Ties Required?

Breandan O Broin

Film director and former ad agency executive Alan Parker claims you could always tell the ads from the programmes on TV because the ads were so much the better of the two. It’s not so easy nowadays, as boundaries become increasingly blurred.

It’s possible to blame pretty much anything on Tony Blair and link things back to the sexing-up of the infamous document designed to persuade the great British public (and the rest of a dubious world, excluding Bush country) that heading off to war in Iraq was just what civilisation needed if we were all to sleep sound in our beds.

As history records, Saddam got toppled, then topped and terrorism took off. Exit Tony, with the damned dossier still looking decidedly dodgy. How did it happen?

Seems the PR blokes led by Alistair Campbell got to write the preface-to-war their way and just like the Pope interpreting morals, you’re hardly going to get a balanced spin on what is at stake. It’s not lies but the overall impression given resembles the McCann Erickson ad agency maxim in that it simulates ‘the truth well told’.

ST holds McCann’s in high regard and reckons that telling the truth well via ads is a perfectly permissible objective. But there has to be an absolute divide between flogging Heineken and selling ordinary peoples’ lives down the swanee.

It isn’t an issue of conscience or morals; it’s a matter of public need. Sometimes the truth needs to be told as the truth, not as a perceived or promotable version of it which the spin doctors continually like to concoct for public consumption.

These high-minded concepts are not confined to ST taking a dig at our next-door neighbours and their ex-political leaders. The rot – if that’s a fair word to use – has long since set in here at home in the hallowed halls of RTE itself. Part of the problem lies in contemporary concepts of programming and partly in the way the station differentiates (or fails to differentiate) between editorial content and advertising style.

Much is admittedly outside the station’s control. When a sports reporter is trying for a few instant words from a player immediately after a match, it’s hardly fair to expect him to stop Brian O’Driscoll swigging his Powerade or ripping the Club Energise bottle from the mighty mitt of a hurler acting on the instructions of the GPA.

But one area where the blurring of boundaries now regularly occurs is in the promotional or identity stings that appear before, during and after broadcasts announcing the various sponsor names associated with the TV transmission of the event, companies which may often have little or nothing to do with the actual event itself. Specifically worth mentioning (if only to illustrate how far the pendulum has already swung) are the RTE Weatherline idents for Avonmore dairy products.

When Avonmore initially commenced this sponsorship, the idents were corporate in nature, creatively linking cows, milk and the company to the subject of weather itself. All that has now changed utterly and the present idents are nothing other that short ads for Avonmore milk, or cream, or soup, or whatever product the company wishes to promote. This is no longer sponsorship, this is advertising pure and simple. Sponsorship stings were created as a revenue-raiser for RTE allowing them sell space without impinging on its minutes-per-hour advertising limitations. The original stings were strictly controlled as to their content in sound, vision and length.

The sponsor’s name could not be spoken. Nor could video-clips or soundbite snatches from ads be used. Avonmore’s sponsorship ads (not stings, not now) illustrate that any moral qualms RTE may have once held have been abandoned and the boundary between programme content and advertising has gone the way of fish on Fridays.

Tales in a sting


The Avonmore idents support the weather reports shown after the news bulletins on RTE Television. But the days when advertisers were subjected to sponsorship rules tied to the theme of the programming appear to have well and truly gone.

One understands the client desire to get more hard-sell images in return for the sponsorship buck, but is RTE so hard-pressed for the adman’s shilling that it has had to so radically alter its original stance on programme sponsorships?

Newspapers and magazines have long accepted ads that look like editorial, but they have generally stuck by their guns and insisted such editorial look-alikes are identified by insisting that advertorial/advertising feature/special feature or promotion appear.

Some magazines are a law on to themselves where the editorial is blatant PR puffery, but these con jobs are all too easy to recognise to be of much concern and informed readers can normally detect any deception and treat it accordingly.

Of greater concern is the way some programmes have become like elongated ads by providing one side and one side on an important issue. Tabloid TV is a new departure for RTE, arguably not a great step into the future for the national broadcaster, but one that shares a similarity with the sexed-up imagery of Blairite pronouncements.

The Future Shock series is an example where primetime programming is devoted to a singular take on issues such as housing, health, drink, drugs, fatism and other social issues. These programmes are styled to look like ads, but are even more one-sided and scarier than would be permitted for any ad campaign, even the drink-driving horrors.

The High Society programme shown on RTE took the sensationalist biscuit to new extremes with its unsupported claims of cocaine-snorting government ministers and airline pilots out of their skulls indulging a line in the cockpit at 30,000 feet.

The station’s response was to wheel out a touchy-feely series of soft interviews with RTE Authority chairman, Mary Finan, the long-time doyenne of the PR industry.

It’s not so much the programme content that is the issue here – it may be that some nuns are crack fanatics – the styling and presentation of such shows is the issue.

In Future Shock: Fat Nation, Irish Times journalist Kate Holmquist compared Ireland’s eating disorder with the UK and her native US and looked at what’s coming down the tracks for our children if we don’t take stock of what we’re eating. The ‘crisis’ is said to cost the €400 million a year and threatens to bankrupt the HSE.

The programme flung the ‘epidemic’ word around like snuff at a wake. Advertising is designed to be one-sided, fair enough; everyone with half a brain knows that. But programmes are not viewed through the same biased prism; particularly when dealing with public issues of grave importance, like our nation’s health and safety.

Having known or worked with Mary Finan, Cathal Goan and Geraldine O’Leary, it’s clear they all understand the issues that lie at the heart of this article. Criticism or comment of this nature may be partially dismissed when coming from other agenda-driven journalists, but this view appears in Marketing and emanates from an ad man.

ST is not out to slag anyone off; least of all our national broadcaster. All we are asking for at this time is a re-statement of long-held corporate communication values, or failing that, an honest acceptance by RTE management that things have changed and will continue to do so. So long as the audience can clearly recognise who is paying the piper, then we all have a better chance of knowing who is calling the tune.

One of the original editorial adages is the one that says it doesn’t much matter what they say about you in the papers, so long as they spell your name right. People like their names to appear correctly. (Note to certain editors – my name is Breandan O Broin, not Brendan O’Brain, O’Brien, O’Brum or any other anglicised derivative).

Anyway, there I was in the RDS over the New Year, watching the Leinster Lions playing in the Magners League when I took a closer look at my ticket stub.

Due to whoever printed the tickets, I was attending a Manger’s sponsored event. The Ospreys opposition from Wales were playing away in a Manger. Musing on the terrors of inverting type and making a New Year resolution to double proof-read all my copy, I took myself off to the bar and ordered a pint of Bumlers.

Much alarm about eats


Journalist Kate Holmquist checks out a shopper’s trolley in the Future Shock: Fat Nation investigation of Ireland’s obesity problem. The programme’s producers tried to get comments from the food and drink industry but no.

It’s not too late to get your brand fighting fit for 2008 and beyond.

So why not pay a visit to thebrandgym.com and learn a few old and new tricks there. An accompanying book, brand vision (oh dear, no capital letters, how terribly pass

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