Only 14% of Americans have a passport, almost everyone in the UK does. In the UK pants are called “trousers”, underwear are “pants” and sweaters are “jumpers”. There are no guns. “Fanny” is a naughty word, as is “shag”. BBC 4 is NPR. We Anglophiles often use a different vernacular from the Brits when using the same or similar words.
I recently returned from a business trip to London that included a visit with my son Miles who had been studying abroad there for the past six months. I too studied in London during my college years and subsequently moved to London for two years upon graduating from college. Aside from San Francisco, it’s my favorite city.
But this time my trip to London was different. Unlike previous visits, I was much more focused, intrigued and frankly impressed, with the ever-changing media and advertising climate in London. There are some notable differences between our two countries (as you might imagine) in terms of how we view and consume advertising. These differences are unique to our respective countries. For one, the UK is far more homogenous than the U.S. making it easier to demographically target a large audience. And the modest size of the UK-including its political and cultural differences-coalesce and play a role in shaping the advertising ecosystem of both the UK and the U.S.
Here are three key differences I observed:
Advertising is prolific here in the U.S. We run approximately 40 minutes of content per show compared to the UK, which runs 54 minutes per hour. It is no secret that the U.S. has a love affair with advertising revenue. And the way to ensure profitability to the shareholders of the major TV/broadcast companies is more and more advertising dollars. Just take a look at how many ads have been running in the NBA Basketball Playoff Games this season? It seems like 5 minutes of playtime and 5 minutes of commercials-disrupting the continuity of the game and infuriating viewers. In Britain, ads are less frequent-typically at intervals of either 15 or 30 minutes. BBC News programming (in the UK) is not allowed to feature advertising. National Public Television or PBS (which carries BBC programming) receives revenue three ways: federal funding, “underwriters” (another fancy name for “sponsors”) pledge drives or “beg-a-thons and paid ads. While these revenue-generating disruptions are a necessity if we want to continue enjoying premium programming, they still are and always will be a mere annoyance-the price we pay for quality programming.
While both countries have tough restrictions on what they deem “obscene” programming, Britain adopts a more relaxed approach to censorship than the U.S. Ofcom (Britain’s version of the FCC) allows nudity and profanity to be aired after 9pm, while such content in the U.S. is available only after 10p (a source of debate, given the various time zones in the U.S.). Even fairly mild profanity will be bleeped out here in the U.S., whereas in the UK, words like bloody, bastard and Goddamn will be aired before 9pm in the UK.
The widely held view is that British ads are oriented more toward a softer cell than U.S. advertising particularly when it comes to TV. The Brits focus more on entertaining their audience rather than selling to them. Advertising here in the U.S. tends to take a more direct approach (think product placement ads). It seems every American TV show these days has an obvious product placement ad inserted into the story line. Yes, the Brits do product placement ads too but they are a bit more subtle in their approach. But when it comes to magazines and newspapers, the opposite seems to be true. British print ads tend to have more overt sexual overtones in their content than the slightly prudish American press. Print (newspapers and magazines in particular) are still consumed at a higher rate in the UK. In the UK there are less drivers on the road and more commuters with more time to spend reading.
I also noticed when I was at the Piccadilly Tube stop going down the escalator there were a minimum of 20-plus poster-sized ads (usually 2-3 advertisers repeating the same creative again and again). I found this odd. Why the annoying repetition of the same creative? Why not tell me a story on my ride down the escalator? Entertain me!
The biggest shocker: the ubiquitous advertising on the beloved black London taxis. This is where the Brits and Americans share a fondness for revenue at the expense of certain customs and traditions previously held sacred-like London taxis and ads (or “underwriters”) on NPR and PBS. Some things you don’t mess with….and yet we did.
While not part of my top 3 list, the UK will become the first country in the world where half of all advertising spend will go towards digital media. It should be no surprise that the surge in digital ad spending is being fueled by the explosion in popularity of portable devices such as smartphones and tablets. Because so much TV and radio programming appears ad-free in the UK, digital advertising will continue to dominate the advertising landscape.
I just hope the Brits will continue producing quality TV programming like Downton Abbey and Happy Valley. And the U.S. certainly has a war chest of NCIS and Law and Order shows to entertain UK audiences until kingdom come.