Wednesday, April 16, 2003

The "Forces of History" theory explaining British advertising

Brian Micklethwait has some comments on British television advertising, and the creative talent that has come from it. In particular, he addresses the question as to just why it is that British advertising is so creative. Why is it that British television ads are like little movies, whereas American television advertising is mundane in comparison. He then specifically asks me to comment. I have taken a couple of days to respond (and I am responding on my blog rather than in his comments). The reason it has taken me a while is because I don't really know the answer. I do have some thoughts, though.

To quote Brian: "British TV advertising is a strange, strange thing". He gives a couple of possible explanations for this, one being that there are cartels that sell certain products (most notably cars) and that manufacturers of these products compete on some other basis than price, so you get really expensive advertisements. Another possible is that censorship is centralised in the UK, whereas in the US there are local and state censors that advertisers have to get through, and this leads to a lowest common denominator in advertising.

While I think there is certainly some truth in the first explanation (the British retail business is full of high margin cartels - the high street electrical business is another, although discount electrical goods can be purchased elsewhere if you know where to look) I am not terribly convinced by the second theory, at least partly because in my home country of Australia, censorship is centralised, and yet television advertising resembles American advertising much more than British advertising. (In fitting with the first theory, there are also fewer cartels in the retail business in Australia). Television in general resembles the American model much more than the British model.

Which leads to another theory, which is simply that British TV advertising is a strange, strange thing simply because British TV is a strange, strange thing.

In both the US and Australia, television was pioneered by private stations carrying commercials. Multiple commercial licences were issued, and competing advertising funded television stations were in the early days allowed to more or less figure the business out for themselves. Competing television stations were not restricted or only lightly restricted in how much advertising they could show, and because there were so many stations (ten or more in some US markets) there was a lot of advertising time to fill up. While government funded television exists in Australia, it is very much the poor relation. In the US, it is even more so.

In Britain, however, from 1936 to 1955, the BBC (which does not show advertising) had a monopoly, and when the advertising funded ITV came into being in 1955 there was firstly only one channel of it, and secondly it was set up in such a way that it could not compete properly. It was very heavily regulated and very restricted in how many commercials and how many commercial breaks it could show. (It also had an artificial, fragmented and regional structure imposed on it. It was also taxed very heavily by the government). Britain's second advertising funded station (Channel 4) did not come into being until 1980, and when it did, it was even more restricted in what it could do than was ITV. It was government owned, and had a mandate to produce alternative programming that would not gain huge audiences. ITV for many years was also responsible for selling Channel 4's advertising, so you got another cartel in the selling of television advertising time. This was changed substantially in the mid 1990s, when the laws regulating ITV were loosened somewhat, Channel 4 was given control of its own destiny and the laws regulating it were loosened a lot (although it is still government owned), Rupert Murdoch's satellite channels became (still small) players in the advertising market, and Channel 5, which is the first British TV channel to be licensed in much the same way as are most foreign channels, came into being. However, the pattern was set by then.

All this meant that there was an artificial shortage of television advertising time available to be sold. This may have not been a huge deal in 1960, but as the advertising market expanded in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, this shortage became a bigger deal. The law of supply and demand meant that television advertising time was expensive, and if the advertising time is expensive then you are less likely to want to fill it up with cheaply produced advertisements, but are going to spend more money on the advertisements themselves. This is to be contrasted with the situation in America, where there is and always has been an enormous amount of advertising time to fill up, and advertising time is thus chaper, and the advertisements themselves are produced on a lower budget.

Another factor is the length and frequency of breaks in programming for advertisements. American (and Australian) television has frequent ad breaks - perhaps five or six breaks an hour during which you see four or five commercials each. British television has fewer breaks - three or four an hour - each with more commercials. Some continental European countries have uninterrupted programs with the ads solely playing in between programs. Clearly the longer the break, the more likely the viewer is to get up and do something else if the ad is not entertaining.

One other factor might be the other opportunities (or lack of them) available to talented people in the UK. Over the last several decaded, Britain hasn't had much of a film industry. It has had a large television industry, but this has not had especially high production values compared to movies. (A lot of it has been shot on video rather than film, for one thing). Thus the sorts of people who really care about producing technically accomplished films end up in advertising, whereas in the US they end up in the movie industry. And although television advertising in the 1960s may not have paid much compared to a Hollywood features film, it paid enormously better than did television at the BBC.

I still don't think I have explained everything though. I think there may be other cultural factors at hand. A lot of it may be that Britain (and London in particular) is a place obsessed with detail - not just in television advertising, but in other walks of life as well. London is a city full of markets and shops devoted to obscure 1960s watches, and the distinctions between slightly different models of same. It is a city that caters to the obsessions of every type of obsessive. America isn't like this. (Japan on the other hand is like this). I think to some extent the structure of British television and British television advertising is a reflection of this. Cyberpunk author William Gibson is obsessed with seeing patterns and trends in the noise of civilization. I suppose it is fair to say that he finds the complexity of the noise to be greatest in those two cities. (He writes about them in this article. He sees advertising as essentially trying to see patterns in the noise before anyone else, and then to take advantage of those patterns as they emerge. His new novel Pattern Recognition has essentially the following plot: "Someone is mysteriously putting segments of an obscurely powerful film with great production values on the internet. The main character, who has an inate instinct for brands, is hired by a London advertising agency to investigate so that the film can be coopted into British advertising. She therefore spends the novel running around London and Tokyo getting pieces of information from obsessive otaku types and eventually the maker of the film is found". For some reason, that plot was not work if it was a New York advertising agency. There is just something about London. (This is also getting close to the question of why I personally find London such a fascinating place).

I don't know if I am just being pretentious here. But I just keep coming back to the gut feeling that British television advertising is the way it is because the British are culturally suited to that kind of advertising. Perhaps I could have just said that it was all about "ineffable cultural factors" and saved myself a lot of typing.

Or perhaps it isn't. Perhaps it is all due to the fact that Ridley Scott happened to be in the right place at the right time. Right now I need to go to bed, and the story of the Scott brothers belongs in another post. That one tomorrow.

Update: . I have rewritten this piece a little bit since I first posted it. No major changes, but a little extra elaboration in a couple of places.

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