Even on paper, the immediacy is the message

Adam Greenfield posts on Speedbird about British Airways’ current ad campaign to rehabilitate Heathrow Terminal 5. The ads run across print, radio and digital, and confront low expectations of T5 based on its highly-publicised teething troubles. They break new ground in their use of near real-time statistics, such as the number of yesterday’s flights arriving and departing on time.

Adam quotes one example of the copy from the Telegraph in print:

“YESTERDAY AT T5 AVERAGE TIME THROUGH SECURITY WAS 4.7 MINS. This picture was taken at 9:44am yesterday and shows Amanda Gemmill on her way to Beijing to watch her boyfriend compete in the Men’s Eight Rowing Final. 4.7 minutes was the average time the 842 customers we asked told us it took them to pass through Security yesterday, between 6am and 2pm. We had to stop at 2pm so we could make this ad.”

… and he suggests this presages the future…

All that really remains is for embedded sensors to replace the clipboard-bearing interns importuning tourists, and for the flimsy pulp the Telegraph is printed on to give way to some kind of networked display surface, and BA’s copywriters can substitute an elegant little Mad Lib for their coyness: “It took [number] customers an average time of [time] to pass through Terminal 5 security during the last hour.”

Not so fast, Adam! Even if those sensors and networked display surface were available, would they really be more compelling that the lower-tech methods used by Bartle Bogle Hegarty to promote BA’s T5 experience?

First, the ads attract attention precisely because they disruptively collide real-time information with the solid old media of newspaper and radio. We expect to see fresh data on computer screens and networked devices. It’s seeing the same dynamism appear on the printed page that makes it feel like Harry Potter.

Logically, there was never a reason why daily papers couldn’t carry daily-updated advertising copy. After all they managed to print up-to-date news for the best part of 200 years before the advent of the internet. I suspect the real bottleneck was the cumulative and often unchallenged preciousness of of clients, creatives, planners, buyers, sales and production people. Faced with online’s shortened lead times and increased accountability, traditional media are simply having to raise their game in order to survive. And they’re learning fast.

Second, I rather like BA’s method for gathering the information, “clipboard-bearing interns” and all. I’m not convinced that automated sensors would be more persuasive than the reported experiences of 842 customers. Machines may be more accurate, but the crowd could still be more credible. In advertising at least, reality counts for nothing unless it is reflected in perception.

The lesson from BA’s latest campaign? The promise of 21st century technology challenges us to innovate, but some of the best solutions can still be satisfyingly steam age.

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