The biggest gamble

Who needs high-concept advertising stunts and sophisticated viral marketing when there are good old sheet metal ads? Hugh Pearman moots a return to more permanent methods

’It’s time for a new kind of advertising.’ Wasn’t that how the rookie agency Saatchi and Saatchi first announced itself, full-page, in The Times, back in the mists of time? An ad with an awful lot of words. An ad you were supposed to sit down and read. The point was not so much that you would read it, but that it was different.

There was a bit of a fad at one time for ad agencies to advertise themselves, something you hardly ever see any more. They have retreated to being back-room types, except at election time when they are given a totally spurious importance – since nobody pays a blind bit of attention to those stupid political billboards, except to laugh at them.

But real, everyday advertising defines our entire world. We can’t escape it, nor would we wish to. It has existed for as long as there have been events and products and services to sell – which explains why photographs of Victorian cities invariably show the buildings and streets festooned with ads. I have a lot of admiration for the early ’permanent’ ads – of the stove-enamelled sheet-metal variety, extolling the virtues of Fry’s Cocoa or whatever. And I’m told that ads were commonplace in Ancient Rome, Greece and Egypt, so this is a truly venerable trade.

But it obviously goes a lot further than public billboards. Newspapers were more or less invented in order to carry advertisements, as was independent television (’a licence to print money’) and the modern ’colour supplement’, as the newspaper magazines used to be called. My strongest memory of the newspapers of my childhood is of the cigarette ad that always appeared on the back of the Sunday colour supplement. Consulate was cool as a mountain stream, apparently, and there was always a happy bunch of young hipsters pushing a Mini Moke across a mountain stream to prove it. Didn’t help Consulate in the long run – whatever happened to mentholated cigarettes? Come to that, I never knew anyone who smoked that brand, so the saturation advertising was a big fail.

Of course, advertising has always exploited whatever technology is available, to the maximum. If all you can do is paint a slogan on a rock, then that’s what you do. And if you can send out viral messages via social networking sites, then you do. Or employ actors to dress up as cute animals, or to stand on a street corner holding a sign saying ’Golf sale’. Everything can work. And everything can fail.

The oddest one I came across, however, was one morning on my way to work. The petrol station at the bottom of the road had been taken over and covered in camouflage netting. People dressed as mercenaries were marshalling long queues of traffic. That morning, they announced, the petrol was free – for as long as supplies lasted. They lasted two hours. The event was filmed, and presumably put out on YouTube and suchlike. All manner of alerts had been deployed to pre-publicise the event so people knew to turn up.

Such a shame I’d left my car at home, and was on my bike. But then I wasn’t the target consumer. The ad in question turned out to be, not for petrol, but a computer game with a jungle-military theme. The whole slightly-too-clever set-up was what some call ’high concept’.

So what’s next? It’s time, as the Saatchis once said, for a new kind of advertising. Again. If I were in the brainstorming meeting about this, I know what I’d propose as a future-proofed medium/ stove-enamelled sheet steel.

Hugh Pearman is an architecture and design critic whose house is full of Arne Jacobsen door handles, most of them on doors

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