x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Manipulating the message so it sticks in your brain

Read or listen attentively and you quickly work out how much care goes into the word content in advertisements of all kinds.

Advertisers will tell you all about the importance of imagery in delivering the intended message. But they would also caution against underestimating the power of words. Whether on the printed page, on air or on screen, there is little time to attract attention and keep it. Readers find it remarkably easy to turn the page; viewers and listeners tuned to radio or television can just switch off.

Sometimes, the advertiser resorts to shock tactics to make an impact. The subject matter may well provide justification - who would challenge the UAE's plans for tough health warnings on cigarette packets - but the approach can still be risky. This may be the sort of news the advertising industry least wants to hear, but what I least want to hear, ever again, is a current British road safety advertisement that crops up whenever I drive my car.

There is no irritating music. I have no complaint about the voice of the solitary speaker, a well-spoken woman with impeccable diction. The problem concerns the words she uses. She speaks of hearts being broken, but is not talking about love. Instead she proceeds to a graphic account of what happens to the internal organs of someone not wearing a seat belt when a car crashes at 48kph. I have heard it in full only once or twice. Now, I reach across and switch to another station or turn the volume down as soon as I realise what is coming.

Shock advertising has been with us for some time, and the dangers associated with road travel are a common theme. With the help of words, sounds or pictures, a disturbing impression is given of some awful event that might be avoided if only greater care is shown. It is a laudable aim. Another safety advertisement, dealing with the sound of a person being hit on a railway level crossing, is stunningly effectively because there is no sound. The words tell us human flesh and bones make no difference to 450 tonnes of train travelling at speed.

But shock advertising is not alone in seeking that striking first impression. Read or listen attentively and you quickly work out how much care goes into the word content - whether dialogue or direct announcements - of advertisements of all kinds. Humour is a useful tool. To illustrate the folly of leaving valuables in an unattended car, a couple can be heard chatting happily (and absurdly) about the GPS, wallet and other items displayed invitingly for any passing thief.

A series of Vodafone advertisements plays on the menace of crackly mobile phone lines; in one, the woman spectacularly mishears her partner and convinces herself he is ending their relationship. Any doubt is removed when he exclaims in exasperation: "I'm breaking up - got to go." "Are you seriously chucking me by phone?" she demands. British Gas knew what its customers felt about the cost of cooking and heating over the British winter. They also knew some bumper profit figures were due to be announced.

So in the period before and after the results announcement, a soft, soothing male voice has been used, to a backdrop of soft, soothing music, to reassure customers that British Gas appreciates how tough winter had been (without going so far as to admit the company's part in making it tough). It then makes a virtue out of a modest post-winter price reduction. To be honest, this does not make me feel especially well-disposed towards British Gas. Nor will I choose my car insurance from a price comparison firm called Go Compare that uses a tenor to belt out unfunny snap answers to a succession of prompts.

But I have remembered them all, just as the advertisers hoped, even if there is one - along with the broken hearts - that I would rather forget: can someone please tell me how a Ford Transit van can be iconic? Colin Randall is a contributing editor to The National and can be contacted at crandall@thenational.ae