From the constant vacillating and hand-wringing, concessions and retractions that have been going on since John Prescott’s new transport measures were introduced in the Queen’s Speech three weeks ago, it’s clear that the government believes it has a problem.
The new measures, aimed at forcing motorists out of their cars and on to public transport, include congestion-charging and workplace parking levies that could add as much as £4,000 to the annual cost of motoring for every driver. The government, sensing it may have a vote-loser on its hands, has begun a frantic back- pedalling exercise.
Yet there is nothing wrong with the policy itself – and there is no reason why, given time and help to understand its benefits, people should not come to feel this new legislation is something they actively want. An administration so adroit in the deployment of spin should need no reminding that deeply unpopular products can, with the help of advertising, be embraced by the multitudes. It’s not a question of trickery, brainwashing or shady subliminal influencing – it’s simply a matter of finding the benefits that will convince.
Take war, for example. Earlier this century, millions of men, perfectly sound of mind, volunteered to risk death and disfigurement for a cause that was not altogether clear to them. Why? Advertising convinced them that the glory of patriotism was a benefit that outweighed every doubt and fear. “Your country needs you”, the recruitment posters proclaimed.
When the seat-belt legislation was introduced two decades ago, many people viewed it as at best an inconvenience, at worst an infringement of their personal liberty. Advertising – the famous “clunk-click” campaign – was used to convince them of the benefits. Carrying the strapline, “If you don’t wear a seat belt, you double your risk,” the campaign forced us to work out the advantages of wearing a seat belt for ourselves by focusing on the dire consequences that might befall us if we didn’t.
The most unpalatable feature of the beer Stella Artois is its price, so its makers have positioned it as “reassuringly expensive”. Heinz has for years made a virtue of the difficulty we encounter getting its tomato ketchup out of the container: “Good things come to those who wait.” The makers of Marmite know that there’s little chance of converting those doubters to the joys of the product, so they use the strapline, “You either love it or hate it”, encouraging the people who love it to feel they’re part of a special club.
The ability to find the benefit is a skill you learn very early on in an advertising career – and it never leaves you. Advertising people don’t see the cloud for the silver lining.
So where’s the silver lining in the dark cloud of the government’s new transport policy? Once you start looking for the benefits, both to the individual and society, you’ll find enough material for a dozen strong advertising campaigns.
Advertising can convince you of the great individual benefits of remaining in the driving seat or of letting “the train take the strain” using the same set of facts. It can make you feel like a national hero for continuing to use your car or for abandoning it in favour of public transport.
Take the personal benefits of continuing to drive your car. The new congestion charges will mean that a percentage of cars will come off the road. However small that percentage is, it will make a big difference to traffic flow. So continue to use your car and, although you may be paying a bit more, you will enjoy shorter journey times, less stress, more time in your office, higher productivity and more time with your family. What’s more, you’ll be saving money on fuel, as you won’t be stuck in traffic for hours with your engine ticking over. The thrust of the advertising might be: “Pay the congestion charge and save money.”
Now let’s argue it the other way. Leave your car at home, use public transport and you’ll be saving on both fuel costs and the new congestion charges. You can work on business documents, catch up on your reading and enjoy endless opportunities to meet people. You won’t have the stress of sitting in traffic. And because using public transport usually involves a walk of some kind at either end of the journey, you’ll be making yourself fitter. The advertising could make a range of propositions, from “Leave your car at home and lose weight” to “Ever wish you had more time to read?”.
And what of the social arguments? They can be powerful, too. Social arguments have been used successfully to encourage people to give blood, back Britain and keep Britain tidy. The social benefits of sacrificing the use of your car are clear: you’ll be contributing towards a cleaner environment, making fewer demands on the world’s resources and taking some of the weight off our overloaded roads. “Leave your car at home and save the world.” And if you continue to use your car, you could argue that because the congestion charge and workplace parking tax will contribute to the building of a new super-efficient transport system through John Prescott’s hypothecation, car drivers are nobly doing their bit for the country.
It’s all a question of attitude.
It’s interesting to note that, at the turn of the century, the dirty, greedy old motor car was being welcomed as a cleaner, more efficient alternative to horse-drawn transport. Thousands of horses were dying on our streets every day, and their carcasses had to be removed along with many tons of horse dung. Yet today we tend to romanticise the horse and carriage. Our costume dramas show only beautifully liveried stallions with glossy coats.
It’s not what you’re looking at, it’s how you are invited to perceive it.
The writer is creative director of BOOM! Communications