaged in unlikely conversation about some wondrous new detergent. Since The Spectator is a family publication, I shall pretend that 2Cs in a K stood for two ‘consumers’ in a kitchen, although it did not. If you are still trying to puzzle this out, the male equivalent is two dicks near a fence, a routine in which one man implausibly explains to his neighbour the many virtues of a particular woodstain, say, or one of those natty electric

Mad Men in the movies: ten films about advertising

This week Mad Men celebrates the 15th anniversary of the show’s debut. Elmer Wheeler’s famous phrase about the science of advertising holds as true today as it did when he originated it almost a century ago: ‘Don’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle.’ Matthew Weiner’s series cast the advertising profession under a jaundiced eye, examining the mores and morays of Madison Avenue advertising executives from 1960 to late 1970. The show made Jon Hamm (as Don Draper aka Dick Whitman) a star, as well as boosting the careers of other regular cast members including Elisabeth Moss, John Slattery, Jared Harris, and Christina Hendricks. It would be fair to say that

The myth of the typical Brexit voter

In Jake’s Thing, Kingsley Amis gave it a name: he called it ‘the inverted pyramid of piss’: ‘One of [Geoffrey Mabbott’s] specialities was the inverted pyramid of piss, a great parcel of attitudes, rules and catchwords resting on one tiny (if you looked long and hard enough) point. Thus it was established beyond any real doubt that his settled antipathy to all things Indian, from books and films about the Raj, to Mrs Gandhi… was rooted in Alcestis’s second husband’s mild fondness for curries.’ It’s high time this phrase was revived, because piss pyramids are everywhere. We assumed more data would help humanity settle its differences: in reality it often

The irresistible lure of classified ads

The great thing about classified ads is that they have not usually been created by an agency — so what you get is the advertiser’s own best efforts to announce themselves, and what they have to offer, in just 20 words or so. You can glean a lot from what they say, and not always in the way intended. Take this particularly telling example from the Spectator personal ads a couple of years ago: ‘Looking to meet woman on HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy).’ That he added (and paid for) the last three words tells you more than he could ever understand. Others are far more engaging — like the ‘charismatic

The Mozarts of ad music

It’s Christmas 2020 and Kevin the Carrot is on a mission. Snow swirls, ice glistens and roast turkeys and cold cuts wait on the table, bathed in cosy firelight. The visual symbols of Christmas are all present and correct in the big Aldi seasonal advert, but what pulls them together is the music. A hint of John Williams on a solo horn, a burst of swashbuckling rhythm; symphonic strings as our vegetable hero makes it home. It’s all there, sumptuously scored and precisely gauged to make you feel that in 30 seconds, you’ve experienced an epic. And then, of course, to go out and buy parsnips. ‘I was lucky, because

The art of the public information ad

Bring back the Tufty Club. Bring back the Green Cross Code. Bring back ‘Charley says’. Bring back ‘Only a fool breaks the two-second rule’. Bring back Vinnie Jones and ‘Stayin’ Alive’. Bring back the Country Code and ‘Always take your litter home’. Bring back public information films. Bring back the Central Office of Information. For younger readers, I probably need to explain what the hell I am talking about. Tufty was created for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, and was an implausibly sensible young squirrel whose behaviour (in contrast to the foolish antics of the louche Willy Weasel) gave lessons to children on road sense. At its

The truth behind the election’s so-called fact checkers

All election campaigns see politicians exaggerate, stretch the truth and make promises they can’t keep. But if a report issued in early December is anything to go by, the 2019 general election campaign was a particularly dishonest affair – and one party was particularly guilty. On 10 December, Metro reported: Similarly, the Independent reported: Websites which make no attempt to be impartial were more vociferous. Under the headline, The Tory war on truth – and how to fight back, Open Democracy reported: Independent fact checkers have found that 88% of Tory Facebook adverts contain lies, while 0% of Labour’s do. After the election, the (admittedly risible) Canary asserted that: The 2019 election was won on the back of lies

Just do it

Am I allowed to mention Nigel Farage? Of course I am, this is The Spectator, and its readers enjoy analysing all kinds of people and ideas, even those they find unpalatable. Readers of Campaign, however, aren’t quite as broad-minded. Campaign is the trade magazine of the advertising industry, and when it published an interview with Farage some of its readers went into meltdown. Why? Surely Farage is the ideal subject for Campaign. He’s connected with millions of loyal consumers in ways other brands can only dream of. You’d think that people in the advertising world would want to hear how he did it, given that building brands and connecting with

The service station problem: it’s becoming impossible to correct a mistake

My first award for intelligent design this week goes to Dublin airport for displaying a sign which reads ‘Lounges. Turn back. No lounges beyond this point.’ It may seem like a trivial thing, but it takes a rare intelligence to think in this way. It’s one thing to put up a sign that says ‘Lounges, this way’. But it takes nous to think ‘yes, well and good, but what happens if people see the first sign but miss the second one?’ In all likelihood, they would end up walking 500 yards in the wrong direction, as I nearly did. Signage and wayfinding are mostly designed for people who never make

Tell us what we want

We live in a logic-obsessed world, from computer modelling of the economy to businesses run by spreadsheets. But we also know, from decades of behavioural economics and evolutionary psychology research, humans are not robots. The social world is not a machine but a complex system. In Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas that Don’t Make Sense, Rory Sutherland, vice chairman of Ogilvy and columnist for The Spectator, explains how to crack the magic underlying our humanity. Humans evolved to justify their instinctive decisions to others, not to prove what is right and wrong. Those who could defend their actions were more likely to survive. We use reason sparingly, selectively and

The art of persuasion | 23 May 2019

People sometimes ask what slogan could have swayed the Brexit vote: the opposite of the touchstone phrase ‘Take back control’. There are many suggestions, my own being: ‘Don’t leave — it’s what the French want us to do.’ No Europhile committee would ever have approved a jingoistic slogan, of course; yet the feelings of committed Europeans are irrelevant. Those people will vote Remain in any case. Instead you need to reach the ambivalent, sceptical or mildly hostile. This raises the central question about communication: do you want to feel good about yourself, or do you want to change the minds of others? The art of sloganeering can serve two powerful

Banksy’s stunt wasn’t even original – and why we should support ads on Sydney Opera House

It was announced last week that the woman who bought Banksy’s ‘Girl With Balloon’ will be going through with the purchase. And who could blame her? The prospect of owning a piece of ‘art history’, as she called it, is an enticing one to any investor, regardless of its condition. The video documenting Banksy’s triumph has clocked over 12 million views since it was uploaded to his Instagram account, and one could certainly argue it highlights the disconnect between the intrinsic value of art and that ascribed to it by ever-changing tastes. But it would be wrong to give artistic credit for what is essentially a publicity stunt. Not least

Deep and meaningless

Walking down the street on my lunch break, I sometimes pass a delivery man wheeling a large handcart of Japanese food. The cart bears a striking message: ‘Creating a world where everyone believes in their own authenticity.’ It raises some immediate questions: for instance, what does it mean to believe in your own authenticity? How would you go about creating a world where everyone does? And what’s it got to do with Japanese food? It’s unfair to single out the delivery service. Today, brands big and small have a Profound Statement to make. On my way home I pass a 30ft electronic billboard which displays a young couple embracing beneath

Classified information

Now here’s a series that would make a brilliant podcast but is also classic Radio 4 — they don’t have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, why can’t podcasts be more like Radio 4? Programmes where the presenter’s role is to draw out the knowledge of experts, and the pace is measured, allowing the fascination of what’s being revealed to make an impact before leaping on, and where there’s no background music except when it adds to the timbre, the meaning, the purpose. Each episode of Classified Britain (produced by John Forsyth) is only 15 minutes long, so not too demanding of one’s time, and yet a lot of information

Can WPP’s model survive without Martin Sorrell in charge?

I said last week that WPP chief executive Sir Martin Sorrell was in ‘a very exposed position’. Sure enough on Saturday he resigned from the global advertising giant he created and had run for more than 32 years. ‘But he didn’t “create” it,’ one ex-employee told me, illustrating the internal resentments that seem to have contributed to Sorrell’s downfall. ‘He just made a lot of acquisitions and counted the pennies.’ Whatever he did or didn’t do, his departure was undignified and ill-explained. After he’d gone, WPP’s board announced that its investigation into an allegation of financial misconduct against him had concluded, but ‘did not involve amounts that are material’ and

We need to start telling the image censors to back off

Almost two and a half years ago, feminists called on Transport for London to remove adverts of a scantily-clad Australian from the tube. Protests against the infamous ‘beach body ready’ adverts claimed that showcasing a woman in a bikini to peddle weight-loss pills was offensive to women. Apparently the sight of a skinny woman was upsetting to all of us non-skinny women. And, after pressure from London Mayor Sadiq Khan in 2016, TfL promised to ban all adverts which didn’t adhere to the notion of ‘body positivity’. Not all women were happy about the ban. Back then, I, and other commentators, warned that giving TfL the power to decide which

Vital signs

Exhibit A. It is 1958 and you are barrelling down a dual carriageway; the 70 mph limit is still eight years away. The road signs are nearly illegible. You miss your turning, over-correct, hit a tree and die. The following year, graphic designer Margaret Calvert is driving her Porsche 356c along the newly built M1. The motorway signs are hers. It is information design of a high order, possibly even life-saving. The clarity and intelligence of Calvert’s British road signs remain unmatched nearly 60 years later. And the font she created became the NHS, and later rail and airport, standard. Exhibit B. The French are worried about nuclear waste. Given

Is the ASA brave enough to ban adverts for children?

We all know that advertising is the work of the devil – creating entirely spurious wants, including in small children – but making it gender neutral doesn’t help. The Advertising Standards Authority is extending its brief to ensure that advertising does not confirm unhelpful sex stereotypes. That is to say, it is going to ban advertisements suggesting that little girls want to be ballerinas (Aptamil) or showing Lynda Bellingham at the stove (Bisto). Guy Parker of the ASA says, ‘advertising standards can play an important role in tackling inequalities and improving outcomes for individuals, the economy and society as a whole’; the ASA will make sure it does by stigmatising the

Why we need paper promises

When you get into a taxi, there’s usually a framed sheet of paper describing what you pay for your trip: the cost of every mile travelled at different times of day, and the price of waiting time. As digital screens become ever cheaper, it won’t be long before someone suggests that there is no need to have these things any more. Instead a button will appear on the taxi’s new seatback touchscreen which will reveal the tariff when pressed. All very sensible, you may think. Except for this. The nature of a promise displayed on paper is subtly different to a promise displayed on a screen. Anything writ in liquid

Paradise lost | 9 March 2017

The American dream was a consumerist idyll: all of life was to be packaged, stylised, affordable and improvable. Three bedrooms, two-point-five children, two cars and one mortgage. The sense was first caught by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America (1835–40), where he talks about a people more excited by success than fearful of failure. We all know when the dream died: on 9 November 2016. People in Brooklyn were crying. In Manhattan they couldn’t breathe. A national angst had been revealed: the land of plenty had become the land of the plenty cross. But when did the dream start? There was the Jeffersonian trinity of life, liberty and the