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There are so many things about the firefighters advert that are appallingly bad

advertising firefighters FBU

This advert fails on so many levels…

The other day I posted this advert on LinkeIn, Twitter and elsewhere online and said: “Whether or not the government is evil, there are so many things about this advert that are just wrong.”

I was asked to list them but the formats available have limited space. Elaborating on Twitter is clearly impossible and I had to put seven separate postings on LinkedIn, so here are all the points I made put together for ease of access…

Like I said, I am neither agreeing nor disagreeing with the argument that firefighters are being treated unfairly. There are people a lot more qualified than I am to argue either way on that point. My beef would be with the agency that produced this ad, based presumably on a brief by the FBU’s media department. There would have been much toing and froing on this before deciding on the final ad, so we have to assume there are no subliminal messages… they are quite deliberate. Forget firefighters for a second and consider the question posed by the headline. The answer for many members of the public would be: “I don’t care how old they are as long as they can do the job.”

The headline also deliberately uses the phrase “come running”, which is put in there to suggest fitness. If the union/agency are suggesting that a 55-year-old could “come running” but anyone approaching 60 could not, many extremely fit people in their late 50s would hold a different opinion. Then the union/agency seem to suggest that while someone approaching 55 would be able to “meet the same fitness standards as 20-year-olds” someone between 55 and 60 could not. They say this is common sense and anyone who says otherwise is spouting “ludicrous” nonsense. I think many would take issue with the message here, with the very logic in fact, and certainly with the language used.

Then there is the image used. Images in ads are vitally important and are very carefully selected. Many will have been discarded before deciding on the final choice. So what message are the union/agency trying to put across with this photo? We should be thankful the person shown does not have white hair, although many approaching 60 would have. But if you called 999 would you be shocked if this man “came running” to your aid? Would you think: “Who’s this old crock, isn’t there someone younger?” Personally, I’d feel more comforted seeing someone who clearly has many years’ experience rather than if a supposedly superfit 20-year-old dashed up. So the photo doesn’t work either.

Staying on the image a tad more, I sincerely hope the union/agency are not using a red-faced man with dishevelled hair to suggest anything other than the fact that he has just been attending a fire. Hopefully, there is no inference being made that this man (we are encouraged to assume he is the 60-year-old in the headline?) is physically shattered and that this would not be the case if he was five years younger. And let’s consider that age point, which is the whole message behind this ad. If firefighters are being expected to work “until they are 60”, ie not after, would a 60-year-old ever “come running” or is the oldest firefighter you would see be 59 and 364 days?

This isn’t a petty point by any means because the language and logic undermine yet again the angle of the headline. Technically, it should be “would you expect someone who was nearly 60 to come running?”. A little clumsier but more accurate. In reality, the union/agency should have gone with a different headline because this one (like the image next to it and the copy that follows) doesn’t work. And why does the ad personalise “David Cameron’s Government”? Ah, so his pension can be mentioned at the end. But, again, surely taxpayers have always paid a much bigger share of a PM’s pension than that of a firefighter’s. So this has never been fair.

If that’s the case, putting this as your closing statement is an extremely weak way to end the ad. This is a lost opportunity, a weakened argument because the reader thinks “Hang on…” and then is immediately asked to support the cause when they should be totally convinced before this point. If the task was to produce a hard-hitting message that swung the public behind the FBU and its strike, the ad can safely be said to have failed on all the levels I have mentioned. If it was to preach to those who already agree with the cause, then the people who have funded this advert might ask what would be the point of that?

And finally, copy errors. In the first, second and fourth paragraphs the government is singular, in the fifth it is not. And the sentence structure of “Government has decided not to listen so that’s why they have been forced to take this action” is just plain wrong. You might say the public won’t notice such things but that isn’t the point. This is an advert by a major organisation and it is being placed in national newspapers at great expense. In which case, there should be zero grammatical errors, zero ambiguity, faultless logic and extremely persuasive copy. The reader should feel empathy for the firefighters’ cause but this is made harder by the fact that this ad is so “appallingly bad”.

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Rory Baxter, owner of The Word Factory, has decades of experience as a writer, editor, and public relations practitioner.

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