As the consumer becomes more cynical of advertising techniques, agencies are trying increasingly unusual ways to attract attention for their clients, says Caroline Marshall.
A swarm of bees, a sailing boat in a stormy sea listing violently from port to starboard - only the advertising industry, it seems, could go to such lengths to keep the product (in this case, a car) out of the picture.
Far from confusing consumers, Ford's first TV ad for its trendy new Ka was designed to coax consumers into wanting to know more about the car.
For if you looked very closely, the bees' buzzing modified itself into engine noise, the boat's mast momentarily became a windscreen wiper and all was dutifully revealed in later stages of the campaign. Hence the ad industry jargon for this type of advertising tactic, 'tease and reveal'.
The use of tease and reveal tactics is now standard practice for launching cars. In fact, teasers now pop up so often that (along with the white-coated 'expert' presenter and the 'yoof' language of teen-oriented ads) they have become something of an advertising cliche. That such a ruse is now standard practice shows how the industry has changed. It is not just a reflection of advertising agencies' ability to sell clients more and more quirky ideas. Getting the consumer to notice, let alone be convinced by, the ad requires increasingly extreme tactics.
In the past, the major opportunity for a brand to gain a competitive advantage was simply to outspend the competition or to come up with better ads, or both. Now, insiders say, advertisers will do almost anything to hijack the attention of consumers.
Iain Jacob, the international director at Motive Communications, the media arm of the prominent advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty, says: 'For years the media discipline has been bound up with conventional wisdoms that are now failing to deliver genuinely effective communication. Advertisers cannot rely on the rules of television usage that applied to a four-channel environment in a 40-channel satellite home.'
It is not just the extra TV channels that are muddying the water. In the UK, an average individual is exposed to over 1,000 commercial messages a week.
Add to this the avalanche of other information you receive (e-mails, voice mails, junk mail, unsolicited faxes, the Internet) and then think about how many brand messages you remember. Chances are you will remember the ad campaigns that either irritate you or intrigue you because of the environment in which they appear.
Neat media strategies like this, however, are of limited advantage when it comes to hijacking the attention of some of the groups whose awareness is most valued (and who, as agencies love to point out) are the least keen to offer it. Youth audiences in particular have become advertising literate to the point of cynicism and are increasingly resistant to conventional marketing glossiness.
To make them take notice, some advertisers are supplementing their conventional advertising plans with so-called 'guerrilla media' tactics to lend grit and currency to their brands.
Britvic's luminous 'Tango man', who appeared on London's College Green to star in TV coverage of the 1995 Tory leadership campaign, was a classic example of guerrilla tactics. Emma Jenks works for Environment Marketing Group, an off-shoot of Tango's ad agency HHCL which specialises in non-paid-for media and helped to devise the stunt, which was seen by millions of viewers on prime time TV. 'The intention is to hijack existing events for the benefit of your brand,' she says.
Another recent example of sabotage involved the tactical spray painting of a poster campaign for the beer brand, Courage Best. The posters featured anti-northern statements such as, 'If the North's so great, how come the Queen doesn't live there?' This was regularly enhanced with the spray-can graffiti rejoinder, 'Because she doesn't drink beer'. It isn't hard to think of a Northern brewer or two who might have had a vested interest in such activity.
Nike's agency, Simons Palmer Clemmow Johnson, used guerrilla media tactics to brilliant effect when it was briefed to 'put Nike, through its association with Eric Cantona, at the centre of football culture'. The resulting ad showing a defiant Cantona and the words, "66 was a great year for English football. Eric was born'.
Peter Bracegirdle, an account man at the agency, had the idea of turning the poster into a massive 40ft x 20ft flag, to be smuggled into Old Trafford and unfurled by the crowd - an instant 90-minute TV commercial. According to the agency's joint creative director, Andy McKay, 'Several weeks and one bribed turnstile operator later, the flag appeared on News at Ten.
We've never been able to get it back from United fans.'
But the undisputed champion of unusual advertising coverage out of nothing has to be the Monster Raving Loony Party. Following its tactical rebranding as the Official Monster Munch Raving Loony Party for Walkers (crisps) at the Perth and Kinross by-election in May 1995, it has some sound advice for more mainstream clients on the relentless pursuit of media exposure. Says a spokesman for the party: 'Take the p***.' Could this be the next marketing buzz word? Perhaps the days of 'Think global, act local', are numbered.