A weight off your shoulders

9th January 2004 at 00:00
Can you keep your head under pressure? If so, then why not teach? Peter York can't get enough of the Teacher Training Agency's latest advertising campaign

You've all seen it: the advertisement where they're walking around without heads. No, you have, it's everywhere: on television, in magazines, on posters, in the newspapers - well, some newspapers. Even on Tube escalators.

How do they do it? They do it in a computer obviously, but you can't tell.

I must have seen it 30 or 40 times now - no, it's possible if you watch a lot of television - and each time I'm thinking: "I'll see how they do it", and I can't.

It's really striking; you get used to clever images in commercials - some of them are amazing - but this one's stayed in my head: how they all go to work and go to meetings and work on a factory line with no heads - just a smooth cut-off neck like some shop window dummies. They're like robots.

It's weirdly jolly - and, of course, they sing "Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho." They never get to the rest of the lyric, but you know how it goesI "It's off to work we go."

Every time you see the advert, you notice another lovely little detail about headless country. Like the sign for the gents toilet, which has a headless man sign on it. It's delicious. It's an obvious one for the advertising Oscars, or whatever they're called.

Whenever I see it, I try to remember the one thing that always goes out of my head - probably because the rest of it's so memorable. There's a bit at the end which is different, where there's a man with a head smiling away.

And there are kids. And the thing I'm always trying to remember is: who's it for and what are they trying to say? And you know, the terrible thing is I take it in for about 30 seconds and then it's gone. And I'm left thinking "Is it something to do with kids? Health insurance? AOL?"

The Teacher Training Agency's advertising campaign has been running since early September. It's huge by the standards of most quango advertising: pound;12 million a year (although modest compared with, say Boots, which put its pound;92 million spend up for pitch this summer).

And it's terribly bold and visible - there's always that question of just how risky and "creative" you should be with public money - and there must be a lot of awareness for the spend. Meaning a lot of people have seen it and will remember it if you prompt them. But I strongly suspect there could be a bit of confusion on the brand attribution front. And some on the messaging angle too.

It came at a bad time. Just when people - people in the target market for the TTA message, people with degrees who felt they weren't using them - were reading in their broadsheets that they were actually cutting teachers'

jobs. It seemed unlikely, almost counter-intuitive, that the Government could let that happen after they'd made education so central and actually asked to be judged on it.

You'd read these stories about hardened City thirtysomethings deciding to do something satisfying in tough inner-city schools for 20 per cent of what they earned before (5 per cent, some of them - because it's not that hard to earn pound;360,000 in the City). Though it was heart-warming, you couldn't help but think, "Were they about to be sacked? Were they scared they were too old at 35?" Because it's not that dull in the City. You might not actually be using your degree, but who does?

How many Eng Lit people become critics or dons? How many historians are there? Not everyone can be Niall Ferguson. It's a pity to waste real training at the classy end of a vocation such as medicine or engineering, but how many do?

But there is the embarrassing problem of people with high unemployability degrees from low-status places - I'm not saying anything about cultural studies or Sedgefield University (formerly Sedgefield WEA) - that'd be invidious. But are the adverts targeting them? The ones who're doing things one up from McJobs, No-Experience-Required, Training-Will-Be-Provided? Jobs that don't need a degree. The ones who are worried about falling way back into the proletariat.

When the world was a simpler place and the options of being a website designer, a personal trainer, a management consultancy grub, a marketing assistant in a quango, or a porn film entrepreneur weren't on offer, it was obvious who went into teaching and why. It isn't now, which is why the business of attracting graduates is a complex, long-haul process, because you're dealing with massive changes in prospects and attitudes, social history waves on the beach. And which is why "Use your head" might look just that bit air-headed in the end.

Peter York is a writer, author and broadcaster on social styles and trends

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