How to make sure your TV ad doesn’t go off the rails 

Even as I drift further from football, Barney Ronay’s column in the Guardian remains a must-read for me.

This Saturday, his column targeted a certain advert on TV which has a very simple call to action (or CTA as we say in the biz) —train travel.  The advert encouraged everyday people like you and me to travel by train for no specific reason, simply to travel. It suggests that the experience of train travel itself is the reward.

Ronay highlights a critical flaw in this campaign: decades of neglected train infrastructure have left people disinclined to travel by train.

He said: “The most striking thing about the current train adverts isn’t this generic quality, however. It is instead the fact passengers are depicted sitting down, smiling and surging towards their destinations at lightning speeds, as opposed to the more accurate real-life experience of desperation, impoverishment and occasionally spending six hours stuck outside Bogden Cheeseworth wedged upright into a luggage rack inside a carriage that smells of tyrannosaurus foreskin.” 

The esteemed Guardian journo compares this campaign to the more successful ‘Got Milk’ campaign, which effectively changed behaviours and perceptions.

That iconic campaign was launched to encourage more milk consumption because while 90% of consumers believed milk was healthy, consumers, especially children and teens, considered milk to be boring so weren’t drinking it. 

Brits aren’t choosing to avoid train travel because it’s boring. In many ways, that’s the joy of train travel. The wifi’s dodgy but that’s almost a plus. It’s a rare opportunity to do things that are often hard to find time to do: to read, to write, to think,  to watch condensation drip. 

But the reality of train travel is painfully different

On Saturday, Story Shop’s co-founder Scarlett was on her way back from London. After 48 hours alone with our young children, I was rather looking forward to a helping hand come 2pm on a Saturday (of course I wouldn’t tell her that as I’m currently running a PR campaign within our household about how easy solo-parenting is). However, that helping hand didn’t arrive till nearly 7pm as it was stuck just outside Preston. 

The last time I travelled back from London, I faced a similar fate. I was only stationary for 45 minutes, but it felt like an eternity as I was in a crowded carriage sitting opposite a man who had forgotten a fork, but had remembered to bring his poke bowl and yoghurt which he then proceeded to eat with his fingers. I don’t know which one was worse, the soy sauce-soaked salmon or the gooey yoghurt, both spilling over the table. I’m still in therapy. 

The human truth is that travelling on a train is generally a nightmare. For every good experience, there’s an awful one. It’s also so expensive. Last time I went to London, it was cheaper to fly to City airport where I felt like some sort of  Zurich-based hedge fund manager gliding through security with gallons of water in my bag, without so much as removing a laptop before enjoying a porridge in Pret (not some sort of celebrity chef cash-grab Pret-style rip-off) as I waited for departure and once the plane left on time, I enjoyed free coffee. Well, I enjoyed the fact it was free, not the coffee itself… 

Despite this luxury, when both experiences are at their best, it would be train hands down every time – for the carbon footprint, the lack of palaver at security, the headspace…

Yet, great train travel experiences are rare. Any ad that suggests we should casually opt for a train journey without addressing the real issues feels out of touch and can be more off-putting than enticing.

When we work on ads for clients, they are designed to get to the bottom of the human truth, the real point of difference for a client: 

  • Our ad for Cairngorm Coffee featured a grandmother becoming a specialty coffee connoisseur to impress her granddaughter on Christmas Day. This story highlighted that Cairngorm aims to make specialty coffee accessible to everyone, breaking down the barriers of an often elitist industry.
  • Rather than a traditional school advert with flying eagles, hockey sticks, science, and grandeur, our Kelvinside Academy advert had the purpose of showing the school does education differently…and that the education system they challenge is prehistoric. So we worked with kids from the school to recreate the Jurassic Park trailer ahead of the film’s 30th anniversary. 

Both won awards and both received the right kind of media coverage — because it spoke to something that was true in a unique way. It didn’t try to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. Most importantly, they had a positive impact on consumers, generating more sales and enquiries. 

We always work to understand the true human experience; act like journalists to speak to all parties, consider everything with a 360 view, speak truth to clients if perception is far from reality and find a way –  a Trojan horse – to tell the story of what truly makes something great.

What if this poorly conceived advert focused on how the train service is trying to improve?

Public opinion is low, but explaining efforts to enhance the experience and how using trains supports these improvements might resonate better, and avoid causing offence to the consumer. Just look at Ryanair, which has embraced its criticism and turned it into a successful marketing strategy.

Consumers are too smart to have the wool pulled over their eyes. Journalists and social media users will call out any ad that misses the mark, resulting in negative PR. However, hitting the right note can amplify your ad spend through the positive PR it generates.

Got ideas?

Speak to us about making the most of every penny you have to spend on advertising. 

Join the list

See the work we do, how we do it and what inspires us.