Lets use TV to change minds, attitudes... even society

Rosie Arnold, head of art at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO and the new Thinkbox Academy president, lays out her agenda for society-changing films that harness the power of TV.

It’s 1972. It’s break time at junior school. My friends and I are in the playground, imitating a cartoon polar bear we’ve seen on TV. But this bear isn’t in a TV programme, he’s in an ad – “It’s frothy, man!” – for a soft drink called Cresta, written by the great John Webster (although, being only 10 at the time, I have no idea who Webster is).

In those days, ads were inescapable. Well-loved. Ad breaks were something you looked forward to. Is that still the case in 2017? Nobody watches TV any more, right?

Built on Trust

A recent survey revealed that people in advertising assume the public watches only one hour and 15 minutes of TV a day. But the real figure is three hours and 54 minutes. It’s telling that TV remains the most effective medium. And people trust it much more than any other.

That’s not all I believe. Throughout my career, I have constantly encouraged more women into the creative department – and I hope that by being president of the Thinkbox Academy, I will continue to help that cause. It’s not just women; I want to encourage people with different backgrounds and ethnicities, too. Being a creative is a wonderful career; it should not be an exclusively male, white, middle-class domain.

But I am more ambitious still. I believe that we all have the power to change attitudes, affect social norms and redress the balance in the world – and that we have a responsibility to do that.

Lofty words, I know.

We think we understand the reach of TV, but clearly don’t. Last year, for example, more people around the world saw a Unilever ad than saw the Disney film Frozen.

We know film can change people’s attitudes – that’s why companies invest so much in it. This means that, while shaping brands, we can also change prejudices.

Amazon Prime Priest and Imam
Amazon Prime's Christmas Ad (2016)

Many companies are already championing this thinking. There seem to be two approaches: either an ad champions change, or it subtly tries to shift perceptions of role models and activities associated with gender, race or social class.

The incredible “#ShareTheLoad” Ariel detergent ad that encouraged more men to do the laundry – all the more extraordinary because it came from India. Or the Amazon Christmas ad that brought together an imam and a priest. Already, this power is being recognised and acted upon around the world.

Alternatively, the message can be embedded in the work. At Christmas, did you register that there was a British Asian family in a Currys ad or, indeed, a black family in the John Lewis ad?

Check ourselves

Every time I see or write a script, I challenge my own stereotypes. Does it have to be a woman putting the food on the table? Does it have to be a heterosexual couple, does everyone have to be white? Does it have to be a boy who becomes a scientist? Do the elderly people all have to be doddering grandparents? We all need to check ourselves when judging ideas and casting.

When I entered the business, people would always remark that “the ads are better than the telly”. I don’t hear that any more. There are, of course, a few campaigns that capture the public’s imagination – look at the phenomenon which is Christmas advertising – but we cannot effect real change and influence if we are not entertaining. While people have lost their faith in the power of TV, so the quality has declined.

So let’s all be brave and optimistic and recognise the opportunities such a great tool as TV can give us. Go forth and make great society-changing films that make this article redundant.

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