New dawn for cinema signals the end of kitsch commercials

Cinema was once a ghetto of amateurish advertising for local business, but all that is over now as the industry broadens its appeal, says Nick Higham. Nick Higham is media correspondent for BBC News.

They were once an inescapable part of any trip to the cinema: those scratched and muffled ads, colours washed out from over-use, which advertised the town’s restaurants and car showrooms in your local fleapit.

Local businesses got the chance to put their name and address, or sometimes a blurred photo of the beaming manager and his staff, on the end of a piece of stock footage (or “rolling stock” in the jargon) promoting the generic virtues of travel agencies, DIY stores and Indian restaurants. It was meant to be a perfect marriage: the production values of national advertising combined with the relevance of local.

There was the ad for the kitchen equipment shop which showed a housewife in her shabby kitchen, her bored child playing idly with a hammer and a piggy bank at the kitchen table (as one’s children do). She dreams of a perfect kitchen, “like the ones you see on the telly”. Cue one of those wavy dissolves to reveal our heroine, looking like a princess, in a gleaming new kitchen, triumphantly announcing that her dreams have come true – “and it didn’t break the piggy bank”. Cut to close-up of the child’s hammer smashing the piggy bank.

Or there was the restaurant advertisement which featured a sequence of impossibly seductive images, from champagne fizzing into the glass, through a chef flambéing and convivial diners laughing, to the male half of a couple at a table removing his date’s elbow-length glove with his teeth. When did you last see a woman in elbow-length gloves, let alone one prepared to ruin an expensive item of haberdashery by letting her boyfriend chew them at Table 22?

No real restaurant could ever be so seductive. The bald caption promoting the bistro across the road was always going to be an anti-climax after such a build-up. And that, in these days of ironic post-modernism, was part of the commercials’ charm. They were bathetic. The mismatch between the exotic images of the stock footage and the down-to-earth reality of the Balti Curry House, just a few minutes’ walk from this theatre, was too great.

You can still see such ads, but not for much longer. Changing fashions, competition from other local advertising media, and changing cinema-going habits have put paid to them. Carlton Screen Advertising, which had a library of 16 stock commercials, stopped offering them to advertisers last week. Its only rival, Pearl & Dean (which has 30 per cent of the cinema advertising market, to CSA’s 70 per cent), stopped some while back. Some of the ads are still running, but in future local advertisers will have to make do with a simple sequence of slides.

Local advertising has been squeezed by a combination of factors. Adam Poulter, chief executive of CSA, says only 20 per cent of the cinemas his company represents now carry local advertising at all – and of those, most carry only one rolling stock advertisement every year.

One reason is that they aren’t cost-effective for the advertiser. Local radio and local press are cheaper: the production costs of making a 35mm cinema commercial, even using stock footage, simply can’t compare.

The arrival of the multiplex has had an impact too. They run less minutage – six or seven, rather than the 12 or 15 minutes of ads – and there’s quite enough demand from national advertisers to fill that. What’s more, multiplexes draw their audiences from a wider catchment: purely local advertising for retailers and restaurants is less relevant.

And, though neither Poulter nor his opposite number at Pearl & Dean, Peter Howard-Williams, actually say so, the sheer naffness of the old local ads looks out of place in a medium which has otherwise succeeded in promoting an image of modern dynamism, as befits one with a significant demographic skew towards younger, more upmarket consumers.

As cinema admissions continue surging, from 88 million in 1989 to a projected 135 million this year, and as cinema revenue hits 84m (including production costs), anything that smacks of the old cottage industry is perhaps unwelcome.

It’s a problem for other media, too, notably local radio – where the quality of local commercials sometimes grates by comparison with the high production values of national advertising.

Cinema is making serious efforts to improve its image and broaden its appeal. Writing in this magazine last week on the proposed new Cinema Advertising Bureau (which, it’s hoped, will do for the medium what the Radio Advertising Bureau did for radio), Howard-Williams spoke of the need for stronger branding for the medium in the face of increased competition.

With the writing now on the wall for one of cinema’s advertising staples – cigarettes – in the wake of the European tobacco advertising ban, the medium needs a clear image. It also needs to clear the decks to concentrate on developing new types of business in areas like cosmetics and cars.

The old local commercials were getting in the way and muddling the proposition, which is why they’ve had to go – even if lovers of movie kitsch will miss them sorely.

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