Hostages to fortune

Many have found to their cost that identifying your brand with a benchmark, be it concept or celebrity, is a risky business. As David Bernstein reminds us, comparisons are often odorous

A fat tenor on the telly keeps telling me to ’go compare’. But at school, William Shakespeare advised against. ’Comparisons are odorous,’ says village cop Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing. I took note – and care.

Creatives find them useful. A comparison, whether acting as substitute, surrogate or proxy, can give a brand an added dimension and the reader a new perception. Trouble may arise when the thing with which the brand is compared itself assumes the star role.

This is an occupational hazard with a similar advertising device – borrowed interest – when a comparison is not overtly made but implied. The brand is associated with, for example, a celebrity or an upmarket location. The thing borrowed performs two functions: it attracts attention (thus conveying the impression that the brand is unable to do so unaided), and tries to transfer attributes to the brand. Too often, however, the thing upstages the brand.

Another risk occurs if the comparison is so multi-faceted that the reader is tempted to stray down byways. Both of these difficulties happen in car advertising when a model is equated with a dominant attribute such as beauty and the analogy becomes strained or hard to sustain.

A more worrying risk is malfunction: the comparison does a Tiger Woods and no longer possesses the integrity which encouraged its use in the first place. The phrase ’as safe as houses’ began to lose its common currency during the Blitz, regained it with the postwar building boom and lost it again whenever property prices declined. ’As good as gold,’ on the other hand, will probably survive – and even benefit from – the credit crunch, but will solidity be eternally linked with the Bank of England?

For a current malfunctioning comparison, I refer you to a recent issue of The Week (24 April) and a full-page ad (page 19) for the posh estate agent Hamptons International. Above a shot of a young dad and his son playing football on a garden lawn is part one of the headline: ’An impressive Edwardian homestead enveloped by immaculately groomed lawns.’ Reversed out of the picture is part two: ’All of which can be converted to Wembley at the drop of a jumper.’

I stopped reading as if slide-tackled by John Terry. Were Hamptons telling me that it wouldn’t take much to ruin the greensward? Surely it is Hamptons’ business to monitor the current state of lawns? And the state of Wembley’s has been news for years. Yet here it was in the role of benchmark. Own goal!

I continued reading, turned a couple of pages. The main story began: ’If you want to know why the pitch at Wembley is a “national disgrace” you only have to look at what happened on Saturday,’ said Malcolm Folley in the Mail on Sunday. There followed a catalogue of events that preceded the Saracens-Harlequins (yes, rugby) match: cast members of War Horse ’parked their bus… and delivered a cameo performance’; a pop group performed; a high-wire act did its thing above a group of gymnasts somersaulting 46m below. ’Eventually the match took place, but not before further damage had been done to Wembley’s already abysmal playing surface.’

Folley reminded his readers that the pitch has been relaid ten times since the stadium opened in 2007. I think Hamptons wishes it was as wise as Folley. As for me, I shall continue to compare with caution. In the words of William Blake, ’I will not reason and compare. My business is to create.’
David Bernstein was founder of The Creative Business and is a creative consultant

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