Tough sell for Britain's Mad Men?

By Torin Douglas
Media Correspondent, BBC News

Image caption,
Mad Men's Don Draper epitomises the industry's allure - but can ministers be sold?

It's an age-old question, as viewers of the TV drama Mad Men will testify. Does advertising work?

The industry says it can prove that it does and five public sector advertising campaigns have won awards for their effectiveness at saving lives - from stroke, smoking and road accidents - and saving public money, in recruiting teachers and getting in tax returns.

That has raised new questions over the coalition's plans to cut the government's advertising budget by 50%, with the loss of 300 jobs.

Most people say they personally aren't influenced by advertising. If that is true, why do organisations pay millions of pounds a year to put their ads in newspapers and magazines and on TV, radio, posters and the internet?

In fact, most people are fooling themselves. Hard-nosed company bosses are not in the business of handing millions of pounds to the media just for the pleasure of seeing their name up in lights - the economic downturn has made them even harder-nosed, but ad budgets are now rising again. They know it works, more often than not.

Image caption,
The Hovis advert continues to be a winner with the judges

But some campaigns work better than others. Lord Leverhulme, the founder of Unilever, and the car manufacturer Henry Ford are both credited with the dictum: "I know half of my advertising budget is wasted - I just don't know which half."

To solve that conundrum - and show advertisers their money needn't be wasted - a group of advertising agencies set up the IPA Effectiveness Awards. They required entries to demonstrate the results of their campaigns, using rigorous econometric research to show they increased sales, changed behaviour or saved money, rather than simply raised "awareness".

Thirty years on, the awards are now seen as the international gold standard for demonstrating how advertising works. The 2010 awards, hosted by Clive Anderson, were presented at a glitzy dinner at a hotel in London's Park Lane.

The grand prix went to one of Britain's oldest and best-loved advertisers, Hovis, and its nostalgia campaign - "As good today as it's ever been".

An epic two-minute TV commercial showed a young boy with a loaf racing through the memorable events of recent British history and, amplified through judicious use of PR, it increased sales by 14% and generated an extra £90m in profits.

But the story of the evening was the government's conspicuous success at the awards - at a time when the coalition is cutting the public advertising budget by 50% and consulting over plans to lose almost 300 jobs at the Central Office of Information.

Five public sector campaigns won awards, ranging from the Department of Health's stroke awareness and anti-smoking campaigns to HM Revenue & Customs' self-assessment campaign featuring Moira Stewart.

The organisers said: "Winning public sector campaigns saved 642 people from dying or suffering serious disability from strokes; prevented 3,000 deaths and serious injuries of motorbike drivers; encouraged three million people to quit smoking; increased teacher enquiries and applications to record-breaking levels; and resulted in 93% of people sending their tax returns in on time."

Image caption,
The Department of Health's anti-smoking campaign was a winner

The judges were chaired by the former Treasury mandarin Lord Burns, who is now chairman of Channel 4 and Santander UK. He was particularly impressed by the tax returns campaign, which resulted in 93% of paper filers meeting the October deadline, and a record 69% of tax returns being received online.

He said: "Faced with a huge task of getting people to pay their taxes on time, this was an incredibly persuasive case with extraordinary effect in a short space of time."

The director general of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, Hamish Pringle, said the government wins were "ironic" since they were developed with the close involvement of the COI, "an organisation that is held in high regard internationally, but is now under threat at home".

He said: "I do hope the key figures in the Cabinet Office will read these outstanding case histories as part of their decision-making process."

Insiders believe the answer is to try and make government spending on advertising and communication even more closely-targeted and effective, to demonstrate that it is part of the process of saving - rather than spending - money.

With all public spending facing cuts, it may be a hard argument to win.

More on this story