Sponsored advertorial - It pays to advertise, but not enough to revive Britain

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House of Commons, 25 March 2013, 6pm

For the motion

Laurence Green, founding partner, 101 London

Luke Owen, student of advertising, London College of Communication

Against the motion

Sam Blackie, Deloitte

Max Lehner, student of advertising, London College of Communication

The UK economy is in a hole. We’ve lost our triple-A credit rating, the Budget deficit is rising and growth remains stagnant – leading many commentators, including the New Statesman’s economics editor, David Blanchflower, to believe that we are in a triple-dip recession. And as the commentators often stress, we need to find a strong and effective cure for our economic woes – and we need to find it fast.

Could advertising hold the key? This might appear to be a tall order. After all, it is a particularly deep hole the Chancellor has dug for us and there is only so much that a few television and display adverts can offer. On closer inspection, however, it would seem this is a question worth asking – particularly when the results from a recent study by Deloitte are taken into account.

The research, conducted on behalf of the Advertising Association, set out to quantify and qualify the economic effects of the £16bn spent on advertising in the UK every year. Using data from 17 countries over a 14-year period, Deloitte was able to demonstrate that, for every £1 spent on advertising, £6 was generated for the economy – something that amounted to a £100bn effect on total GDP, and which led the report authors to write: “We need to think differently about advertising – as an industry, important in its own right, but also as a business activity, and a fundamental driver of UK competitiveness.”

Is this an accurate view or is it the case that the industry has fallen for its own spin? To put it to the test, the New Statesman and the Advertising Association gathered a mix of the UK’s top creative and analytical thinkers, as well as emerging talent from the London College of Communication, for a House of Commons debate: “It pays to advertise but not enough to revive Britain.”

The first person to speak was Laurence Green of the 101 London advertising agency. Arguing for the motion, he opened with a reference to some of the hugely successful advertising campaigns he has worked on, such as the Skoda “It’s a Skoda, honest” and “Cake” adverts; the Cadbury’s drumming gorilla; and the Sony ad that featured coloured balls bouncing down the streets of San Francisco to mark the arrival of its Bravia LCD range. However, while one can’t dispute the value of these advertising campaigns for the companies in question, Green felt they did little to stimulate the economy.

“We didn’t sell a car to anyone who wasn’t already in the market for a car,” he reflected. “And even though Sony had to build a new factory to cope with demand, it was the collapse of the price that was driving market growth – we were simply harvesting a share of that market.”

In Green’s view, advertising supports individual organisations, and those alone, because most companies use advertising to preserve higher pricing structures rather than create demand. Therefore, he said, the role advertising has to play in reviving the British economy is limited: “When faced with a similar tough economic environment, President Roosevelt did not build a brand, he built bridges. I suspect bridges are a better way to build Britain.”

This idea that investing in infrastruc-ture offers a viable way out of our economic mire was not disputed by the next speaker, Sam Blackie of Deloitte. He agreed that it was hugely important to get the country spending.

“There is consensus in the UK and ­Europe about needing to use economic growth and spending to get us out of this mess,” he said. “We need to grow markets to escape our malaise and advertising is fundamental to doing that.”

Blackie referred to advertising as a “Darwinian process that improves products, brings people together, matches buyers with sellers, and creates markets that otherwise wouldn’t exist”. For evidence of what this means in practice, readers should turn to the aforementioned Advertising Pays report, which demonstrates how advertising facilitates competition through price promotion, product differentiation and innovation, which in turn helps new entrants to penetrate markets. Take broadband advertising, which Deloitte estimates is responsible for 36 per cent of take-up in UK households; or the £200m savings on schoolwear that parents benefited from in 2010, “thanks to supermarkets advertising their intense price wars”.

Advertising also enables the digital economy by providing funding for free search activities, social media, instant messaging and most websites, which in turn provide £5bn in value to customers. And let us not forget the social contribution of advertising such as the government campaign “Don’t Advertise Your Stuff to Thieves”, which reduced the cost of crime by £189m.

Indeed, the findings of the Deloitte report are supported by other studies, such as a McKinsey paper, published in March 2012, which concluded that advertising is an economic growth engine that accounts for 15 per cent of GDP growth across the G20 economies; and Leo Burnett’s research into the effect of the Department for Transport’s drink-driving campaigns, which stated that over a 30-year period “this relentless pursuit of potential drink-drivers saved almost 2,000 lives, prevented more than 10,000 serious injuries, and created a value to society of £3bn”.

Nonetheless, doubts were raised about the value of relying on a sector that encourages consumerism in order to help any country recover from a debt crisis. As Luke Owen, a student at the London College of Communication, argued: “How can an industry that encourages people to spend bring us back from this [crisis], when it is this [debt] that got us here to start with?”

Owen also felt that advertising was becoming increasingly irrelevant as “people don’t watch adverts any more”. “The harder advertisers strive to get attention, the more annoying they become,” he said. “Dave Trott [founder of the Gate advertising agency] said 90 per cent of ads are invisible. Ninety per cent is far too high a fail rate for an industry capable of saving an economy.”

Max Lehner, however, wasn’t convin­ced of this argument. Also a student of advertising at the London College of Communication, he said that regardless of how ineffective some may consider ­advertising to be, in the main it still works. He referred to the case of Nike, which, in the early 1990s when everyone was cutting back on advertising spend, did the opposite.

“They did something different to what everyone else was doing. Instead of saving money, they spent even more money on building their brand. Recognition is now 900 per cent higher than when it [the campaign] began.”

But the main focus of this debate was not on how effective advertising may or may not be in terms of brand awareness. It was on whether the advertising industry could provide a much-needed boost to the UK economy. And on that issue, the house was united in favour of the motion.

It is not advertising that is going to revive the economy, it was argued, but better, stronger manufacturing – “We’ve sold our gold reserves, water companies, air-traffic control, Land Rover, Jaguar and Rolls-Royce. When we want new railways we go to Germany; when we want new power stations we go to France,” was one comment. “Our economy is at the mercy of politics” was another, highlighting the proposed merger between BAE Systems and EADS, which failed as following intervention by the German government: “No amount of advertising would have closed that deal.”

Meanwhile another guest blamed the advertising industry for not stepping up to the plate. If an advert can result in a product selling out almost immediately – such as the M&S ad for a chocolate pudding that sold out within 48 hours – then the reason why advertising is “failing to lift us out of recession is that advertisers aren’t good enough”, she said.

The debate closed with Sam Blackie attempting to rebut some of these sensible comments. “The point was made that, if no one has any money, how can they spend it? Well, if you don’t tell people about a product how are they going to buy it?” he retorted.

“We can’t advertise our way out of trouble, but equally we can’t get out of trouble if we don’t advertise.”

Persuasive as he may have been, it was not enough to turn the house, and when it came to the final vote it was overwhelmingly in favour of the motion. Advertising, it would seem, does pay – just not enough to revive our economy.

Sponsored content from Advertising Association. For further details about advertising’s economic impact please go to www.adassoc.org.uk/advertising-pays

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Blood, blades and bitter: how ice hockey bloomed in 1980s Britain

In ailing northern towns, amateur ice hockey brought violence and validation to a generation of young men.

If you scarfed your evening tea – cold Sunday lunch meats, a scoop of pease pudding, perhaps – and got down early, you could claim seats so close to the action that you might feel on your face the cooling spray of tiny ice chips cleaved by gleaming blades suddenly braking. Here, in the front row of a semi-dilapidated, sub-zero warehouse nicknamed The Shed – where there were no Perspex protective barriers, and where a six-ounce black puck of vulcanised rubber once shot over our heads and into the jaw of a woman behind us – you could see blood from broken noses and split lips, dripping a brilliant trail of red across the cold blue mirror of Durham Ice Rink. In the recession-hit north-east of England in the 1980s, life didn’t get more thrilling.

The Pyeongchang Olympics, with its ramps, sleighs, rifles and Lycra-coated bodies being hurled down mountains with almost suicidal abandon – and where heroes retain an air of mystery behind mirrored masks and goggles – has reminded us that the winter Games offer a much more surreal and glamorous spectacle than their sweaty summer cousin. North and South Korea can unite on one issue at least: ice hockey, with the two countries fielding a women’s team simply called Korea.

Watching the Games has prompted a Proustian deluge of memories in me, to a time when a grubbier, more knockabout domestic incarnation of the sport enjoyed a rapid rise in popularity following the formation of the British Hockey League (BHL) in 1980, an era now regarded as the glory years.

This chapter of recent sporting history has barely been told, and I know why: the popularity of UK ice hockey existed predominantly away from the gaze of London’s media, and took seed in those ailing post-industrial provincial heartlands suffering the most under Margaret Thatcher’s government. Its top outfits came from places such as Billingham, Whitley Bay, Dundee, Kirkcaldy and my home town of Durham, where the club Durham Wasps enjoyed a golden run. Second-tier teams came from Telford, Gillingham and Sunderland while London Raiders (formerly Romford Raiders) rarely troubled the BHL’s Premier Division. Crucially, its stars were working men who held down jobs – if they had them – during the week. They were mechanics and electricians. They drove forklift trucks or sold wet fish on the markets. Some were just out of school, teenagers intent on glory among peers. They got paid little, took cold showers.

With hindsight, the success of Durham Wasps and their arch regional rivals, Whitley Warriors, was clearly tied in with the collapse of the key industries of coal mining and shipbuilding. Durham may be known for its university, but beyond the city were miles of mining heartland, where entire communities had been devoted to divining the dusky diamonds. Coal was the currency that fuelled an empire, while the shipyards at the mouth of the River Wear in Sunderland had built vessels that sailed the world.

During the Wasps’ 1980s boom-time, that all changed. The year-long miners’ strike of 1984-85 had failed to halt Thatcher’s hostile closures of the pits, while employee numbers in the British Shipbuilders Corporation dropped from 87,000 in 1977 to 5,000 in 1987. Fit and functioning men now found themselves without purpose, victims of an ideological vendetta.

“Geographically, the north-east became a ghost town, haunted by absences – of jobs, factories and pits, and people, as folk moved away to find work elsewhere,” says Katy Shaw who, as professor of contemporary writings at Northumbria University, has written extensively on the miners’ strike and its legacies. “Once the industrial heartlands had been ripped out of the region, the anomie that followed forced the working class to reassess their identity and purpose in the face of an uncertain future.”

***

The sport of ice hockey reflected the toughness of these collapsing worlds, and the anger of their disenfranchised. Games were violent and nasty, perhaps the closest the country ever came to a legitimate blood sport before cage-fighting offered an alternative outlet for working-class rage. The ice rink was the arena in which heroes and villains were made, each week a new drama. A player for Ayr Bruins in Scotland once reportedly faked a heart attack in the dressing room rather than return to a particularly bloody battle.

Built in 1940 from mottled corrugate, concrete and wood from unused coffins, the home of Durham Wasps was a notoriously rough building pitched by a river the colour of over-stewed tea. It was just half a mile from the Norman cathedral, a World Heritage site and architectural masterpiece, but when the autumn river mist drifted in through its many broken windows there was an ethereal quality to the on-ice conflicts, watched by more than three thousand tightly-packed people and several cooing pigeons. Its owners were the Smith family – headed by the near-mythical entrepreneur JJ “Icy” Smith, who made his money selling blocks of ice during the 1930s – with the team established in 1946 by Canadian airmen stationed nearby during the war.

The family were frugal, pocketing large gate receipts from overcapacity crowds evenly split between men, women and children. In the early days, a dog behind the goal would frequently bite the opposition’s shirts, and even in the 1980s overhead heaters were lit with a burning rag attached to an old hockey stick.

I played a little hockey myself, training midweek with a junior team called the Midges, and then hitting the rink’s disco on Friday night (key song: “Opportunities” by Pet Shop Boys), where the cafe sold half-cooked chips and the ice-skates that newcomers hired were so useless they were dubbed “death wellies”.

Ben Myers in ice hockey gear aged 11 in 1987

Most fans would readily admit that the match highlights were the fights enjoyed at close quarters. There was none of the theatrics of Saturday wrestling, which had enjoyed a resurgence a decade earlier thanks to odd and often unathletic personalities such as Big Daddy or the Yorkshire pig-keeper, Les Kellett. Ice hockey was more accessible than boxing, too, and there was no room for prima donnas as in football. When two players decided to go at it, officials let them.

These battles were ritualistic, the combatants initially circling on the ice like two starved bantams thrown into a medieval cockpit, before the frantic wrangling of shirts pulled over heads, helmets tossed aside and fists thrown.

In these moments, ice hockey entered a strange, lawless hinterland, the referees gauging the grapple to allow just enough violence to provide catharsis for a crowd baying for their man to knock out his southern opponent, wipe the smirk off his handsome Canuck face, or rip his balls off and shove them down his Scottish throat. And all the while soundtracked by over-amplified jingles such as Gary Glitter’s “I’m the Leader of the Gang (I Am!)”. Referees would halt fights shortly after one or both plucky scrappers were hurt. It was ugly but honest, the players fearless superheroes providing colour in a monochrome world of dole queue drudgery.

***

Few such communal spaces in which the northern working man might verbalise his anxieties, doubts or depression existed 30 years ago. Hockey was one popular outlet. “Heavy industry offered a culturally specific form of masculinity, one that was decimated with the closure of the pits and shipyards,” says Katy Shaw. “The resulting social, political and economic crisis meant that sports – particularly team sports rooted in working-class communities – became a significant source of male identity.”

The language surrounding depression and what we might today broadly identify as a “crisis of masculinity” was entirely different in the 1980s.  My grandfather, a shopkeeper in nearby Houghton-le-Spring, a mining town where the pit closed in 1981, kept his depression a secret outside of the family and took his own life shortly after retirement in 1985. Antidepressant medication was in its infancy, too; anyone suffering from a loss of self-worth did so in silence.

The game fulfilled a need for heroes you could relate to, people who ached and creaked when they rose for work on Monday. Crucial to the team were a selection of Canadian imports. While millions of Britons were at home watching Songs of Praise, we were putting our faith in the likes of the stately, stoic defenceman Mike O’ Connor, or industrious goal-stealer Rick Brebant, decent-looking compared to the local players who had moustaches, missing teeth, and diets of stodge and Newcastle Brown.

During televised games, the Canadians brought speed, guile and a weight of sporting history with them, yet always with an unspoken awareness that their exotic otherness was perhaps tainted with failure back home. Why else would anyone move to the north-east of England in 1986? Had they not seen Auf Wiedersehen, Pet?

The Wasps won a string of trophies into the next decade, and some foreign players built lives in England, though my own short-lived hockey career ended when I lost a kidney in an unrelated injury.

A corporate buyout and attempted relocation to Newcastle in the 1990s killed Durham Wasps. The importance of localisation – so key to the identity of the team’s supporters during times of economic turmoil – was lost on its new owners. After turbulent years of perilous finances, the sport continues in the Elite Ice Hockey League, though it receives less media coverage. Durham Ice Rink became a bowling alley and was then razed in 2013 to make way for an office block. There is no trace of it today.

Ben Myers’s latest novel, “These Darkening Days”, is published by Moth/Mayfly.

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia