Context Counts

Here’s an ad.

It’s quite a famous ad, for the UK’s Health Education Council. It dates from 1970, was the product of a young advertising agency called Saatchi and Saatchi and was written by the agency’s creative director, Charles Saatchi (before he went off to reinvent art). It ran in print.

What if Saatchi’s had produced this ad today? And what if the HEC’s media agency, across town from Saatchi’s and who would probably not have seen the copy unless the planner had made a bit of an effort, had written a plan featuring native this and digital that and which (and this is surely the important piece) was optimised to deliver really huge audiences on a mix of online sites. Much, much bigger than could be achieved in print alone.

The media agency would have briefed the trading desk; the trading desk (most unlikely to have seen the copy) would place the ad to maximise the audience, programmatically of course. Some of these placements may well not have been ideal – as an ad for the Health Education Council there would be a fair chance our ad would have finished up on health sites, exercise sites, alongside ads for gyms and sports equipment. Maybe someone had heard it had something to do with food – so it would have appeared on food sites, alongside restaurant reviews and recipes.

And then (to coin a possibly rather appropriate phrase) the shit would indeed have hit the fan. The ad would have gone viral – but not in a good way. The ad would certainly have got exposure – but generally attached to comments complaining about it and blaming the HEC for ‘being disgusting’ and ‘scaring people’. The media agency would have shifted seamlessly into ‘post-rationalisation’ mode, claiming that the shock and disgust felt by those exposed was part of the strategy. They might even have rewritten the strategy in an awards entry and won.

I would contend that this is an ad worth thinking about, worth chewing over (sorry). It’s an unusual ad in that it contains only facts – no opinions. It shouldn’t elicit shock and enraged comments, rather it should make you think and hopefully change your behaviour.

I don’t know anything about the placement in 1970 but I bet the copy would have been enhanced by the context in which it appeared. It’s a brilliant use of words – it has to be read. The core idea would not have been served well by the highly transitory, fleeting nature of most online environments. It would not have been a good radio ad, or a TV ad. It’s a print ad. And as such it works.

Context is important. Reducing everything to an audience number and making that number as big as possible all too often misses the point. Building a plan that certainly reaches the audience you want to reach, but does so within the most appropriate context, and thus gets into the brain of the desired consumer at just the right moment to gain the maximum effect – that’s great planning.

Go back to the top and read the ad again. And then tell me that context counts for nothing.