INDUSTRY Viewpoint

Jeremy Hook, Director of advertising, American Express

This was an engaging campaign, based on a difficult brief. The use of caricature and humour, in the form of Hector the Tax Inspector and other cartoon characters, communicated in a refreshing way the changing face of the Inland Revenue. It also achieved its principal objective of generating awareness of the new self-assessment tax regime.

The quirky cartoon format of the TV campaign made a strong impact in a cluttered medium and transformed the Revenue’s rather dry and staid profile at a stroke.

Despite Hector’s old-fashioned appearance as a pin-striped and bowler-hatted taxman, he, and the Revenue, came across as friendly, self-deprecating and reassuring. The danger that both the Revenue and its self-assessment message would be taken less seriously as a result of the cartoon format appears to have been averted.

However, at times the images were too entertaining, with the characters – and Hector in particular – taking on a life of their own. In a similar way to Wallace and Gromit, each TV ad had a wealth of detail that bore repeated watching. It took a keen eye to pick up all the things happening around Hector while he was delivering the key messages: a mouse under his bed stealing a piece of cheese from a mousetrap; a budgie falling off its perch; or Hector’s secretary abandoning her PC in favour of tackling her packed lunch.

It could be argued that these visuals got the upper hand in the competition for the viewer’s attention, distracting them from the key message. However, you could equally claim that the freshness of the ads gave the campaign a longer shelf life, encouraged repeated watching and consequently got the message across through repetition.

Hector turned the traditional unsympathetic image of the taxman on its head. In the ads he speaks directly and at times almost apologetically to get his point across. This disguised the subtle urgency of the underlying message about self-assessment. References were made to nasty shocks, losing sleep and financial penalties in an attempt to encourage viewers to respond.

But while the TV ads worked well, the posters were less clear – the self-assessment branding was weaker and they relied heavily on a knowledge of the TV campaign to deliver the message.

While the introduction of self-assessment and the invitation to call for free advice were both clearly communicated, the campaign left some questions unanswered. For example: key advice to ‘keep records from April’ was relegated to a line on the envelope that appeared at the close of the commercial rather than in the body of the script.

Consequently the moment of truth for the consumer is likely to come when they telephone the Inland Revenue and realise the practical requirements of the new regime. Fortunately, Hector is a campaignable and potentially enduring character, and has a strong enough image to support substantial activity in the future, both above and below the line.

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