When in Blackpool

Why McCann’s Jamie Peate believes advertising should learn from Light Entertainment.

The very reason we should pay attention to Light Entertainment is because of its ability to attract and hold the attention of its audience while simultaneously delighting it.

Released in 1963, ‘She Loves You’ by The Beatles spent six weeks at number one and was the best-selling UK record of the 1960s.

The 2020 final of ‘The Great British Bake Off’ became Channel 4’s highest-ever rated show, peaking at 10.4 million viewers.

And in September 2021, the audience for the BBC’s ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ hit 12.3 million.

What do they have in common? Well, they could all be classed as Light Entertainment. They are designed to be popular, famous, have mass audience appeal, create a positive emotional resonance, and ‘put on a show’ that can easily be understood by the viewer or listener.

Capturing and holding attention

I was born and grew up in and around Blackpool. It is the UK’s Light Entertainment capital, where ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ broadcasts one of its special episodes each year from the iconic Blackpool Tower Ballroom. It is also where and why I developed both an interest in, and respect for, Light Entertainment, and its power to capture and hold the interest of so many people in such a seemingly effortless way.

And yet, in my opinion, Light Entertainment does not get the respect it deserves anymore, particularly by the advertising and comms industry where it is increasingly out of fashion.

Somehow the word ‘Light’ conveys a sense of something that’s trivial, shallow, ephemeral and therefore lacking in substance, requiring little thought and certainly not worth paying attention to.

In fact, this could not be further from the truth. The very reason we should pay attention to Light Entertainment is because of its ability to attract and hold the attention of its audience while simultaneously delighting it.

Attention sits at the very heart of advertising effectiveness

If advertising communications is to be effective at all it has be noticed, understood, and remembered – or, in other words, command and hold attention enough to encode itself into long-term memory.

Yet in the recent Cannes session, ‘The Triple Jeopardy of Attention’, Peter Field, Karen Nelson-Field and Orlando Wood explained that the attention that must be captured for advertising to work is currently under serious threat.

This is due to the amount of advertising spend going into more activational digital and mobile channels and platforms.  The potential attention delivered by activational platforms is often lower than expected, meaning less real share of voice is being delivered in return for the advertising spend invested.

Since the theory first elaborated by John Philip Jones that brands investing in extra share of voice (namely, having a higher share of advertising voice in their category than their market share) are more likely to grow that market share – is an essential part of many marketing strategies, this is an alarming trend.

Ah, but wait, the cry goes up! Don’t worry, the creative work will sort this out and make up for the inherent weaknesses of these channels and platforms.

Well, sadly, according to Orlando Wood, this is simply not the case. We are losing the ability to make work that attracts and holds our attention. Instead, as in our channel and platform selection, we are tending towards creative work that is more short-term, and fails to help with the creation of longer-term positive memories.

Attracting the right side of the brain

As Orlando discusses, with great clarity and charm in his two books, ‘Lemon’ and ‘Look Out, this is because the left- and right-hand sides of our brain attend to the world in different ways.

The right hemisphere uses a broad-beam, ever vigilant attention. Orlando argues that type of attention is constantly scanning the world and looking for what is just ‘off stage’ in the periphery – the things that we are not actively looking for, but that interest this side of our brains.

It is this type of attention that is important to marketers because it helps to bring new people into their market. What appeals to this type of attention is the kind of show that Light Entertainment is very good at putting on – something that’s human, that involves music and humour, has a sense of movement and flow so it unfolds before us, and is rooted in the real world with a sense of time and place. The right hemisphere is also much more associated with the limbic system, which is involved with our behaviours and emotions, and therefore the formation of long-term memories.

By contrast, the left hemisphere uses a much narrower beam attention, more focused on taking things out of the real world and abstracting them, so it can manipulate them and fit them into its own framework. It is advertising that appeals to this sort of attention that is now being produced more and more, a type of advertising that speaks more narrowly to those already in the market for something, but is less attractive to a wider audience and is less successful in bringing these people into a market or in formulating longer-term memories.

This is where the advertising community can learn something from Light Entertainment and the types of attention-grabbing and right-brain delighting ‘shows’ it delivers.

Orlando himself is a bit of a showman in this respect. His presentation at Cannes this year started with a clip from Luchino Visconti’s famous film version of Thomas Mann’s ‘Death in Venice’, featuring the Turner-esque vista of a steamer crossing the Venetian Lagoon accompanied by Gustav Mahler’s 5th Symphony.

As the scene formed on the presentation screen and the music reached its crescendo, everyone in the crowd suddenly looked up from their mobile phones and paid attention to, and took interest in what was being shown – a masterclass in capturing and holding attention.

My own hypothesis is that this moment was one of the things from the festival that those attending the session will remember. That is very much the case for me.

Orlando went on to illustrate how Visconti’s work became more left-brained after he sadly suffered a stroke that damaged the right side of his brain.

So, I think this tells us that at a time when attention is proving ever more difficult to capture and hold, we should be paying more attention to what Light Entertainment can teach us.

Work that puts on a bit of a show

We should be producing more work that appeals to our right-brain broad-beam attention, work that puts on a bit of a show for us, that delights with music, with humour, with real people in real situations, with stories that unfold, with surprises and clues we can enjoy finding on multiple views, and that seem familiar yet always have something new within them.

When I was young and growing up in Blackpool, I was taken one summer to see the cast of ‘Dad’s Army’ in a live show based on their very popular BBC series.

It was really a mash-up of all their most popular bits, jokes, and sketches, using all of the main characters, who all behaved in their usual ways with their usual catch phrases. Yet there were new elements of song, dance and comedy that linked the whole thing together.

I particularly enjoyed a song between the ARP Wardens and the Vicar, Verger and Church Choir about air-raid blackout curtains for the church windows.

Fifty years later I can still remember that song as clearly as if it was yesterday. Maybe it’s a metaphor for the ‘Light’ of Light Entertainment, which as an industry we seem so keen on ‘blacking out’.

If anyone working in our industry produced a piece of advertising today that was strongly remembered 50 years later they would rightly be very proud, so maybe it is time to let a bit more of the ‘Light’ in Light Entertainment back into our work.


Catch up with the Cannes Session "The Triple Jeopardy of Attention"

Jamie Peate is Global Head of Retail Strategy & Head of Effectiveness at McCann.

Last updated 01 May 2024