Gerry Farrell: You have never ad it better

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Last week was Ad Week although you probably didn’t notice. It wasn’t terribly well advertised . . . There was a conference in London with a lot of bigwigs at it.

The biggest of those wigs was Peter Oborne, a journalist who writes a column for the Daily Mail. Mr Oborne decided to slander everybody who works in advertising. He called us all “snake-oil salesmen” and just for good measure he added: “They are greedy and well paid and they all live in London. Advertising is not just the sewer, it is the sewage as well.”

Now I don’t possess a rusty anaconda but I’m sure that if I did, a can of snake oil would be just the thing to get it slithering properly again. Of course, what Oborne was saying is that he thinks we’re liars and cheats who con people out of their money by promoting useless products nobody needs or wants. A clichéd accusation from a lazy journalist! Somebody needs to take him to task.

So wait a second while I lace up my Doc Martens. Right, I’m ready.

Dear Peter,

I’ve been an advertising copywriter in Edinburgh since I was 22. Believe me when I tell you that it’s not a form of mass-hypnosis. I do not sit down in the morning, draw a wee dot on the page and write “LOOK AT THIS DOT. NOW YOU ARE IN MY POWER. GO OUT AND BUY 17 MARS BARS.” If only my job was that simple.

So let’s forget about mind control, shall we? Instead, let’s imagine I write an ad that simply says: “Mars bars are delicious.” You look at the ad and next time you’re at the shops you buy one. It tastes rotten. So you never buy another Mars bar again.

My point here, Peter, is that while an ad can hypothetically make people buy a bad product ONCE, what would be the point of that? The best advertising campaigns run for years and years and build brands people love, like Kit-Kats and Irn-Bru. The brands that don’t advertise – or advertise without style or wit – disappear without trace.

It just so happens that one of my own ads is running on billboards across Edinburgh right now. It says “When In Rome, Drink Italian Lager . . . But You’re In Edinburgh.”

The picture is a pint of Innis & Gunn Scottish lager. The Italian lager the ad is referring to starts with P and in my opinion it tastes like P. In the course of my work, I’ve sat with colleagues in big-brand lager blindfold taste tests (told you it was a tough job). The fashionable Italian brand ranks bottom for taste every time.

So there’s an argument to say that my ad is doing Edinburgh beer 
drinkers a favour by inviting them to drink an excellent Scottish lager instead of an inferior continental one. What’s the very worst that can happen? You try an Innis & Gunn. You don’t fancy it. You stick with the Italian stuff.

What advertising does is offer a choice. We operate under the Advertising Standards Authority which insists that all ads must be “legal, decent, honest and truthful” or they will be removed.

The Daily Mail is partly funded, like almost every other newspaper in Britain, by advertising. The paycheck you take home for your column comes from the money your newspaper earns from the adverts it carries.

Finally, you conveniently ignore the work advertising creatives do to publicise good causes. Working with the Scottish Government, we’ve persuaded hundreds of thousands of men and women to go to their GPs and get checked for cancer (“Don’t Get Scared, Get Checked”). Our ads have brought in thousands of pints of blood (“You’ve Got It In You To Save A Life”) and encouraged countless families to talk about organ donation (“Don’t Keep It To Yourself”). We create campaigns that make suicidal people phone up helplines and slogans that vibrate with cheerful honesty (“Ronseal. It Does Exactly What It Says On The Tin”).

You, on the other hand, are a hypocrite, slagging off an industry that supports your newspaper and living up to the witty characterisation in Humbert Wolfe’s famous epigram: “You cannot hope to bribe or twist (thank God!) the British journalist.”

But seeing what the man will do unbribed there’s no occasion to.

Take your kids fishing once and they will be hooked for life

I started with a net swept under the banks of the Braid Burn. There were flickers of silver in its meshes, tiny sticklebacks. I took them back home in a jam jar and put them in the goldfish tank. Goldy and Oily rolled their eyes, finned forward and swallowed them whole. That taught me about bait. Fish will eat just about anything that’s smaller than them.

One day there was a different fish in my net, an inch long with tiny red spots. Frightened it would get eaten, I gave it a tank of its own. Within a day it had turned belly up and died. It was a baby trout and I learned that trout need well-oxygenated water to survive. But the turning point for me was a book called Angling by Richard Arnold. My dad bought it for himself thinking that fishing sounded like a nice, unchallenging thing to do in the great outdoors once he retired. The first chapter was all about knots. That was as far as my dad read. He gave the book to me.

I started reading it one Saturday morning at 11am and barely moved until I’d finished the whole thing at 9pm. Where could you do this “angling” in Edinburgh? I asked around in the school playground. Just about everybody had been fishing – it’s still the most popular participation sport in the UK. Their stories were mainly lies and exaggeration.

“See the basin at the canal, there’s a pike there that’s four feet long. I hooked it last Saturday but it smashed the line. It’s called Bertie. They caught it with a net once and cleaned all the hooks out of its mouth. It eats baby ducks.”

Finally a pal told me about Happy Valley Pond at Craiglockhart. It was hoaching with stripey fish that fought like devils. They had red fins and spines on their backs that could draw blood. All you needed was worms. Small, red wriggly ones out the compost heap. Everything he said was true. They were perch. Mostly the size of my hand. We put those ones back. But sometimes we caught little ones, three inches long. We killed them quickly and used them as bait. We took them over to the Union Canal at Meggetland, attached them to two treble hooks and wobbled them through the water. When a pike attacks you don’t know where it’s come from. It’s just suddenly there, with your dead bait across its mouth sideways, like a dog with a bone. When you see its gills flare out and it starts to turn the bait lengthways to swallow it, that’s when you strike.

If I sound excited, I am. Fishing is the least boring pastime I can think of. If your kids are addicted to screens, take them fishing. It will transform their lives.