17 November 2010

Flights of fancy

A cuddly video viral has been doing the social media rounds, brought to you buy those chummy Flash Mob enthusiasts T-Mobile. About 4 friends have independently posted it to Facebook as an uplifting piece of work to general applause from others, leaving me genuinely bewildered at what I am missing. You probably need speakers for the full effect:

Of course this ad was never intended for broadcast but, instead, to be shared by friends across social media such as Facebook. As such it succeeds - it makes us feel warm, we share it with people we like who also feel warm. T-Mobile then prays it makes you feel warm towards them as the original sharer of this piece of feel-goodery, because Life Is For Sharing. So why does it leave me feeling utterly cold?

On one level, it's because it is the playing out of a nightmare. I cannot imagine anything worse, having gotten off a long-haul flight, jet-lagged and disoriented, staggered through customs and have someone come up to me singing songs in my face with imaginary instruments. In that situation I want to get out of the airport as quickly as possible, talking to as few people as possible. Contrary to what T-Mobile (and BA for that matter) would have us believe, airports are not places of high drama and emotion - they are large bus stations with better shops. Even if you are met by a long-missed friend, the whole atmosphere is weird and disorienting, too full of people you don't want to hang out with.

But as a piece of marketing, for me it also fails, by trying too hard. It is part of a very complex communications strategy to position T-Mobile as a social facilitator, presenting a piece of creative that is supposed to dovetail with the spontaneity of new media channels by choreographing a not-so-new product of the new digital age: the Flash Mob. This is supposed to look like User Generated Content, unleashing the spontaneous, touchy-feely-sharey person inside us in a situation where we don't communicate, on the heels of previous executions set in railways stations and outdoor public spaces, such as Trafalgar Square. It is utterly false, utterly contrived jolliness that sits ill with the British character, like TV Evangelism, public mourning and talking to strangers in a lift.

Beyond my personal squeamishness, it falls into that other classic trap of big-budget, high-concept advertising - it is in love with its own image. Creating something special, unique, beautiful, funny, frightening or exhilarating is not enough. I want you to give me a reason to use your product. Dramatise your uniqueness, your point of difference from the competition, make me give a shit about you. Life is not for sharing, Doritos are for sharing - you run a telephone network. What's it like? Good coverage? Value-for-money? Fast data-streaming? Flexible packages? Imaginative cross-platform linking or affiliate marketing programme? Do you sing to me in an airport? One of these things is not a USP - can you tell which one?

Worse, by losing sight of its proposition, it is setting up its customers for disappointment, lured by the myth of "Content". This is basically "stuff that makes people use your service" - content can be TV programmes, websites, downloads, updates, mash-ups, forums, anything that isn't a blank screen. By trying to align itself to what its customers do with each other via T-Mobile, rather than with T-Mobile, they lose sight of the most important thing to any mobile customer: good, reliable, fast network coverage. Have you ever tried to use a mobile phone at Heathrow airport? Or on a train? Or sometimes in the middle of central London outside the wrong building, and experienced "no signal"? Maybe if my message is that important, T-Mobile can organise a singing telegram to deliver it instead.

11 November 2010

What's yours is mine

The word 'arrogate' is not one you hear used regularly and even then not correctly. But a supreme example of it in action happened a couple of weeks back during the government's Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR). Next to the distraction of proposed cuts to child benefit, the question of the budget of the BBC was always going to be an afterthought. But by freezing the licence fee for the next 6 years, the BBC is effectively being handed a 16% cut in real terms. In addition to these "stealth cuts", the corporation also agreed to absorb £340m that currently comes out of general taxation to pay for The World Service, S4C and BBC Monitoring.

Even at its double-counting best, the previous government never quite had the chutzpah to arrogate the BBC licence fee as part of Whitehall spending. But the licence fee that users like you and I pay has now been co-opted into deficit reduction, as part of Gideon's "you're all in this together" blitz spirit. At a time when more of us will be spending more time in front of the TV than ever, as the cuts and tax rises reduce our opportunities to go out, it's as though it's been decided that even programme quality must suffer its fair share too.

People outside the UK must look on with a sense of bafflement as to how the BBC is funded. A poll tax upon all owners of a television pays for 8 TV channels, 11 national radio stations, 24-hour rolling news coverage, a network of local radio and a comprehensive website. The breadth and depth, not to say quality, of its output is extraordinary by any standards, and the funding model, whose collectivism is a relic from a bygone era, confounds conventional thinking about the power of free markets to satisfy demands. Like the NHS, it is a national treasure whose idiosyncrasies should doom it to failure, yet as a representation of who we are as a nation, it is more emblematic, I would argue, than the Union flag itself.

More baffling to me is everyone's apparent willingness to accept these cuts. The inherent weakness of the BBC's position is the fact it cannot set the licence fee itself, but rather must curry favour with the government of the day, in order to secure its future. The speed at which this deal was done caught many by surprise, and prompted a lot of use of the word "challenging", maybe before they had time to say "wait a minute...". Conscious of not wanting to be seen as being out of touch with the public mood, the BBC has grabbed the lifeline of another 6 years of licence fee, barely pausing to consider the political implications of the quid pro quo. They are Audley Harrison to the Chancellor's David Haye.

The FCO always funded the World Service, because it recognised the political nature of its work, and how ridiculous it would be to ask British TV viewers to pay for its outreach programme. But for all the good the World Service undoubtedly does, surely the next logical place to put its funding would be into the ring-fenced Overseas Development Budget. Why is it any more politically palatable for my licence fee to pay for this service now than it was 10 years ago? Especially at a time when its core operating budget is facing cuts that will affect output. Likewise, is there no part of the Welsh office that could pay for S4C? What could be more important to the people of Wales than a TV station in their own language? Or, if it isn't that important to them, then cut it adrift and see if it can attract any EU money for spurious cultural preservation programmes.

We will be forced to pay above inflation price increases for everything from train fares to toilet seats over the next few years, for no extra increase in quality. Yet the one area where an increase in quality would have a positive impact on people at all points on the socio-economic spectrum will be beggared by a government packed with a privatiser's ulterior motive. Today the same government announced they wanted to measure the success of their policies by taking a sample of people's happiness (story here). I'd suggest the first thing they could do would be let the BBC do what it does best with both hands free.