ITV has got the message and is starting to respond

After years of battering from other media – particularly radio – ITV has come out of its corner fighting, with new research and a readiness to listen. By Torin Douglas

The Empire has struck back. After years of simply absorbing the punches, as the Radio Advertising Bureau forced advertisers to question the value of their television expenditure, ITV finally came out fighting last week.

On Monday, in the suitably serious surroundings of a lecture theatre at the British Museum, ITV unveiled research explaining why (note “why”, not “whether”) television is the most powerful medium. Professor Geoffrey Beattie, head of the Department of Psychology at the University of Manchester, unveiled “TV and the Brain – a unique study on the power of television”.

This was a serious study, which appeared to show that the brain finds audio-visual messages easier to process than either text or speech alone, so the messages are processed more quickly and retained longer. Unfortunately, in trying to put this important finding across to advertisers and agencies in the lecture theatre and, presumably, the tabloid press outside, Beattie fell victim to the soundbite culture.

“The brain simply likes television,” he concluded. “No wonder it is the world’s favourite medium.”

I turned to his biography in the press pack: “His television appearances include Big Brother, Life’s Too Short, Lorraine Kelly on Sky, Richard and Judy and Tomorrow’s World.” So presumably television is his favourite medium, too. But he’s also a Fellow of the British Psychological Society and a winner of its medal for work of outstanding merit. Four of his 13 books have won, or been shortlisted for, major prizes – and beyond the soundbite, he spoke authoritatively.

Most of the audience to whom I spoke were impressed by the finding that the combination of speech and gesture is what seems to give television the edge. In one case, viewers exposed to a single audio-visual message had 166 per cent better product recall than when exposed to an audio or text message for the same product.

The audience also liked his analysis of some current commercials, in which he demonstrated that presenters such as Ainsley Harriott and Michael Winner – presumably after dozens of rehearsals and takes – were making unnatural gestures, which didn’t communicate the product message clearly at all. In one case, the movement seemed to be conveying the exact opposite of what was intended.

What impressed me was that ITV commissioned the research at all, since for most of the past 30 years it has seemed to take television’s supremacy for granted. While newspapers, magazines, outdoor, direct mail and – most successfully – radio have commissioned research demonstrating their strengths and TV’s weaknesses, TV’s brand leader has rarely bothered to respond.

Now it has begun the process, as part of an overall repositioning under marketing director Jim Hytner, which shows that – despite its undoubted problems – ITV is becoming more responsive to the concerns of viewers and advertisers.

A few hours after the British Museum lecture, some of the biggest clients and agency folk could be found mingling with stars, producers and politicians at the West End premiere of Dr Zhivago, ITV1’s latest prestige costume drama. The message seemed to be that they had paid for it, so they deserved thanks and recognition.

The new approach – which began with the Television Matters conference earlier this year, featuring the Princess Royal, Terry Venables and Professor Beattie among others – can now be seen on the screen in ITV’s new idents, featuring major stars and the ITV brand rather than those of the individual companies.

The blue and yellow look, with its “three plus one” motif, can also be seen off-screen in ITV’s publicity material and even in its offices. There are three blue chairs and one yellow in the reception at ITV Network Centre, and even the fish tank is coloured three parts blue to one part yellow. Does it change the fishes’ behaviour? A question for Professor Beattie, I think.

ITV’s change of identity is less fundamental than Five’s recent rebranding, but its overall activity explains why Hytne

r found himself high on the list of creative leaders in the FT Creative Business section recently, even though ITV itself has been floundering.

It has been an eventful period for television’s marketing community. One of its undoubted stars, Channel 4 head of strategy David Brook, has departed to set up his own venture as part of the slimming-down instigated by the new chief executive Mark Thompson. Brook and his former boss Michael Jackson have been criticised over Channel 4’s earlier expansion strategy, a view challenged last week by Jackson in the Media Guardian: “I think there’s an element of management text-book about that. Make the past look as gloomy as possible so that the future will look rosy by comparison.” Brook’s own detailed plans are awaited eagerly.

Meanwhile, the BBC’s marketing team, under Andy Duncan, has been firing on all cylinders, making best use of the generous budget at its disposal. From the World Cup and the Commonwealth Games to Great Britons and the Freeview campaign, it has been delivering high creative impact and results. Last week, it had a rare reverse when David Attenborough’s Life of Mammals, subject of one of the BBC’s “big 12” campaigns of the year, came off worse in a launch battle against Celebrity Big Brother.

Maybe Professor Beattie can explain why the brain likes that sort of television, rather than the more cerebral stuff.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News

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