Ads can’t cure vocational ills

This week the chairman of the Police Federation, Fred Broughton, gave voice to a familiar threnody on the eve of the annual Coppers’ Conference. The police service is in crisis: it simply can’t command the quality and number of recruits it needs to do its job properly.

His call is echoed not only along the increasingly attenuated thin blue line, but in all vocational careers; most notably the teaching and nursing professions. The picture is essentially the same: a depressing scenario of dwindling pay, job satisfaction and morale. It’s no surprise, then, that the pool of new recruits is also diminishing. Police numbers are down 2,500 since 1993; the teaching profession is struggling to sign up 30,000 new recruits a year; and so hopeless is the situation of nurses that hospitals are looking abroad to fill over 15,000 vacancies.

It is this challenging brief that the advertising industry, almost single-handedly, is being asked to solve while the politicians wring their hands on the sidelines and make rhetorical capital out of each others’ ineptitude.

The brief is certainly seductive, implying that advertising is not only responsible, but also capable of solving social problems. Moreover, the intellectual content is creatively satisfying; an agency handling such an account can expect, for good or ill, to enjoy a high profile. But is it not social management by sellotape? And should marketing really be allowed into such terrain when it is not properly supported?

The surprising truth is that recruitment advertising has a very good pedigree, dating back to Lord Kitchener’s imperious demand for self-sacrifice in the trenches of 1915. And it’s by no means all historical. Saatchi & Saatchi’s “Be the Best” campaign for the contemporary professional army has justly won awards. The figures prove its effectiveness: over four years, recruitment in the ranks nearly doubled.

Campaigns aimed at other public services, however, have met with less clear success. Delaney Lund Knox Warren’s efforts on behalf of the Teacher Training Agency, for

example, stimulated response, but failed to achieve good conversion rates. And last year, Saatchi & Saatchi, perhaps frustrated by the intractable nature of the brief, managed to inflame passions within the nursing profession by falsely claiming that average, full-time nurses could earn more than &£20,000 a year. The claim was withdrawn after ITC intervention. Let’s hope that new campaigns from McCann-Erickson for the TTA and from the winner of the first national police recruitment campaign are a little more tactful.

Ads, as admen are fond of telling us, can only reflect the society we live in – and never is this more true than in the case of recruitment for public services. They cannot appeal to worldly wealth and comfort, only to a sense of duty, social respect and self-fulfilment. Sadly, the reality is no longer that fulfilling or commanding of respect, while duty began to seep out of British society shortly after Kitchener’s appeal propelled tens of thousands to their death on the Somme.

This is not the fault of advertising. It should not be used to prop up the careers of politicians who cannot find a better solution to social problems.

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