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US versus UK: vive la différence

27 Feb 2013  |  Jim Marshall 
Jim Marshall

Aegis's Jim Marshall has just returned from the states where he was sometimes bewildered but often enthralled by the cultural differences between their approach to advertising and the UK's. They might seem a bit odd at times, often irony-free and unapologetically intrusive - but are US ads simply less hypocritical?

I've recently spent some time in California. Apart from the warmer climes, general quality of life and exemplary service, I was interested in noting the difference in the US approach to advertising and marketing.

Of course it's impossible not to be bombarded by ads - you turn the TV on in the motel and then spend the next ten minutes trying to find a programme amongst the ads. There also seems to be an endless number of commercial radio stations and billboards, but no BBC...

Clearly, in comparison with the UK, there is visibly a much higher volume of advertising and it is unapologetically intrusive - the feeling is you aren't doing the advertiser a favour by considering their product rather they are providing you with the service, by informing you about the various product benefits.

The 'age of interruption' is still very much alive and well in the US. But the differences don't stop there.

Some years ago, the UK advertising market was compared with the US market. The conclusion was that, while the UK was largely about national branded campaigns, the US was dominated by a regional retail approach.

While I was there, this difference was very evident: auto advertising focused on monthly deals at local dealerships; furniture stores offered four years interest free credit; restaurants (both internationally recognised brands and local chains) featured deals which provided a combination of price discounting and mountains of food; and any number of local retailers suggested you 'drop by' for all sorts of goodies.

What was noticeable by its absence (at least by a stuffy Brit) was the rather more subtle executions like the Audi 'ugly duckling' TV ad or the John Lewis approach to retail advertising.

This regional versus national and retail versus brand issues made me think about the recent award of the London TV licence. This is one of the first licences to be awarded as part of Jeremy Hunt's 'UK community TV' initiative.

So far the idea has been greeted with less than lukewarm interest by much of the industry. It's certainly the sort of TV service which is ideally suited to (and adopted by) the US market, but I'm far from convinced that it can succeed in the UK.

OK, London is hardly a community as it is Europe's biggest and most affluent city. Also, the award to the Lebedev's Evening Standard and Independent organisation makes sense both in terms of its existing expertise and, more importantly, its track record in maintaining and developing what appear to be long term loss making media. Even so, I still do not believe that there is either a significant audience or advertiser base out there for it - for me it would have been better if it was 'LA Live' as opposed to 'London Live'.

At this point I have to admit that I was sceptical when the Evening Standard went free and totally scathing when 'i' launched so, based on my recent track record at least, I will be entirely wrong again and London Live will be a huge success. But I should add that better analysts than me are also pessimistic about the prospects for London Live.

The recent call by the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges to ban 'junk food' advertising prior to 9pm brought into sharp focus a further difference between the attitudes in the US compared with the UK.

There the advertising for fast food is not only just about everywhere but there is also no holding back on offering huge portions at low prices, even sometimes free : 'Children eat for free'. Who is right?

I feel in the UK there is often a rather simplistic, knee jerk reaction to social and behaviour problems e.g. increase the prices and restrict/ban advertising and the problem will go away, when of course it won't. But in the States, there is no denying that overt consumerism can be interpreted as a polite and socially acceptable way of justifying greed.

However, there does seem to be a more fundamental difference: the UK still too often reverts to 'the nanny state', whereas the US is unwavering in its belief of the freedom for people to choose their own destiny, even if that destiny is to become a fatty!

Where do you draw the line? Children? Guns? This is clearly a difficult one, and most Americans now accept that there have to be some controls (even in the area of gun ownership, which is still seen as a basic right of every free American). But overall I feel there is something less hypocritical about the US approach, particularly when it comes to the role of advertising.

Finally, the rumours are true; Americans don't seem to do irony. This was arguably at its most apparent in OTC pharmaceutical product advertising. They all seem to carry lengthy verbalised health warnings, which suggested that there could be some (potentially) very nasty side effects.

I can't even start to remember what did what, but I do recall that these side effects included the following warnings: blood pressure problems, coronary issues, breathing difficulties, dangers to pregnant women, potential diabetes, depression (and other mental disorders) and even penile dysfunction!

Am I missing something here or are we really talking about taking a pill for back pain and ending up with high blood pressure, severe depression and your willy potentially falling off?

Surprisingly, none of these warnings seem to concern the American consumer, or even make them laugh!

So, in spite of our ties to the US and the 'globalisation' of our industry, we still occupy very different worlds...as different as we are to the rest of Europe.

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Jay, xxx, xxxx on 5 Jun 2015
“I do remember when UK tv did actually do local advertising. I can't remember when it disappeared but it was certainly around in the 80s. After the main bulk of ads you would have about a 30 second selection of stills of various local stores with a voice over telling you to drop down there. I guess the stills werent 'local' local but would have been local to within the ITV area - eg Northwest or Central etc. So for example in the Northwest area you might have a 10 second slot telling you to drop down to whatever the large independent department store in Liverpool was at the time to buy a new suit.

As regards the Americans rattling off the side effects of various drugs, what they're doing is summarising the info on the insert that you always get in your box of medication which describes the potential side effects of a medication and is a legal requirement to have in the box. So I guess it would also have to be a legal requirement to have it as part of the advertising.”