The big new Guardian ad ‘The Three Little Pigs’ – reviewed

Client: The Guardian
Campaign: The Whole Picture/Three Little Pigs
Agency: Bartle Bogle Hegarty

By an insider who has asked us to remain nameless

It’s hard to believe, but the last time the Guardian produced a TV ad was 16 years ago, in 1986. The ad was the well-known and successful “Skinhead” spot, created by BMP, and can be seen here in all its mid-80s Camcorder glory.

Now, in 2012, in a totally different climate for newspapers, and at arguably the most important time for the organisation in its nearly 200-year history, the Guardian is about to launch a full rebrand. The campaign will lead with a slick new spot, this time from BBH and directed by Ringan Ledwidge, which airs for the first time tonight on Channel 4 at 22:10 GMT.

But, sexy and loyal readers of Hawkblocker, you can watch it here first:

Very rrrrousing. Are you rrrroused? I am. I’ve also had my mind scrambled slightly to see how far video production has come in less than two decades.

Is it a success, though? Well, the ad has a few goals. This is the Guardian’s big chance to capitalise on what was probably the greatest year any paper has had since the Washington Post in 1972-73. The Guardian not only helped WikiLeaks break the US Embassy Cables, but brought down Rupert Murdoch’s venerable News of the World, Britain’s biggest Sunday tabloid, for illegal phone hacking, and did such a locally relevant job of covering the Arab spring many Egyptians thought it was instrumental to Mubarak’s downfall.

It also wants to strike a big, bold, confident stance in a market that has altered radically since Skinhead. The tagline might still be The Whole Picture, but the new ad is obviously striving to reflect the Guardian’s new values. To summarise these in buzzwords (you know you want to), they are “mutualised” (2010), “open” (2011) and “digital-first” (2012). “Mutualised” basically means “collaborative with readers”, which is why you hear all those reader voices arguing fruitlessly with each other. “Open” means a lot of things: a commitment not to hide the Guardian behind an online paywall, sure – but also to liberate content from the exclusive preserve of ivory-tower journalists telling readers “the truth”, and shift instead towards a model where journalists “curate” material from a wide range of contributors: outside experts, local bloggers, readers themselves, etc. “Digital-first”, lastly, means the Guardian wants you to stop thinking of it as a print newspaper, and start thinking of it as, ahem, a multiplatform digital media service: websites, mobiles, digimobs, iPens, you know the drill. Print isn’t dead, it’s just in a low-rent care home. And you don’t visit nearly as often as you should.

Secretly, though, the Guardian has another problem. Namely, huge swaths of the UK think it’s staffed by the British Workers’ Guild of Sandal-Wearing Muesli-Knitters. Ask your average Daily Mail subscriber and they’ll tell you the Guardian is a rabble of leftwing bores who want us to all to hold hands in a big naked unshaven circle at the centre of a field of organic spelt. It’s not true, of course. Rather than sandals, most staff don’t wear shoes at all. (Just kidding.)

But American readers, crucially, don’t hold this prejudice. And the Guardian is trying hard to crack the US market, with a new team in the States and a US-specific version of its home page. (Hence, all the guns.) Luckily, the Guardian has a rep in the US for something like “edgy chutzpah”, which might seem a bit inflated but is highly preferable as a location on the positioning spectrum to “whiny PC cunt”.

That’s why you’ve got all the drums and the sly wit, the dawn raids and the riot squads, with none of the overt, politically correct moralising of Skinhead. The resulting ad is entertaining to watch. The complications of the Pigs’ case do indeed raise eyebrows. The resulting morass of exposed corruption and murky truth is exactly what good journalism uncovers. The music is impeccably rrrrrousing. And the effect of the overlapping voices and digital content platforms really does give an exciting impression of a paper where exciting things do, more than occasionally, happen.

You can feel the “but” coming, can’t you.

Here’s my concern: the whole thing feels, no doubt totally unintentionally, like a self-parody.

Guardian Three Little Pigs ad - still

A still taken from the Guardian's "Three Little Pigs" ad

By making its central story a kids’ fairytale, the ad inadvertently makes the Guardian’s journalism seem absurdly self-important. All the opinion and outrage comes off as automatic – like those professional protesters who are paid to kick up a fuss.

This is particularly bad, because the news business has been accused of a factory system in which producing content, 24/7, regardless of quality, is far more important than ensuring any of that content is actually useful. It is actually Nick Davies, the Guardian’s star investigative reporter and the guy who broke the hacking scandal, who is most enraged about exactly this problem. In his 2008 book Flat Earth News, he calls it “churnalism”: spewing out tons more content, with much less time and money, than ever before. You could even argue that’s exactly why the tabloids turned to phone hacking in the first place: to reliably feed the news beast. Now this Three Little Pigs ad makes the Guardian look like they do the same thing.

Worse, the use of a fairytale inevitably makes the readers sound even more inane than they actually are. The ad seems almost to be taking the piss out of them, mocking its readers for hijacking any comment thread – even one about a children’s story – in order to bitch about their mortgages.

You could say I’m taking it all too seriously. But if the ad’s meant to be wryly amusing, it’s surely a problem that I didn’t laugh. The reason, I think, is that rather than taking a serious thing and making it look silly, the ad takes a silly thing and makes it look serious. It feels like it’s belittling all the truly great journalism the Guardian did in 2011.

That’s not to take away from all the ad’s positives. It’s visually memorable, it’s exciting, and it makes newspapers look like cool places doing cool things. It’s a big gamble, and I certainly hope it works. The press will be weaker if it fails (and I’ll be out of a job).

But I’m very eager to hear what other people think. What’s your feeling – do you like the new ad?


  1. Luke wrote:

    Totally loved it, and agree about it being like parody. Actually reminded me of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror: The National Anthem!

  2. Nail, meet head. Excellent piece.

    The inanity of “mutualism” and the green-inkers of CIF also comes across in the nod to 9/11 truthers (“those two buildings could not have been blown down!”). It’s a masterly set of digs at GNM’s strategy, presumably put together by internal saboteurs.

  3. Name * wrote:

    I couldn’t agree more – you have identified the core problem with it. It actually reinforces prejudices people have about the Guardian: that it is self-important, quick to blow a minor event into a major conspiracy, and populated by commenters eager to use the most insignificant topic to loudly spout their trite opinions.

    Your point about the US also probably explains why the police uniforms were so American. Weird, frankly.

  4. pedant wrote:

    Correct me if my maths is wrong, but wasn’t 1986 twenty six years ago and not sixteen ?

  5. Simon wrote:

    I like the ad. But it does seem to suggest that the Guardian’s MO is to sensationalise. And aren’t Guardian readers supposedly the ones who would be least interested in sensationalised news? I suppose the question is whether you gain more readers who will think “Oh, it’s flashy and expensive and sort of clever” versus losing those who see the ad as promoting a hysterical overreaction.

  6. foginwater wrote:

    I think the original skinhead ad was more successful, as it’s firmly lodged in my brain. Compared to the new one it was dead simple: 3 shots, and they said so much. I guess if anything the new ad is a decent reflection of the kind of readers/viewers/surfers/people we have become.

    I read the Guardian (mostly on my phone) and it is one of the best damned papers (i mean apps) in the world. But truth is truth and cool is cool, and the troubling thing about this new ad is how it blurs that line with fresh cool hip takes on childhood farytales, fancy assed Micheal Bay editing, and machine gun pacing. But we do live in a changing world and perhaps it’s time the papers change too – but in this case unfortunately it’s out of necessity.

  7. Hawkbit wrote:

    Never thought about the 9/11 truthers! Nice catch Alonzo S Whitebeard (if that is your real name). And it totally is 26 years not 16. Thanks pedant.
    Another thought: one technique common to many ads is widlly exaggerating the benefits of the product. It’s supposed to look funny, like they’re not taking the product too seriously. But maybe BBH made a mistake thinking the same technique would also work with the Guardian. Because the Guardian actually IS a useful and important product, not just a cologne or a £5 banking coupon, so you don’t need to make fun of it. BBH too cool for its own good, maybe?

  8. kgj wrote:

    Great review. Just saw the ad and had exactly the same reaction.
    This was a classically terrible advertising campaign. It seems dynamic, fast-paced sexy and fun. It’s got a narrative, a theme, a theory and a catch for the advertising department to explain to the client.

    But, for someone, like me, US, no idea of the skinhead ad, generally leftish (no habitual hatred of Guardian ideals) it reminded me precisely of what I dislike most about UK media. Mountain out of nothing (i.e. fairy-tale). Self-important. Lots of connection with useless ‘man-on-the-street’ commenters who have nothing to say.

    Reminds me why I far far far prefer the FT. Cover what’s important, no murders, no Michael Jackson. The politics are clear (and discounted if necessary). Treats the news seriously.

    Fantastic, someone spent the tim, money and effort on the ad and couldn’t have left a clearer impression – “Don’t read the Guardian – it has nothing useful to offer”.

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