If only Stephen Hawking was on hand to turn more painful TV campaigns into antimatter, writes Anna Burnside
IT’S made by an ad agency called Dare and is the latest instalment in what has been described as the bravest ad campaign ever. Certainly using Professor Stephen Hawking to advertise a price comparison website by making a mockery of the same website’s previous adverts is one of the most surprising developments since Iggy Pop became the face of Swiftcover.
The professor, currently director of research at Cambridge’s Centre for Theoretical Cosmology and the recent recipient of the Special Fundamental Physics Prize (worth £1.8 million) announces to a lecture theatre that he has discovered how to generate a supermassive black hole. How, asks a student, will he use this knowledge? The action cuts to Gio Compario, Go Compare’s incomparably annoying opera singer. He is, as usual, lecturing a couple, via the medium of operatically enunciated doggerel, about car insurance. Behind him, a black hole opens up and sucks him in. The ad ends with Hawking’s computerised laughter.
Ever since Gio Compario (actually tenor Wynne Evans in tails and comedy moustache) bounded on to our screens in 2009, he has been irritating the hell out of the television-viewing public. He was part of a shake-up in price comparison advertising forced by Compare the Market’s introduction of Aleksandr Orlov, the Russian-accented meerkat. As the rest of the market rushed to keep up, Gio was joined by Cara, Confused.com’s karaoke-style warbling gonk. All this has been great news for the advertising industry. In 2006, price comparison sites spent £35m. By 2009, it was £85m. In that year Go Compare increased its customer numbers by 60 per cent and made a profit of £12m. Pre-Gio, the company was a minor player. It’s now the third biggest price comparison site in the UK.
Did Go Compare set out to create a teeth-itching character from the beginning? Murray Calder, the director of Mediacom Edinburgh, thinks they probably did. “All the initial ads were trying to do was get the name across,” he says. “They did it the same way Cillit Bang did – by being annoying.” When it became clear just how annoying, they allowed their agency to ramp it up, running “defaced” posters which suggested Gio get some singing lessons, jump off a cliff and so on.
“The first ads got the jingle into our heads,” says Calder. “The subsequent ones got the brand talked about. It’s all about driving volume to their website and injecting character into a product that is not that intrinsically interesting.”
Jason Stone, editor of advertising industry website David Reviews, agrees: “They are operating in a market sector where it’s vital to be brought quickly to mind by potential customers and the ‘annoyingness’ of this campaign has helped to achieve this.”
So the difference between Go Compare and, say, the Shake n’ Vac lady careening round her living room with the Hoover, is that these ads have become a talking point, creating interest in the brand that many 30-second slots before Coronation Street fail to do. Gold Blend set the standard here, with their decade-long campaign featuring Anthony Head and Sharon Maughan as caffeine-crazed lovers. When their instant coffee-fuelled affair finally burst into flames, it made the front page of the Sun. Thirty million people watched the last ad, in which Head declared his love.
By the end of a 10-year run, the Gold Blend brand was selling 70 per cent more than when it started. Other much-loved campaigns failed to deliver such impressive results. Smash, advertised by bemused aliens discussing idiot “earthlings” and their attachment to whole, muddy, raw potatoes, faded away because we earthlings preferred proper mash to the ersatz purée from the packet. Not because we didn’t like the adverts, which were magnificent.
Times change and clever adverts change with them. Oxo fired their argumentative but gravy-loving nuclear family in 1999, feeling that a mum in a pinny who made roast dinners was out of date and middle class. Last year, they promoted their newfangled squeezy tubes of stock concentrate in an ad which had the dad from the old ads talking to his son via Skype, advising him on how to make a chicken stir-fry.
PG Tips dumped the chimps when it became politically unacceptable to have animals dressed up in hats and coats pretending to have a tea party. They now have a knitted monkey (and comedian Johnny Vegas). Vegas and Monkey started out advertising ITV Digital; it was a notable failure but the Lancastrian comedian-sock puppet combination was sufficiently popular that the pair went on to advertise Rainforest Alliance-approved hot drinks.
According to Stone: “Certain commercials pass through a phase of persistent ridicule to become cults. The best example is The Ambassador’s Party commercial for Ferrero Rocher which ran for years despite continuous mockery. It’s hard to imagine that happening now though. Companies are very aware of what’s being said about their brands on social media and I suspect they’d pull a campaign if the online response was overwhelmingly negative.”
The luckiest companies find a formula and stick with it. Andrex has been flogging toilet roll with the help of an adorable Labrador puppy for the past 40 years. Apart from swapping the real dog for an animated one in 2010, little has changed over the decades. It’s so successful that arriviste brand Cushelle has enlisted a simpering cartoon koala bear (and the voice of Robert Webb) in an attempt to do something very similar.
Perhaps, once Professor Hawking’s black hole has fully digested Gio, it will turn its attention to Koala, Cara, Barbara Windsor in her tiara, that awful woman who is half horse and eats yoghurt, as well as any meerkat it spots wearing a cravat. Well, we live in hope. «