Thinking the unthinkable – the future of funding for kids’ media in the UK

Posted on: Sunday 10 July 2011 5:39am by Jayne Kirkham

Adrian Mills, Chief Adviser, Children’s and Learning, BBCSpeakersRory Sutherland, Executive Creative Director, OgilvyOneGary Pope, Director, Kids IndustriesDerek Robertson, National Adviser for Emerging Technologies and Learning, Learning and Teaching ScotlandJaney Walker, Content Board member, OfcomProduced by:Steve Hocking, Media Consultant, Freelance

Setting the agenda for debate for the coming year eh?Well this is my last blog for this year’s conference and with such a weighty premise; I make no apology for this being lengthy.Read on – it’s worth it.

“Thinking the unthinkable” – this session looked like being a great and possibly heated debate, especially with Rory Sutherland’s opening gambit of “McTelly – seriously would it be really so bad?”A year or two ago, we’d have thrown our hands up in horror at the idea but judging by the audience’s response, perhaps now we’re running out of alternatives to explore.Rory Sutherland’s lecture was brilliantly illuminating, exploding many popular myths and ways of thinking about the dark art of advertising.For example he said that while there is some truth that children are more vulnerable to the influence of adverts, materialism existed before the birth of commercial television.The power of argument to sway opinion is generally overestimated by everyone.To study advertising he has looked at Economics and Biology because advertising isn’t confined to humans; just look at a peacock’s tail.Which led us to:

INFORMATION ASYMMETRY – the heart of most transactions: you pay money up front when you buy something but only discover if its any good three years later when it stops working.Rory cited marriage as an example – you have no idea if it’s going to work so the Engagement Ring is an upfront demonstration that the giver is going to stick around for the long haul.This relates to advertising in the Brand as Bond theory.An upfront commitment to advertising is an investment in the brand’s reputation.If all your suitor wants is a one night stand, why invest in a ring?Similarly if a brand just wants to make a quick buck, why advertise and stick around for the long game?Carrying on the marriage analogy, Rory quoted Gabriel Garcia Marquez “Always remember that the most important thing in a good marriage is not happiness but stability.”A brand isn’t always the best one you can buy but if you consider the brands you’ve bought over the years, significantly fewer are crap than the ones you’ve never heard of.Which led us to:

LOSS AVERSION – the Darwinian instinct in animals that fear triumphs over hope.To quote Alan Sugar’s IBM line “ Nobody got fired for buying IBM”.People feel loss twice as acutely as winning.The pain of losing something is stronger than the joy of winning it in the first place.Which led us to:

SATISFICING vs. MAXIMISING– Most of the time most people are looking to satisfy not maximise.They want to avoid a disappointment.Rory asked us to think about our favourite restaurants.Most people when asked will only have eaten there twice.But they will have eaten at McDonalds far more often because they know it won’t rip you off, give you food poisoning and the food quality is consistent.“We go there because it’s not shit”.This is Satisficing. Read HERBERT SIMONS who coined the term.Rory prefers Dr Pepper to Coke but never asks for it in a pub because of the mild embarrassment suffered when they don’t have it.People are acutely sensitive to social conformity and such tiny moments of awkwardness subconsciously drive our behaviour.Peer pressure exists regardless of advertising because we’re herd animals. Which led us to:

COMPLEMENTARITY– read GARY BECKER.Advertising works through complementarity. Popcorn, Rory said, is not very nice yet weirdly in the cinema it becomes exciting.Similarly Pernod drunk in France is sophisticated, but “drink it in the UK and it tastes like piss”.The value of something depends on the context.Information increases our consumption enjoyment.Everything that children prize has a back story – memories of when the beloved toy was lost etc. which adds complementary value.Advertising simply makes the primary goods more valuable.It doesn’t manipulate preference but imbues the physical product with more emotional and intangible value.Which led us to:

Rory Sutherland’s hero LUDWIG VON MISES who said that all value is subjective.In a restaurant one person cooks the food another sweeps the floor. One is creating the other changing the context in which the creation is consumed. Both are necessary (“the food may be divine but if the restaurant floor is covered in crap…”).What we buy is the perception of something.

Value is subjective.
Value is contextually determined.
Value is subconscious.

Which led us to:

THE REPUTATION REFLEX – we are overwhelmingly likely to choose the famous thing over the others.We do what we did last time: Habit.Or we do what everyone else is doing or talking about: The Herd Effect.Our perception is on a relative scale rather than absolute. It’s contextual and often quite arbitrary (everyone got hung up on how many megapixels their camera regardless of the fact that there reaches a point when you can’t see the improved picture quality) So if you can change the frames of reference in Society… or flip the direction of perception.Think of Tom Sawyer painting the fence.Likewise the very best children’s television reframes education as fun.For example Horrible Histories, Sorry I’ve Got No Head, Mythbusters.Which led us to:

MERCHANDISINGA child watches 30 hours of a programme which imbues the complementary toy with far more emotional value than a toy promoted in a 30 second ad.Advertising and merchandising are not different things – It’s just the order they’re produced.If the TV programme comes before the toy, we call it ‘noble BBC Enterprises’.But if a toy gives rise to say, Barbie TV, we call it ‘scurrilous’.‘Merchandising’ is far more powerful than advertising – 30 hours vs 30 seconds.“Why Bob and not Barbie?”The advertising window of opportunity is very narrow – kids’ tastes change very very quickly as they grow up.It’s a fickle audience that needs to be replaced every year.Which led us to:

So where do we stand now?There are huge new media possibilities despite brand owners being inherently conservative and risk averse.And there is very little money about. Which led to:

ONE MORE THOUGHT – The budgets for children’s TV are trivial compared with education spending.What role is there for educational TV?Why don’t schools teach classics, statistics and economics – the things we unconsciously use everyday.Rory suggested there would be enormous social benefits of, say doctors with a solid grasp of statistics being able to give much more successful prognoses.TV could take up the slack.From his biologist/economist perspective of Advertising, Rory concluded that it is wrong to assume that getting in bed with a commercial entity would distort everything.The money is not going to come from somewhere else.

Rory’s terrific presentation, which Adrian Mills rightly described as a “cross between an Open University lecture and a Carry On film” left little time for immediate response and debate in the session.There was some surprise at his pessimism about the conservatism of advertisers.Questions were also raised about who we should get into bed with.Tobacco companies?Who are we happy to take money from and under what circumstances?Can advertising be a force for good?Rory had started the session with that question, suggesting that it was only when Ford pulled its ads from the News Of The World that things changed and the sponsors will be the ones to clean up FIFA.

Rory’s talk had been billed as setting an agenda for debate in the year ahead.He certainly did that and I for one now have my summer reading list. Can you get economics and biology books at the airport?


Jayne Kirkham, Writer, Script Consultant, Youth Activity Worker

About the author

Jayne Kirkham


Jayne currently splits her time between adapting Ann Kelley's Bowerbird novels into a feature film for Artemisia Films, polishing her novel The Bones of Rockham Bay, administering the All Party Parliamentary Group for Children's Media and the Arts for the CMF, serving on the Writers' Guild of Great Britain Executive… Read more