The new year could hardly have got off to a better start for marketing. The howling, baying, drunken mob who formed the audience at Carlton Television’s much derided national debate on the monarchy were carefully chosen by market research companies, proving beyond doubt that the industry knows its stuff.
Many of the panel, however, were ungrateful. Former transport minister Steven Norris walked out before the programme began, complaining that the atmosphere was a cross between a pantomime and a beer garden (should that have been beargarden?). Sir Bernard Ingham huffed and wheezed his disapproval, and the journalist Ann Leslie was beside herself with disgust.
“One member of the audience,” she says, “his piggy eyes scrunched up in rage, his hands forming a trumpet round his cavernous mouth kept yelling, ‘Wot abaht democracy! Off! Off! Off! Shaddup! Shaddup!’ My God, I thought – this thug has a vote.”
Thriller writer Frederick Forsyth dismissed piggy eyes and his 2,999 fellow citizens assembled for the occasion at the NEC in Birmingham as unrepresentative. “Anyone who is willing to get into a charabanc and be driven on a round trip of 300 miles to take part, for no money, in something like this is not your average person,” he explained to Miss Leslie.
Well, Mr Forsyth knows a lot about thriller writing but not too much about marketing. Steve Clark, Carlton’s controller of factual programmes, put him right. “I would take issue with claims that the audience were not a fair representation of the public. We spent more than four months with research teams to make sure we had the right ethnic and social classes.”
The misunderstanding arises because the 39 panelists were drawn from what used to be called the intelligentsia but is today better described as the chattering classes. It is common for such people to belittle advertising and marketing as worthless occupations not far removed from huckstering. How little they know. It takes skill, learning, expertise, analysis, artistry and craft to divine the workings of the rabble.
Mars, for example, in a recent advertisement for graduate recruits, explains that its continuing success “stems from the vision, professionalism, and sheer hard work of a team dedicated to winning…We want to hear from enthusiastic, graduate calibre individuals who are looking for an exciting career challenge”.
By coincidence, on the same day the ad appeared, the company announced that, after 38 years, it was dropping its famous slogan, “A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play” in favour of a campaign designed to appeal to women. The new TV ads feature an old American Indian struggling to climb a mountain with his son. He says: “Son, this is a good day to die.” He lies down exhausted. As his son moves to cover him with a blanket, a Mars bar falls from the young man’s pocket. The old Indian eats the bar and a voiceover says: “There is nothing like the great taste for Mars – it’s the taste for life.”
The Indian, revived, turns to his son with a tear in his eye and says: “Son, it would be really cool if you fixed me up with Little Flower.”
Now, to Ann Leslie, Frederick Forsyth, Bernard Ingham and others, it might seem incomprehensible that women will be attracted by a few seconds of film showing an ancient and withered Native American (as we are now advised to call them) miraculously transformed from near-death to lubricious life by eating a sickly item of confectionery. How little they know.
A spokesman for the company, whose vision, professionalism and hard work has got them where they are today, says: “We hope that the blend of humour with an emotional approach will appeal to women.”
It doesn’t do for lay people to delve too deeply into the subtleties of another’s profession, but the intelligentsia may be assured that, however absurd it may seem, a now-he’s-dead-now-he’s-not aboriginal with horny intent will have women running to get their teeth round a Mars bar. There’s nothing mysterious about that, provided you understand these matters.
Similarly, there was no mistake in the audience selection at the NEC. Teams of marketing researchers laboured for no less than four months to bring to our screens a wholly representative sample of the ill-educated, intemperate, intolerant, loud-mouthed, boorish, fun-loving riff-raff that comprises the admass.
How absurd of Miss Leslie and her colleagues to say what they wanted, and expected, was a reasoned debate. If that’s what you want, you don’t invite the public. Even more foolish was the assumption that television is capable of providing a forum for measured and constructive argument. Television is for the admass: they feed off each other, they understand each other perfectly.
The veteran broadcaster Sir Robin Day, cuts a rather sorry figure as he laments the ineluctable evolution of the institution which he helped to form. “The programme,” he says, “consisted of two hours of ignorance, distortion, prejudice, half-truths, crude assertion, bad temper and cheap personal abuse… If the monarchy debate was a foretaste of future television discussion in an election year, God help this country.”
So Sir Robin joins Ann Leslie calling on the Almighty to unfold the baffling mystery of the crass ignorance and ugliness of the nation’s voters. But there is no need to invoke the Divine. Just ask someone in marketing.