If a BBC executive placed a camera inside my laptop, I could easily be the star of a new Royle Family-esque comedy. Slumped in my armchair, unshaven, unshowered and habitually reaching for the delete key whilst muttering 'arse, I think Id be the perfect candidate for a spin-off series. Imagine the audience, riveted, as I reach for my cup of tea, examine the fluff in my navel and despairingly clear the screen of the three lines of crap that Ive just laboured over for an hour. Prime time written all over it folks.
Despite this obvious 'ratings gold mine I couldnt see my career extending into the arena of advertising endorsement - I mean, whod want to have their brand associated with an unkempt individual who sports a predilection for sitting on his fat arse. Well, up until Boxing Day I would have thought nobody. Now Im not so sure.
26 December was the launch date for a gargantuan integrated campaign from holiday firm Going Places. Part of the mighty Airtours plc, with over 750 retail outlets across the UK, Going Places has suffered, along with its peer group, following the horrors of 11 September and the subsequent economic seismic waves. In such a climate it felt the need to breathe new life back into the stagnated travel market, stimulate spend and steal a march on its equally ravenous competitors.
Bearing this in mind, who did the powers that be call in to facilitate the turnaround? Which dynamic individual was charged with getting consumers off their backsides and into their wallets? Well, none other than our favourite dirty-vested, bearded, armchair aficionado Mr Jim Royle (aka Ricky Tomlinson). A strange choice, I hear you mutter, but ostensibly a very effective one.
'Out of our 10,000 £99 sun deals, we sold 1,100 on the first day of trading after the campaign aired,' exclaimed Tim Marsden, marketing director at Going Places. 'I ended up sending an e-mail over to the agency saying simply 'too good.' Which, to say the least, seems like quite a novel reaction.
Sitting in the expansive Airtours offices in Rochdale, Marsden currently appears to be a cheerful chap. A former marketing director at Norweb, with a blue chip background at BP, Kodak and CWS, his youthful energy and appearance belies his vast experience. The cause of his chirpy countenance is undoubtedly the impact of the firms latest, and biggest, burst of advertising to generate sales for the 'absolutely crucial summer 2002 period. As Marsden explained, after last years unforeseen catastrophes, the travel operators that have a penchant for survival have to start performing again. And performing soon:
'Last year was obviously a difficult one for the entire industry,' Marsden admitted. 'We were having a very good 2001 and then immediately post 11 September we saw sales figures basically halving. It took a good two to two-and-a-half months for them to start working their way up again. Wed be the first to acknowledge that it hasnt been good and weve cut our cloth accordingly.'
Considering the state of the industry, Marsden found himself facing a decision confronting a plethora of clients across a multitude of industries. Should he play it safe and cut his marketing spend or pump up the volume, and the investment, and get his brand out on the street, the TV screens and into the newspapers? Agencies everywhere will have their cockles collectively warmed by his decision:
'We could have cut our spend and lived in hope that wed pick up our fair share, but we decided to go the opposite way to try to re-invigorate the market. I mean, if we didnt do it, who would? So weve produced this campaign with (Didsbury-based) Clear Marketing, which is the biggest weve ever done and more than double the spend that we invested in the post-Christmas/January period last year.'
Marsden felt inclined to keep the intricate details of the spend as undercover as Ricky Tomlinsons white bits. Which, for those of you who havent seen the ad, means he didnt reveal all, but he did give us a tantalising glimpse (although Id hardly say that 'tantalising is the right word to describe the prospect of seeing Mr Tomlinsons rear end). 'Im not going to tell you how much were spending exactly,' he stated. 'But I will say that we spent around £3.2 million on the activity last year and I can confirm that its more than double that.'
Now, although its really not my job to query the decision of a client doing so much to support the industry, isnt it a bit risky to invest so much after last years events? Surely certain segments of the market still view planes as the awful pills that delivered the poison of 'that day in September? Even if theyre partial to a week in the sun, will they feel secure enough to go back up into the air again? Well, according to Marsden, 'yes:
'Weve conducted in-depth research across Europe on attitudes to flying post-11 September and I suspect theres been very little change. Our research in November showed that something like 2 per cent of people were afraid to fly. To evaluate the current campaign were conducting omnibus phone polls and they show that, at present, only 1% of respondents are admitting to being worried. I think the people that are scared would probably have experienced a slight phobia anyway, and the events have simply brought that to light.'
If this is the case, then why have the travel and aviation industries suffered so acutely over the last five months? If people are still prepared to fly, why arent they doing it? Marsden seems to favour an economic explanation:
'I think the problem lies with recessionary fears rather than safety issues. Everybody is worried about money and certain industries are in trouble. Of course, the travel industry is one of those, and because of this people are holding off on booking summer holidays because they think theyll get great late deals. What they dont realise is most operators, excluding us, are cutting capacity and thatll take away the availability of late bookings.'
But all is not lost for the frugal consumer. In an effort to quite literally get people off their arses and off on holiday (whilst obviously consolidating its own position in the industry) Going Places is offering 20,000 half price holidays, 200,000 free child places and 10,000 '£99 Sun Deals. Marsden explained: 'We decided that if we gave people a good enough reason to go away they would. They just needed an excuse, an offer that was so good they had to go.' And heres where Clear and Mr. Tomlinson enter the fray:
'Ricky Tomlinson, or rather Jim Royle, was the perfect character to use as he embodies the reasons why people wouldnt travel: a) hes tight. b) hes lazy. Clear tapped into that character and said 'well, if everything that Going Places is doing is good enough to get him off his arse, then why the hell wouldnt anyone else join in? His character is integral to the message, its not just celebrity for celebritys sake.'
Marsdens grin conveys that, at present, hes more than happy with the progress of the ubiquitous TV, poster, press and radio campaigns. His aforementioned Omnibus research has demonstrated a 66 per cent recognition of the campaign during its first two weeks ('a good 10 to 20 per cent ahead of our competitors'), whilst 12,000 of the '£99 Sun Deals were sold over the same period. Despite the fact that originally only 10,000 were set aside for the duration of the entire campaign. As Marsden understandably points out, 'it does seem to show that the market is still out there and that if you get the right deals people will travel.' Which conveniently seems to vindicate his earlier 'recessionary argument.
Nevertheless, assuming the role of devils advocate (or killjoy, if you prefer), I do have to interject that there may be a negative side to the campaign as well. Surely an overweight couch potato with a habit of sticking his fingers in any, and every, bodily orifice that springs to mind, isnt necessarily an ideal figure for your brand to be associated with? This is a point that our main protagonist acknowledges:
'I can see that some people might think that,' he says. 'Jeremy Clarkson wrote an article in The Sunday Times where he said 'if I had one bullet, who would I kill? Not Osama Bin Laden, but Ricky Tomlinson. Why? Because he ruined (Channel 4s) 'Shackleton, he kept popping up in the ad breaks trying to show me his white bits.' To me, thats great, we got a reaction - we got noticed and Id rather have that than a dull advert. Even if we end up pissing off 10 per cent of the population, at least were having an impact and the rest of the people might love it. Ricky Tomlinson is at the height of his popularity and a true man of the people, which can only be a good thing. And anyway, its hardly as if Jeremy Clarkson is in the target audience, is it?'
With the campaign set to run until the end of February, theres a good chance that Mr Clarkson is going to get upset for quite some time to come. However, as long as Going Places sales continue to edge back up towards the pre-global-meltdown stage, Tim Marsden wont mind about that one little bit. In the meantime, maybe he should do one of his omnibus polls on who most people would chose to shoot (if they had to) - Ricky Tomlinson or Jeremy Clarkson? Do you think itd be Ricky? My arse it would.