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
‘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.
Which ads hit the headlines between July and September 1995
Advertiser Number of Stories
Calvin Klein 18
Estee Lauder 7
7-Up Lite 6
National Condom Week 5
Source: Propeller Marketing Communications