When The Sun and journalism in general was admired and reviled in more equal measure, the "legendary" editor Kelvin Mackenzie declared to his staff that there were only seven stories, or "knitting patterns", as he called them.
They ran pretty much along the lines of the seven deadly sins, not surprisingly. It proved to be an excellent filter to make sure the news team focus on what sold the paper. If a story didn't fit the pattern, it wasn't a story.
This brutal simplicity inspired me to see if could come up with a similar formula when I was leading Coca-Cola's communications machine in Europe in the 2000s. We took a wide sweep of what stories "cut through" beyond our industry and of course, the DNA of the stories that worked hard for us and also what flopped.
It resulted - after much to and fro - with a finite series of "winning plays", some of which would probably work for any icon, in any century, but some worked uniquely for Coke in the here and now.
This week began with an excellent execution of the most enduring of those plays - the unbeatable image. Rolex topped the Superbrand survey, trailed by Coke, Google and Mercedes-Benz. Not the biggest story in town, and certainly not front page news. But the EIGHTH-ranked Superbrand not only dominated the coverage but put the story on the front page.
How? While the other superstars were having Sunday lunch, the Dulux team were busy putting a crop of pretty 60s styled girls in simple, bright dresses and had them march a posse of Dulux dogs across Westminster Bridge. It was a three card trick.
- Play number one: the unbeatable image,
- Play number two: cherish the icon (the dog)
- Play number three: fill the media envelope (classic Sunday for Monday).
Easy but blindingly effective.
There was category of plays we invented back then that we called "boomerangs". Effective, yes, but had a habit of hitting you in the back of the head. You really needed to examine the "brand fit" and the unintended consequences before launching one.
Declaring "war" on a smaller competitor, for example, is a great headline grabber. At British Airways in the late eighties we were "the World's Favourite" but were bizarrely looking to pick a fight with anyone. Not the smartest move, as I suspected at the time. It too easily results in the boomerang effect of a giving greater credit to your rival, and indeed raise the eyebrows of the competition authorities.
Hopefully (for them) Paddy Power is aiming its boomerangs accurately. They seem pretty determined to get every TV commercial they make banned before it makes the screen. They're certainly reaching me through Youtube shares on Facebook...and I hardly watch any TV at all. Cute. First with a "spot the tranny" spoof for Ascot on Ladies Day, and secondly with a "shoot the chav with a tranquilizer gun" at the Cheltenham Gold Cup. The bookmaker is very proud of the results, 500,000 views in the first week and of course, loads of chatter.
This play "go for the ban" is equally well-tried; the Sex Pistols may never have made number one in the UK with God Save the Queen if hadn't been banned by radio. But in an age when TV commercials are watched less and less, it must make good economic sense for self-styled controversial brands to produce ads that provoke outrage and snigger, they move much quicker to our small screens.
But even a ribald crowd like Paddy Power might want to take stock before picking on another easy target in society to drive notoriety.
The Sun misread its audience on more than one occasion with effects that were long-lasting...not least in Liverpool where their reporting on the Hillsborough tragedy was inaccurate and insensitive.
As Dulux showed, you an use the oldest trick in the book to eclipse more revered rivals. As Paddy Power are showing, the "dark arts" are still brutally effective.
One of our other plays was "dreams can come true." Coke has a great track record in bringing magic to life...like the Christmas truck coming to town across Europe. Perfect realisation of cherished "movie" moment. "Worst scenario" a puncture, a delay or Santa falling off his stool.
I'm sure Paddy Power has thought through the consequences of their "movie moment" coming to life at the Cheltenham festival. That boomerang would really get some airplay.