Sultans of spin – SMH – 25 Sep.11

GRUEN PLANET, which starts its eight-week season this week, applies the framework of The Gruen Transfer – discussing and illustrating the power of persuasion – to the world of spin, public relations and branding.

Where The Gruen Transfer considers a product or service – say, the carbon tax, toothpaste or bottled water – and examines the advertising strategy surrounding it, Gruen Planet will escalate that conversation.

The core trio of host Wil Anderson and slightly combative panellists Russel Howcroft and Todd Sampson remain and their mission, once again, is to get insiders to explain how something is sold.

”Persuasion is persuasion,” Sampson says, pointing out that the techniques used in PR and damage control are not much different to those used to persuade consumers to buy a product.

Gruen Planet will focus on real-world, real-time issues. All eight episodes will be taped just 24 hours before they go to air. As with The Gruen Transfer, outside agencies will pitch ads to the panel.

Topics in the mix include a proposal to run an ad during grand final week asserting that footballers should not be role models, the rebranding of Rupert Murdoch and a pitch to persuade Australians they hate the Melbourne Cup. If the show was on last week, Anderson says, Samantha Stosur would have been an obvious talking point. Who is knocking on her door after winning the US Open? Who protects her? What sort of offers are on the table? What sort of brand is she? What sort of brands would you associate with her? And how long would her marketing window stay open?

In fact, potential topics are seemingly endless.

”You look at the debate over whether Shakespeare wrote his plays,” Anderson says. ”That might be the first instance of somebody using a brand. It might have been four or five different people writing those plays under the Shakespeare brand.”

The concept of people marketing themselves as brands divides the show’s protagonists. Anderson, who has more than 100,000 followers on Twitter, could be seen as a particularly sturdy brand and he concurs, to a point, noting that after his controversial tweeting at the 2010 Logies, the number of people following him soared by 10,000 overnight. ”It was good for my brand,” he says.

The ad men are more cautious. Howcroft finds the trend of referencing oneself as a brand grating. ”Individuals are much more complex characters than simply a brand,” he says. ”It’s far too simplistic.”

Sampson agrees – to an extent. ”When somebody refers to themselves as a brand, I think it’s embarrassing because you obviously have tickets on yourself. But I think people are brands. Shane Warne is a brand. They are people but they build a perception around them that’s sometimes different to the reality.”

The Gruen Transfer is one of the great ABC success stories and the election spinoff Gruen Nation was even more popular. The success of Gruen Planet, however, is not a given. ”This new show could be our Renovators moment,” Anderson says, only half-joking.

Producer Jon Casimir is less theatrical. ”We’ve got a ‘Broadway’ timeslot on the ABC,” he says. ”So it has to be as entertaining as possible. We want to celebrate when something is marketed well and mock it when it’s done [poorly].”

Regardless, the Gruen brand and its franchises have already created an impressive legacy.

Mad Men may have glamorised the ad world but Gruen has presented it as a sharp, forward-thinking and intelligent contemporary workplace. ”It has put a spotlight on the industry,” Sampson says.

”It has increased the number of people wanting to be in the industry. Applications to tertiary ad schools have gone up dramatically. It has shown another perspective.”

Asked whether they have any concerns about divulging commercial secrets, Howcroft and Sampson scoff.

”This is a creative business,” Sampson says. ”As fast as we think through the techniques being used, new ones are being developed to replace them. That is our job. Every day we are learning better ways to persuade people.”

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