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Snip, snip, snip

In which we reveal that there really are hundreds of government helplines that nobody ever phones – but cutting them won’t actually have any effect


Today’s big news story: the government has started on its grand crusade to save money and thereby rescue the nation. Whether it will work remains to be seen, of course. I was intrigued, though, by one assertion which I heard on the news this morning: the government will save money by cutting back on call centres and helplines, because there are, apparently, many many government helplines which have barely even received a single call.*

Which sounds, on the face of it, shocking. Hundreds of phone lines that have never taken a call? Surely there must be warehouses full of call-centre staff sitting waiting for the phone to ring, sitting with their feet up reading magazines and flicking balls of paper at each other, because they have hundreds of phone lines but no calls to take?

Er, no. Despite the image put across there, it is completely false. I know this because: well, I have worked for such phone lines. Yes, there are indeed hundreds of government-funded phone numbers that have never, ever taken a call. That’s because that’s how marketing people like it. The total extra cost of it, per phone line, is peanuts – maybe it gets into whole tens of pounds if you add up absolutely all the figures, but that’s about it.

This is how it works. When the government’s marketing people** think they might want to run a new advertising campaign, they buy up a block of phone numbers, 0800, 0845, or whatever. Then, they produce their TV adverts, print adverts, leaflets, whatever: and each one gets a different phone number on it. All of these numbers will point to the same team – who will usually be already handling a similar type of helpline – and, it’s true, someone does have to go through a spreadsheet of phone numbers and route them to the right call centre. It’s not tricky work. When a call comes in, the hard-worked call-centre staff look at their screen, and make a note of which number it came in on.*** That information all gets collated, filed, and sent back to the government marketeers, who will graph it all carefully and say “ooh, Leaflet 72B didn’t work very well, it only got half the calls-per-leaflet of Leaflet 72C.”

The reason they do it this way is: it gives them reliable data, not data that relies on the caller’s memory. If you actually ask the caller where they saw the advert, then a) it annoys them, and b) they can’t remember. Even if they think they can remember, they can’t remember. If you say “can you remember what you were watching when you saw it,” you’d be amazed how many people will tell you, in all sincerity, that they saw your advert in the middle of Eastenders. But, on the other hand, it does mean that there are lots and lots of phone numbers that have been bought up in readiness, but which don’t get used; they’re there, just in case more numbers are needed. Having them sitting and programmed-in to the phone network, though, doesn’t really hurt. It certainly wouldn’t save the government money if they weren’t there. Indeed, I’m sure that a marketing expert would argue that it wastes money. An advert that doesn’t get a response, after all, is an advert wasted; and if you’re going to pay for a prime-time ad slot, or to print x million leaflets of your latest advertising wonder, you will want to know what sort of response rate it’s getting. The less accurate the data you’re getting back is, the bigger the risk that you’re pouring your ad budget down the drain.

In the long term, a hurried cut in the wrong place could cost you millions further down the line. So: sometimes, something that looks like a simple saving isn’t one. Especially when it’s something that’s hardly a big saving at all. There are indeed many government-owned phone numbers that have never, once, been called. That doesn’t mean they’re costing us anything to have, though; and it doesn’t mean that somehow the government is doing something wrong, that it’s set all these call centres up then forgotten to tell anyone; or that it’s set up lines that nobody wants to call. Those people, waiting for you to ring, are already busy enough.

* This would have been on Today at some point, but I wasn’t really paying attention. I can’t really find any news stories online that refer to this particular claim, apart from this one in the Shropshire Star; The Guardian refers to it more obliquely.

** The Central Office of Information, who sound slightly Soviet but are really the government’s advertising and marketing arm. They are the people who sit between the media, the advertising agencies and the call centre companies on the one hand, and the government departments who want to put their message across on the other; whether it be an NHS public health campaign like “don’t get swine flu”, HMRC trying to get you to send your tax return in on time, or the MoD trying to get people to join up.

*** Well, it will be some sort of code like “Dept. F Line B2″, but it means the same thing.

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Greenwash

In which we consider how to package coffee sustainably


When I was growing up, back in the heyday of capitalism, “caring for the environment” was seen as a bit of a fringe activity. In school, we were all taught how important it was; but in the real world, nobody really paid much attention.

Fast forward to today: companies are falling over themselves to be Environmental, and to show that they Care with big green hugs, pretty flowers and all that. But in many cases this is pure greenwash: an attempt to look caring because they know that caring sells, because ticking the “environmental!” box makes their company look good. Look at the details, and there’s often no real benefit.

One advert that’s been out recently has been particularly annoying us. Kenco, who make reasonably tasty coffee, but whose advertising campaign is annoying, silly, and patronising. “We tried using 100% less packaging,” they lie, “but it didn’t work. So we’re using 97% less packaging instead.”

All well and good: less packaging equals less materials used equals less weight equals less fuel used in distribution. Sounds nice, on the surface. If you look at it with a longer-term eye, though, things aren’t quite so clear-cut. The traditional packaging, as you probably know,* was: glass jars. One of the oldest packaging forms there is, and one of the greenest. It’s so easy to recycle that we’ve been recycling it ever since it was first invented; all you do is clean it and melt it. OK, there was a period of 200 years or so when we didn’t bother; but glass recycling was one of the first forms of recycling to be widespread in this country in the modern period. Even back in the days when, as I said, I was growing up and nobody really worried too much about the environment, we would still take a trip to the village “bottle bank” once a week. I loved to take each jar from the bag, and jump up to get it in the hole, trying to get as loud a smash as I could.**

What have Kenco replaced their glass jars with? Plastic packets. What’s the recyclability of plastic packets in this country? Virtually nil. Can you reuse them for anything? Virtually nothing. So, we go from glass jars which can be easily reused or recycled, to plastic packets which are useless after you get them home, and have to go for landfill. Change in packaging weight: a 97% drop. Change in waste produced: an increase of enormous proportions. Not quite such a good-looking result. Moreover, glass is made from sand, of which there’s no great shortage; plastic is made from oil, which is getting harder and harder to find. Oh dear.

The big disadvantages of glass packaging, of course, are weight and bulk. Less packaging weight means lower transport costs, and less fuel used. Yes, true, this is a good thing for the environment. It’s even better for Kenco, though. I suspect there’s one single big purpose behind this change: cutting Kenco’s transport costs. Their purpose in the world, after all, isn’t to heal the environment, and it isn’t even to make reasonable-tasting coffee. It’s to make money for their owners, by a) selling more coffee and b) lowering the cost of producing that coffee. Trying to persuade us that their cost-cutting is good for the environment will, I assume, help them sell more coffee to some people. In the long run, though, it’s a much less sustainable way to package. It’s not really as good for the environment, as they’d like us to think.

* and still being produced, of course

** And that’s not counting glass milk bottles and fizzy drink bottles, sold on deposit and reused many times over by the manufacturers since, ooh, the railways first came along and made large-scale distribution practical.

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Fiction

In which FP gets annoyed by a TV advert


Now, I know I shouldn’t believe advertising. I know I should assume that most people probably don’t believe advertising, and I shouldn’t let myself get worked up about it. But, still, something has been getting my goat lately.

Crisps. One particular brand of crisps, in fact, whose adverts ramble on about some intrepid traveller finding particularly tasty spices overseas, and shipping them home so he could use them to flavour his crisps. And they go on:

That traveller’s name was Phileas Fogg…

No. No, it wasn’t. Phileas Fogg is a fictional character. He’s not real. He was invented by an author, for a book. He’s conveniently old enough to be out-of-copyright, so you can take his name and use it to brand your savoury snacks. So, he didn’t go to Indonesia or wherever and discover tasty spices, because he doesn’t exist. So stop lying to us.

Phileas Fogg: the crisps with the blatant lies in the adverts.

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Presents

In which I rant about lottery advertising


Today, I suppose, I should really go out and start looking for Christmas presents for people. I have no idea, at all, what anybody wants; no idea what anybody needs; and no idea what I’m going to buy. I know what I’m not going to buy, though.

On the way between our house and the local library, there’s a bus stop,* and as bus stops tend to, it has a space for advertising on the side. And at the moment, the advert is nothing more than: a giant picture of a lottery scratchcard. With a slogan something along the lines of: “The ideal present for Christmas”.

Now. Just wait a minute. No. No, it isn’t. Excuse me for wanting to rant, but a lottery scratchcard is, in so many ways, just about the worst Christmas present imaginable.** Never mind a gambling ethics debate, it’s wrong in so many other ways. It’s small, flat, hardly anything to unwrap, no box to shake, no wrapping paper to tear off with abandon. Its entertainment value lasts for all of, ooh, about 3 seconds. It’s completely thoughtless and says nothing at all about the recipient, the giver, or anybody: it has no emotional or personal value whatsoever. And, finally, the chances are that it’s valueless: a piece of litter. It’s less use as a present than a sheet of wrapping paper. Or a stick. If I was given one as a present, I’d be crossing that person out of my address book straight away. And then hire assassins. Maybe I’m not the target audience for the advert, but there’s no way in hell that a poster is going to persuade me that buying a scratchcard for someone is a good plan as a present for them. What on earth would it say about me, for one thing? That I have so little imagination that I’ve bought them, ooh, a coloured piece of paper with that silver rub-off stuff on it.*** Because a poster said so. Because that’s how brain-dead I am.

So, no. That’s not going to be on the shopping list, at least.

* actually there’s several, but never mind

** if you can think of worse ones, please let me know.

*** What the hell is that stuff, anyway?

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The Artist’s Dilemma

In which we discuss music and advertising


It’s a question that must come to every artist and musician who starts to get successful. Sell out, or not sell out? And what is “selling out” anyway? What about advertising? Do you license your music for use in advertising, knowing you’ll effectively lose control over how it’s presented?1 Maintain artistic integrity, or go for the money? There are some bands whose oeuvre will, forevermore, be thought of as “oh, it’s that song off that advert, you know, that one for thingy, that stuff.” – the Penguin Cafe Orchestra being a prime example.2

I was rather pleased when I was idly watching late-night telly the other month, and a bouncy Casiolike tune popped up in the ad-break. It was “Summer’s Gone”, an early track by a very good (and little-known) Scottish band, Aberfeldy. if you want to track it down, it’s on their first album, Young Forever, released by Rough Trade.3 Good to hear a little-known band on the telly; good to think they’ll be getting some money for it.

Less good, though, to see that it was being used to advertise an online gambling company. If I was Riley Briggs – the chap who formed the band and wrote the song – I’m not sure I’d be happy about that. I wouldn’t want my music to be used that way. I wouldn’t want to be associated with gambling; the only saving grace being, 99.3%4 of the people who see the advert will never have heard of the band.5 The song will seep into their memories without them really knowing it, until they hear it again by some offchance on the radio and think: hang on, don’t I know this from somewhere. It’s a hard call. Do you take the money and the airplay, or do you take the high moral stance? I’m glad it’s not a question I’ve had to face yet in life. What would you do?

1: Or, for that matter, for TV. Belle and Sebastian, another of my favourite bands, have been used many times over the years as TV and soundtrack filler material; most famously, the title track from their third album The Boy With The Arab Strap was used, without lyrics, as the theme music of the Bristol-set comedy-drama series Teachers. I’m sure I recall, when the band were asked, saying that they weren’t able to say yes or no to that or any other specific TV use of the music; they’d granted a blanket license and that was that. On the other hand, unsurprisingly for a band with a socialist and Presbyterian background, they don’t (I think) let their music be used in advertising.

2: PCO might have been helped slightly by the death of MFI, who used their well-known “Music For A Found Harmonium”; I doubt, though, that anyone now who hears their best-known track “Telephone And Rubber Band” thinks of the band first. The Jesus And Mary Chain might be heading this way – we’ve heard “Just Like Honey” an awful lot on TV lately, most strangely as incidental music on Hollyoaks.

3: and it must have come out a long, long time ago now, going by where I lived when I bought it. For that matter, their second album – released just before Rough Trade dropped them – must also be a few years old, because I picked it up in Avalanche Records on my last trip to Glasgow.

4: If there’s one thing I learned from the vegetarian food roadshow we went to, it’s to use invented and ridiculously precise statistics with panache and confidence.

5: According to that famous encyclopaedia, the same song has been used to advertise Diet Coke in the USA. So I’d bet that by far the vast majority of people worldwide who have heard an Aberfeldy song, have heard that song, on an advert.

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Searching

In which someone admits that SEOs are entirely pointless


An intriguing claim appeared in The Guardian yesterday, buried in its corrections column. Insurance-comparing website GoCompare has stated that there is little connection between its Google positioning and its income. More specifically: dropping from the first page of Google results for a common search term did result in a big drop in traffic, but had no financial effect on the company.

GoCompare is an internet business. As far as I understand it, they rely entirely on their website for income. What they’re claiming is: when Google lowered their ranking, they lost a large amount of traffic – but that none of that traffic, apparently, was making them any money.*

There are entire companies based solely around the premise that they will push you up to the top of Google’s pages. I’ve known marketers spend huge amounts of time and effort on it, taking common search phrases and analyzing them with a fine-tooth comb, trying to find out why they’re below their competition. I’d expect GoCompare to have been doing exactly the same thing themselves, in fact. And they’ve found, apparently, that it was all for nothing – because when Google pulled the rug from under their efforts,** they say, it had no effect at all on their income. Maybe they’re a special case because (unlike smaller online companies) they do spend a lot on irritating minimal-budget TV adverts.*** Even so, it’s intriguing. If their claim is true, there’s probably hardly any point at all in any large organisations spending much effort on search-engine optimisation. Small companies who can’t afford TV adverts, or who produce specialist products – well, that probably doesn’t apply. It probably doesn’t apply to AdWords campaigns either. But general search results? “Overall sales figures were not affected”.

* They seem to be talking about general search results. If they were talking about paid-for adverts, then the drop in traffic would also mean a drop in outgoings; but as they’re not, the change in traffic shouldn’t have any effect on their running costs.

** The Guardian had previously speculated that Google did this deliberately – it was that article which prompted the correction.

*** which, at least, aren’t as annoying as those produced by their competitor Confused.com. I’m never going to go near confused.com, no less than barge-pole distance, because their adverts are that bad. “I’m so stupid I’m trying to get money from a piece of cardboard with a cartoon cash machine printed on it! I’m confused! Dot com!”

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Going Up In The World

In which we note someone’s spreading fame


The band Camera Obscura are clearly going up in the world. I noted, a few months ago, that one of their songs had popped up on a Tesco advert. Never mind about that, though: today, they were on the front page of The Guardian, up above the masthead. Admittedly, only because a Guardian reader had written in with: why weren’t Camera Obscura listed in your recent “1000 albums to hear before you die”* list? It’s better than not being there at all, though.

True Camera Obscura fans, of course, will be spending next weeked at the Midland Railway Centre, in Derbyshire. Their bass player, Mr Gav “King of Partick” Dunbar, is doing a DJ set there, in a heated marquee at Butterley railway station. Now, to my mind, that’s how you judge you’re doing well. Never mind the Guardian front page; once you’ve got your marquee heated, you know you’re on the up and up.

* not to be confused with the entirely unrelated book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, of course.

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Commerciality

In which we recognise some music


I was pleased and slightly surprised the first time I heard the band Camera Obscura on the radio. I was even more surprised the first time I turned on the radio at random and heard a Camera Obscura song playing.*

We were sat, lazing about watching telly, the other night, and the adverts came on. There was an advert for Tesco clothes. With, I was rather amazed to realise, a Camera Obscura song as its backing. “Bloody hell,” I said, fainting slightly. However famous they keep on getting, I’m not sure I’m ever going to get used to it.

* it was on Radio Two, at about 4am on a Sunday morning; I was driving home from a certain Theatrical And Social Club and had just dropped a friend off at her house.

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Speedy

In which we spot some truth in advertising


At the office, we often get random pieces of promotional crap sent to us by companies touting for business. The best so far: an “emergency phone kit” from O2.* The latest: a pen from Openreach. If you’ve not heard of Openreach yet: they’re the chunk of British Telecom that actually gets to play with wiring and hardware, and ends up doing all the manual work.

Openreach’s PR people clearly aren’t as imaginative as O2’s, because they’ve sent us a ballpoint pen. One of those pens with a moving picture inside, that slides from one end to the other when the pen’s tilted. Rather than go for the classic “woman whose bra and knickers disappear” design, their pen has a background of terraced houses, and an Openreach van chugging from one end to the other.

So far, so boring. This pen, though, is ideal to represent BT.** Because of the speed the van moves: chug chug chug, dead slow along the line of houses. Perfectly representing the speed it takes BT to do pretty much anything.*** Ideal publicity material!

* A piece of string, and a capped cardboard tube marked with a “cut here” line around the middle.

** Or, “Openreach, a part of the BT group”, as it says on their promotional bumpf

*** To be honest, I have found one part of BT that does what you ask, quickly, and gets it right first time: whatever office it is sets up reverse DNS information for ADSL lines with static IP addresses. If you do not know what this means, rest assured you will never need to get in touch with them. Oh, and if you know anyone who works for BT: they have a special staff-only customer service number which allegedly gets better service than the ordinary one, and if you have a problem they can call it up on your behalf.

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Not a meme

In which we see what Google thinks of our correspondance


An Unreliable Witness recently wrote something that definitely isn’t a meme: scanning the adverts Gmail throws up after reading all your email for you. As I have nothing better to write about tonight, I thought I’d do the same thing. Here’s a selection of things that, apparently, go with my email.

Organic Rice Syrup
Physical Immortality Is Possible
Looking For An Essay?
Secrets To Understanding Men
How To Stop Sweating Now

So, according to Gmail: I’m a student who needs to find a spiritual side, cooks a lot, doesn’t understand men, and is a bit sweaty. There you have it!

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