“The Wettest Drought on Record”: so a dry wit in the back row of a client meeting recently described our current weather situation to me. It’s a spectacularly British situation to be in- a combination of monsoon-esque precipitation levels and poor local planning found nowhere other than Virgil’s ‘edge of the world’.
The whole situation illuminates a serious failing in public communications more than anything. Yesterday, I read The Metro on the tube, the front page adorned with a quasi-outraged piece on the arrival of standpipes on streets awash with torrential rain. Public attitude towards the droughts has reached a new level of complexity.
Yet, emerging from the train and ascending the escalators, I was surrounded by animated Thames Water awareness ads warning me of forthcoming water usage regulations via a seconds-long shot of water draining away to leave a patch of dry, cracked earth. It was a simple visual whose impact was totally dispelled when I left the station to be greeted by the never ending downpour. A popular internet acronym springs to mind: IDGI- I don’t get it.
Of course, as a well-informed man about town I’m more than familiar with the fact that a few weeks of wet is small match for a few years of dry- it’s that pesky science stuff again. However, my opinion doesn’t match that of the average folk on the street. Most commuters probably saw that ad, felt that rain, and found themselves utterly confused, in some cases outraged.
I can understand the thinking behind the campaign (it’s found in poster form on buses and other usual media targets too): the dry earth links our plight in the minds of viewers raised on TV news with dramatic shots of hundreds of natural disasters from the hotter parts of the world. If Thames Water hadn’t been scuppered by the rain, it might have been pretty effective. As it is, however, it doesn’t cut it. It looks patronising.
To me, this is symptomatic of a growing problem in communications- the lack of the big idea. A suitably flexible, dextrous, overall ambition opens itself to a range of clever executions, and leaves communications directors more flexible in responding to moments of unexpected environmental change. Smaller concepts like this one can be effective under the right conditions, but in the wrong situation they leave all your eggs languishing in the wrong basket.