Why many bus shelter ads are a waste of money

One of the greatest lessons of my time in TV came one day sitting in a large editing suite used to make commercials.

I’d been in and out of the place for years but one day noticed something that struck me as incredibly odd.

Despite the millions of dollars worth of hi-tech gear, in the preview room, where the editor and clients sat around to view the finished product, was a small television screen – pretty much the standard size you’d find in most lounge rooms.

I remember turning to ask the Director: "Why do we have such a crappy TV in this room – it is the size of a postage stamp compared to everything else – why don't we have a giant screen?  Even as the words were leaving my mouth, my brain caught up: Yes, the TV commercials were made in a high tech studio but where they had to do their work was on the standard suburban telly sitting in any of a million lounge rooms.  In those days, we used to joke about the number of mums and dads whose television sets produced dodgy colours, buzzing sound and flickering interference.  In other words, a piece of artistic and technical wizardry would ultimately have to prove its worth on a Rank Arena that was a televisual disaster zone.

Now, of course, in these days of plasma and super-dooper HDTV – the quality of TV reception is much higher.  But in those days, it was estimated that a high percentage of the viewing population did not know how to properly set the colour and contrast controls on their TV.  So, as much as you might be sweating over the quality of colour tones, your Mum sitting at home couldn’t tell the difference anyway!

So what does all this have to do with those bus shelter ad shells?  Quite simply the same principle applies.  I find up to 50% of them are unreadable as I drive past in my car.  So what’s the point?  Yes, there are the few dozen people who catch the bus – but surely we are not going to appeal to them only and ignore the 10,000 cars driving past every day?

So why do ad agencies insist on creating bus shelter ad shells with tiny words and complex images that simply cannot be read unless you are standing 1 metre away with 30 seconds to stare?

In my book, that’s the heart of the problem.  These ad shells are being designed by a designer sitting in an air-conditioned studio on a giant screen in front of their face.  That’s not the way to determine if the sign will work.  Here’s a tip for anyone about to rollout a campaign including ad shells.  Minimise the words, make the images bold and clear … and when you view the creative, imagine yourself in a car doing 80kms down the freeway and do the readability test.  Without that, you’re probably just wasting your money.

Bad news days – why some stories make the front page

It usually begins with an early morning phone call and an exasperated voice on the end of the line saying something like: Have you seen the front page?  Or, did you seen the news last night?

The voice belongs to an anxious client who has suddenly found their company has made the news, sometimes for all the wrong reasons.  The deeper question is really – why are we suddenly considered the leading item on today's news agenda?

What makes news is often pretty obvious…and sometimes an utter mystery.  So allow me to let you in on a secret: Determining what makes the news and what doesn’t is not always an exact science. Often it comes down to luck – or more precisely, bad luck. In TV news they call it the line-up.  In very simple terms, this is just the order in which the stories will run.  Most commercial TV news bulletins consist of 10 minutes in the first break, 5 minutes in the second, 7 minutes of sport, a couple of minutes of weather plus time for the all important commercials to help pay the bills.  

In commercial news and current affairs the lead item is determined primarily by viewer interest and yes, bad news tends to sell much better than the good. Some days though, to be frank, there just isn't that much around.  In my 10 years as a senior news producer I used to joke to colleagues that slow news days must have meant a pretty good day for the world because not much bad stuff was happening. Those days are the most dangerous for companies sitting on a potential news item . All of a sudden, what was likely to be squeezed into the second break becomes the lead story – or the front page. This is also why sneaky government PR folk often store up their dirty laundry media releases or announcements to pop out under the cover of the biggest news story of the week, month or year (depends on how dirty).  Unfortunately the opposite principle applies here: Poor news days mean that even the most inoccuous yarn that might be struggling to get a run on any other day is suddenly in 72 point headlines on page 1 or the subject of a two minute piece at the top of the TV news.

Of course, there are ways to navigate through this potential minefield – and I suppose that's why people like me have a job.  But don't let any PR or so called media guru tell you there is a perfect solution.  There's not.  One of the wonderful (and dreadful) things about the news agenda is that nobody really knows what is going to happen next. So next time your company finds itself at the centre of some unwanted attention courtesy of a prominent story on a slow news day, don't beat up yourself (or your PR people)…news happens.

Harvey Norman discovers branding

I couldn’t believe my eyes – in fact, I nearly fell off the couch.

Watching the footy on the weekend, there it was: A Harvey Norman “brand” commercial.

Big deal?  Well, actually yes.  It signifies a HUGE change in the national retailer’s marketing approach, which in the past has been grounded in graphic-heavy ads flogging TVs and fridges at unbelievably low prices!

Oh yes, and 500 year interest free terms.  Okay, not quite that long – but what started out as a 12 month deal has spun out so quickly that Mum and Dad will buy the TV and the kids won’t start paying interest until they reach middle age.

Wow, and it took the internet to do all this?  Yep, up until now Harvey Norman has relied on attracting buyers purely on price.  The rise of internet retail sites means that ain’t so special any more.

And guess what, now we have to find another reason to visit Harvey Norman.  The answer? Service.  So the brand ads show sales folk talking about their passion for selling TVs and computers any just about anything else that plugs into a power outlet.  Sooner or later everyone in a crowded market has to think about their brand difference. Even if you’re Harvey Norman, price only gets you so far.  But don’t wait – offer ends soon!

The Power of Colour

In the mid seventies snooker emerged from the smoky rooms of middle-aged men in three-piece-suits to make a big splash on prime time TV.

The arrival of colour TV in Australia meant program makers were looking for something that illustrated the power of the new medium and a program called “Pot Black” with those coloured balls was a perfect opportunity.  Nowadays it seems hard to believe that TV programs were only in black and white. 

While we might take it for granted, I’ve learned to never discount the power of colour in communication and branding.  As a communicator you might think I am driven by words and to a large extent that is true. But human beings are emotional creatures and we respond powerfully to stimuli from the eye – in the same way we have an industry built around the intoxicating power of smell and music is said to calm the savage beast.

Think about the distinctive purple wrapping on Cadbury chocolate and the Coca Cola red. More than that, think about traffic lights – imagine the chaos if drivers couldn’t distinguish green from red!

A few years ago one of my clients noticed it was losing its edge up against competitors and we identified that one of the contributing factors was losing the power of identity.  The agency had been playing around with different colour combinations to identify specific product types.  Nothing wrong with that but it highlights one of the critical factors in great branding – using a distinct colour that consumers can associate with you and your brand in a nanosecond.  I once met a man whose job had been to travel the world making sure that the Coca Cola red was consistently produced in all the company’s marketing and promotion.  Sounds a little extreme but not when you think about the power of that red Coke logo – transcending boundaries of language and culture across the globe.

In centuries past, kings would lead their armies into battle flying their distinctive colours.  Men were prepared to die for the colours on their banner and what it represented to them.  It just goes to show that you should never underestimate the power of colour.

My dark secret

I have to let you in on my dark little secret.  Before I retire, perhaps at a point where my credibility is completely shot – over the hill and far away – I want to test a theory of mine about the media.

From 20+ years as a news shark, waking up every day to feed the hungry beast I called a news service, I know how much the daily feeding frenzy needs so called peak-body groups to survive.

Grab any journalist’s contact book and I guarantee it’ll be stacked with names and contact numbers of organisations available to make comment on anything and everything.

Let me explain and you’ll have to forgive me if the example is a bit dark.  Back in the 80s, my city had a string of horrible crimes against young women.  There was fear and outrage.  And there was Citizens Against Crime.  Or at least there was one bloke called Bob, the President – at least that’s what my (and every other journo’s contact book said).  A day after police had issued their last appeal for information, we needed something to keep the story going and Bob always obliged.  Dial the number, set up the interview and voila: We had what we needed – someone calling for the return of the death penalty for murder.

One quiet afternoon a group of this were discussing this in the newsroom and someone asked:  Has anyone ever met another member of Citizens Against Crime?  None of us had.  The point was we didn’t care.  For all we knew this group consisted of one name only: Bob.  Perhaps at one time they were a truly representative body – but while the group faded, Bob’s name and the need for news commentary lived on in our contact books.

Nothing has changed.  The news cycle is still the same.  In fact, its gotten worse – much worse.  There used to be a rule in journalism about checking facts and comments with the primary source – not any more, especially with web based news services.  An issue breaks, an incident occurs.  After the initial facts, the media still needs commentary and there are plenty of Bobs about.  Except now they have blogs and email addresses. 

So to my secret: I’m going to set one up – an “interest” group, I mean.  I’ve got 20 bucks that says I can get at least one journo to interview me.  I’ll find a sexy issue, develop a catchy name – acronyms work well: AGRO – Australians Get Rubbish Out!  Haven’t you heard of us?  We’re opposed to the development of a nuclear waste facility in your backyard.  I’m the president by the way…available for comment anytime.

Twenty bucks anyone?