PR can be highly effective at boosting an advertising budget, writes Ben Abrahams. But there can be a high price to pay

PR can be highly effective at boosting an advertising budget, writes Ben

Abrahams. But there can be a high price to pay

What did you think of those Calvin Klein ads? You know, the ‘child-porn’

campaign, using apparently vulnerable teenagers in suggestive poses.

Were they exploitative or merely a misjudged attempt to be different?

Chances are you have some kind of opinion about them, possibly even a

strong one. And yet, they never actually appeared in this country.

Nonetheless, according to a recent survey, it was the most written-about

advertising this summer. Between July and September, Calvin Klein’s

Denim clothes campaign featured in no less than 18 stories in the

national press.

‘It shows how effective advertising can be as a PR tool. I doubt whether

it was planned, but to gain high advertising awareness without

advertising at all really is a remarkable achievement,’ says Martin

Loat, managing director of Propeller Marketing Communications, which

carries out a survey of ads that make the news.

There’s no doubt PR can be a highly effective way of boosting an

advertising budget. In an award-winning IPA advertising effectiveness

paper, the creators of last year’s Wonderbra campaign estimated the

pounds 130,000 poster campaign generated media coverage that would have

cost pounds 4.4m to buy.

Using the rule of thumb that the value of editorial is four times that

of advertising, this translates to an astonishing pounds 17.6m worth of


Such leverage is unusual and its lure is hard to resist. But there can

be a high price to pay for that kind of success. One of the problems for

respectable marketers is the minefield of moral outrage they must enter

to get it.

Long-running, cosy flirtation, of the likes of the Gold Blend couple, is

the exception in this field rather than the rule (see page 49).

It’s no coincidence, says Loat, that Sainsbury’s came second in the

survey with 17 stories covering its thirtysomething ‘love in the aisles’

ad and the film of goalkeeper Bruce Grobelaar dropping his shopping.

Third place went to Wrangler, with ten stories speculating that brand

spokeswoman Paula Abbott was about to become the new Wonderbra model.

‘Three of these ads used sex, two used celebrities and two used

controversy. They are by far the best ways of generating editorial

coverage,’ he says.

Whether or not you’re prepared to court controversy - it’s anathema for

many brands and their owners - the key factor in successfully PR-ing

advertising is making the intent clear right from the very start.

Pauline Kent, creative director of Countrywide PR, last year developed a

seminar for clients anxious to emulate Wonderbra’s success. ‘You’ll only

get so far with opportunistic PR that comes in at the end of the

process,’ she advises.

Second, she stresses the importance of having a PR company that has the

right media expertise and strategic understanding for the task in hand.

‘It’s not just about pumping out a message. It’s about finessing it in

just the right places.’

And last, you have to treat your advertising exactly as if it were a

feature film. ‘That means looking at all the components - the

screenplay, the stars, the soundtrack, the location can all make the

difference between no coverage and a national story,’ says Kent.

While there appears to be no single model for success, a look at several

successfully promoted advertising campaigns supports Kent’s advice.

According to the Wonderbra IPA paper, ‘the generation of publicity and

the domination of the media by the advertising... was one of the

fundamental objectives of the Wonderbra advertising.’

Sainsbury’s claims to have briefed its agency to look for ideas that

would fire the public imagination and - well before the campaign broke -

set up a special in-house PR unit specifically to promote it.

According to Alan Albeury, the former Nestle PR man, the eight-year-old

Gold Blend campaign ‘deliberately mimicked soaps right from the start,

because of the huge amount of public interest in them at the time’.

The pressure is now on clients to wring every last penny from their

advertising budgets. ‘It’s just another example of integration,’

observes Loat. But the danger is that marketers now have the motive and

the opportunity to use PR-led advertising to commit serious crimes

against their brands.’

The motive arises from increasing media literacy and proliferation which

fragments audiences and makes advertising less effective. The UK now has

35 TV stations, 140 radio stations and 9000 magazines. Chilling research

by CIA Medianetwork recently found that recall of TV commercials

plummeted from 18% in 1965 to 6% in 1985 and 2% in 1995.

At the same time, not only has the media grown ever more fascinated with

itself, but advertising has become an increasingly important part of our

culture - giving greater opportunity for related stories, especially in

the tabloid press.

‘The acid test of whether it’s a story for us is ‘will ordinary people

talk about it in ordinary conversation?’,’ says one veteran tabloid


‘Advertising influences the language. It involves television, famous or

beautiful people and large amounts of money, so it’s become one of our

best sources of stories,’ he explains.

Advertising-led PR might seem like the perfect solution to small budgets

and clutter but even PR experts warn it can also backfire. One obvious

danger is not getting any coverage at all.

Another is the loss of strategic control. ‘With advertising you can

dictate precisely what you say and where. With PR, your finely-honed

advertising strategy is turned over to some news editor who cares

nothing for the subtlety of your positioning,’ admits Loat. But, he

argues, this is balanced by ‘potential gains.’

Trevor Morris, managing director of PR company the Quentin Bell

Organisation, agrees: ‘Not all coverage is good coverage. There’s the

added danger that you change the advertising just for the sake of the PR


Although no self-respecting marketer would admit it, there are current

campaigns - Saatchi & Saatchi’s Club 18-30 work and launch campaign for

Playboy TV, for example - which seem more interested in getting noticed

that in what is said about them.

But even this tactic has its supporters. ‘It depends on your

communication problem,’ claims Loat. ‘If awareness is your concern,

arguably such an approach is justified.’

In any case, with the possible exception of Benetton it’s hard to think

of a single brand that has suffered from poor coverage of its


Arguments of morality and corporate responsibility aside, it seems that

increasing numbers of advertisers are going about it in a deliberate and

planned way because of the pressures on them to work their media budgets


Nonetheless, Loat argues, mention of PR only occurs in a tiny fraction

of creative briefs. Of course, if everybody was doing it, the impact

would be reduced. But if everybody was doing it you’d have to do it too,

just to keep up.


The newsmakers


Which ads hit the headlines between July and September 1995

Advertiser                 Number of Stories

Calvin Klein                      18

Sainsbury’s                       17

Wrangler                          10

Martini                            8

Estee Lauder                       7

Guinness                           6

Benetton                           6

7-Up Lite                          6

National Condom Week               5

Safeway                            5

Source: Propeller Marketing Communications



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