21 MARCH 1987, Page 21


The media: Paul Johnson

argues it pays to advertise but only if you have the right product

ONE of the great truths of modern times is, it pays to advertise. It is also a truth which a large number of people find difficulty in accepting. Resistance is by no means confined to the Left. Some com- pany chairmen loathe forking out vast sums for something in which, in their hearts, they do not believe; and it is revealing how many traditional Tory MPs support the BBC precisely because it does not show ads (at any rate paid ones). But it is among Labour supporters that hostility to advertising is strongest, some holding it Is a great moral evil, creating appetites which would otherwise not exist for capi- talism to satisfy, others believing it is all a fraudulent con.

Labour opposition to ads has declined in the last year or two, partly as a resuilt of the GLC's death-bed campaign, which was generally rated a success d'estime, if no more. The TUC put out quite a sensible paper, urging member-unions to make intelligent use of advertising agencies. The Party changed its tune too. I don't myself think much of its red rose re-launch, but I am in a minority. Many observers consider it the most intelligent thing Labour has done since the 1983 election. But the party still has lessons to learn. One is that professional publicity cannot be done on the cheap. The Sunday Express reports that the firm which handled the PR for Neil Kinnock's calamitous trip to the United States charged only £2,000. In PR, you get what you pay for. The company, Fenton Communications, seems to specialise in left-wing political jobs. It does the Amer- ican PR of both Angola and Nicaragua. Its boss, Dave Fenton, is quoted as saying: We worked cheap for Neil Kinnock . . . became we like him and want to sell our future services.' For Kinnock's coming trip to see Ronald Reagan, Fenton says he plans 'to charge him a lot more'. Kinnock would be well advised not to go at all. For another lesson in the publicity game is that there is such a thing as an unsaleable product. I doubt if a left-wing speciality firm is what Kinnock needs in the States. It used to be a sound rule among British political radicals — Lloyd George swore by it — that if you got into trouble, you hired an impeccably right-wing silk to get you out of it. Edward Carson and F. E. Smith proved how sensible the rule was. What applies to the law also works, I suspect, in the market. A bad, left-wing cause needs a hard-bitten capitalist agency, with no illusions and lots of professional skill. But no amount of money, and no flackman genius, can sell Kinnock's de- fence policy to the President, the Congress or the bulk of the American media. The trip will merely provide another opportun- ity for publicising its shortcomings, on both sides of the Atlantic. There is a growing feeling in Westminster, fed by Kinnock's veiled threat to resign last week, that the lad is close to breaking-point. Another Bay of Pigs in America could finish him. There are times when the best counsel a PR man can give you is to stay quiet at home.

With one real selling angle, however, it is amazing what a large and well-directed injection of cash will do. Witness, for instance, the sudden re-emergence of the 'I'm pregnant. Do you want it, or shall I sell it?' Sunday Times from the doldrums. The problem here was not money. The paper is making a profit of about £1 million a week. The problem was lacklustre editorial pro- duct, caused to a limited extent by loss of staff but chiefly by low morale among those who remained, or joined, and lack of confidence that the editor, Andrew Neil, has the answer. To be fair to Neil, the main paper has begun to improve in recent weeks, and it may be that Rupert Mur- doch's fortitude in sticking by him will eventually be justified.

But the chief reason for the Sunday Times's resurgence, in addition to the game 'Entrepreneur', seems to be its colour-magazine. Earlier this month the paper spent £400,000 in a single weekend, to glamorise the special issue celebrating the quarter-century of its magazine. Thanks to a superb anniversary issue, the magazine once again pulled its weight. The paper put on an extra 250,000 copies, and it is now, to the chagrin of the Sunday Telegraph and Observer, about 600,000 copies ahead of its quality rivals.

This illuminating episode confirms my view that a good colour mag. is vital to success in the Sunday field. You magazine, for long the best of the bunch, has been an essential ingredient in the ability of the Mail on Sunday to achieve and maintain a big sale. It is still good, but the Sunday Times Magazine, with all the advantages of a large format and high-quality reproduc- tion, is even better, and a natural product for big-spending promotion. Indeed, a Sunday paper without a mag. is not easy to promote at all — witness the poor showing of Sunday Today, and the immense gap between the News of the World, which has one, and the Sunday Mirror and People, which have not.

Not having a magazine, therefore, is likely to prove a handicap for the News on Sunday, due to appear on 26 April. I am also dubious about the line it is taking in pre-launch publicity in the trade press. The idea is that it makes a virtue of not carrying soft porn, stressing instead its editorial coverage. Fine. But in a double-page ad in the current Campaign it put the sentiment thus: 'No Tits, but a Lot of Balls'. The paper's left-wing staff apparently have grave misgivings about this slogan and were with difficulty persuaded by the agency, Bartle Bogle Hegarty, to keep it. The staff thought it might be regarded as discriminating against women with flat chests and men with tiny testicles, or none. That does not seem' to me the most important objection. The slogan is based on an Americanism which may be creeping in but has not yet, as it were, quite crept.

Most of us don't use 'balls' in this context but `guts'; to say a thing is 'balls' means something quite different. What in effect the advert is proclaiming is that the new paper will have no cheesecake but will be full of nonsense. That may well turn out to be true but why admit it in advance?