19 December 2008

Criminal advertising

Though it is not always easy to tell, the creation of advertisements in the UK is often considered to be something we are rather good at. Not only is there a regulator who says what you can do, there are actually lots of awards for its practitioners, giving the impression of some sort of quality standards that must exist. Not just any idea can become a professional advert, you understand.

Except at Christmas. Obviously there are conventions that are not so much expected as demanded (fake snow, golden turkeys amid a table of food groaning under the weight of its own opulence etc). But there is also an incredible amount of lazy, derivative advertising that gets redressed and wheeled out every year, like the Christmas decorations. It's as though the Christmas period is so important to so many retailers that they adopt a herd mentality, never daring to break from the pack with an original campaign. This year's John Lewis campaign (know the person, know the present) is an obvious example.

But I was today stopped in my tracks by a seasonal ad outside Colchester station that was original in its approach, but it served to remind me that 'original' is not the same as 'good'. As far as I can tell, Essex Police have dispensed with the services of a professional advertising agency in their latest PR assault upon the criminals of Colchester and decided instead to hold a competition amongst primary school children. How else to explain such an appalling piece of creative - reproduced below for your pleasure:

Where to begin? It's the season of goodwill, so let's overlook with the pretext that a local criminal will think twice about a bit of B&E when confronted with a 48-sheet normally aimed at commuters (insert joke here about City workers being criminals). We start with a statement so obvious, I can scarcely believe they bothered - if you nick something you might get caught. I presume this is also true of other times of the year, and that it's not just Christmas when coppers try extra hard to catch perps.

Then there's the pun. My son thought it was funny when he found out there was a herb called Thyme, before he became sophisticated and moved on to laughing at farts. To illustrate the power of this double entendre, we have a seasonal visual, and the central weakness of the idea: that you cannot show a picture of thyme, because that would be to underline the joke and remove the 'gap' you want the readers to close in their minds. So you have to show something else we serve at Christmas that may contain thyme - but is hardly synonymous with that herb. Because we don't serve thyme at Christmas, we serve turkey, cranberry sauce, puddings and cheap wine. We might equally have a close-up of a paper crown with the line "Commit a crime at Christmas? You must be crackers".

I suppose the main problem I have is understanding the call to action. Having processed the information, what does the advertiser want me to do? Given that the target audience is pretty narrow (unless ordinary members of the public suddenly start committing crime at Christmas), are we really to believe hardened criminals will have their hearts turned by the prospect of missing a roast turkey dinner with their families? Such insight into the criminal mind seems dangerously simplistic for a modern police force - maybe Essex Police also think lags dress up in black-and-white hooped jumpers with bandit masks and a sack marked "SWAG"?

I'm going to investigate whether this ad is covered by the remit of the Independent Police Complaints Commission.

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