Channel 4’s birthday this month not only marks 25 years of more choice for viewers, but also for the UK’s TV advertisers, which had been limited to just one commercial channel until 1982.
As launch chief executive Jeremy Isaacs pointed out at the time, Channel 4 was “for all of the people, some of the time”, and offered advertisers niche audiences that ITV’s mainstream programming did not attract.
But the channel was hit almost immediately by a disastrous dispute between the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) and acting body Equity. The pair fell out over whether actors should be paid lower repeat fees due to Channel 4’s “minority” status. The row led to ads featuring silent businessmen pushing their wares in empty studios, or no ads at all. The dispute rumbled on for over a year, before it was finally resolved.
Channel 4 is marking its quarter of a century with a season of special shows that highlight how broadcasting and advertising have changed in that time. It is courting up to 40 advertisers to air “paired” ads, where a campaign from the past is shown alongside a current execution, as part of the plans (MW October 4).
Major advertisers, such as Procter & Gamble-owned brands Gillette and Fairy Liquid, Carlsberg and BT, have signed up to the retro breaks, although many brands that used the fledgling channel are no longer allowed to advertise.
Since 1982, cigarette advertising has been first restricted and then banned. Alcohol ads must no longer show reckless behaviour – think back to Carling Black Label’s “I bet he drinks Carling Black Label” campaign, perhaps – or link drinking with sexual prowess. Most recently, restrictions on so-called junk food have been introduced, with more expected to follow.
Restrictions and legislation can make advertising seem “old fashioned”, says Marketing Society chief executive Hugh Burkitt. He adds: “Advertising has always been behind the times, because it is subject to a much stronger level of censorship than the programmes themselves.”
So cigarette and tobacco brands, such as Silk Cut and Hamlet, are out and communications companies, such as Carphone Warehouse, Nokia and BSkyB, are now the high spenders.
Back in 1982, brands like BT had far less competition. There was no broadband, no consumer mobile phone operators, no BSkyB and no Virgin Media. Now BT is no longer a state-owned monopoly, and faces a raft of competition across a broad product set. BT head of advertising operations Colin Wise says its Busby campaign (pictured) aimed to encourage more men to pick up the phone. “It certainly didn’t feel it at the time, but it was all a lot simpler,” he says.
He believes that TV is still the most powerful medium and an important brand builder, a feeling shared by DDB chief operating officer Nick Fox, who cites Channel 4’s first advertiser Volkswagen as a prime example.
“Volkswagen, as a business, has changed completely in that time,” says Fox. “What was a niche, foreign, specialist brand has become the third-largest car manufacturer in the UK. VW was a three-model marque in 1982, but it will have 17 models next year.”
But despite the changing media landscape, including an explosion in the choice of digital TV channels, ITV managing director of commercial and brand Rupert Howell insists that the basic principle remains the same – great TV advertising works.
The ads of years gone by may be popular in countless TV “best of” lists, but as IPA director general Hamish Pringle points out: “There is an extraordinary richness on TV right now, with ads such as Skoda Fabia’s Cake and Sony Bravia’s Rabbits, and that’s going to continue.
“Clients are realising that if they invest in great content, such as Dove’s Evolution campaign, they get great engagement and free ‘word-of-mouse’ on top of their airtime.”
Rupert Howell, managing director of commercial and brand, ITV, and co-founder of (now defunct) Tango ad agency HHCL: “What makes for a great ad hasn’t changed – just look at Sony Balls or Honda Cog. At least 90% of advertising is average and 10% is brilliant. That ratio hasn’t changed over the years, because advertising is very difficult to do well.
“What is different are the new categories that are advertising, like mobile phone brands, which weren’t even around 25 years ago, and broadband.
“Every study shows that TV is the most effective medium by far. The internet is not a replacement. As the media world fragments, broadcast advertising becomes more valuable, not less.”
Hugh Burkitt, chief executive, Marketing Society: “Back when it launched, Channel 4 was only the second commercial channel you could actually advertise on. Any brand that went on TV was capable of becoming famous.
There were a lot more famous campaigns around in those days that everybody could quote. That’s one of the reasons people think TV advertising is a lot less effective than it used to be. Paradoxically, it’s actually more effective.
“A lot of modern commercials don’t seem to have such a strong campaign idea as they used to. You can use computer animation techniques these days and some ads are more reliant on a technique, as opposed to a well-written idea.
Having said that, there are some people trying to write campaigns like the BT ‘Adam and Jane’ campaign.”
Hamish Pringle, director general, IPA: “Over the past five years or so, there have been a lot of vested interests trying to do down TV to promote their wonderful new media.
The IPA is media neutral, but it bothers us when people make assertions without supporting facts.
The facts are that, broadly speaking, TV viewing and exposure to commercials haven’t really changed much for the past three decades. It is not true to say that younger people are no longer watching TV, although they may be doing other things at the same time.
There was a speech to the IPA by Jeremy Bullmore addressing the issue: “I know 50% of my advertising is wasted, but I don’t know which half”.
Bullmore pointed out that brands are like clubs, and that the value of a club lies as much in the eyes of non-members as in members’.
A brand like BMW is no good to its owners if everyone else doesn’t know how prestigious it is. And one of the biggest advantages of broadcast is its ability to create mass market awareness of these ‘brand clubs’ and their values.”