The facts may not be the facts

At the beginning of the First World War, British soldiers went into battle wearing cloth caps. Obviously a lot of them died.

The government had to do something fast. So they issued every soldier with a tin helmet. They thought that would solve the problem.

But it seemed to make it worse. The number of injuries rose dramatically, and many more soldiers ended up in hospital.

At first they couldn’t work out what was wrong. Were the helmets restricting the soldiers’ vision? Were the helmets making them foolhardy? What was wrong?

It turned out that nothing was wrong. The helmets were working perfectly, which was why more soldiers were ending up in hospital. Because they weren’t dead.

The most lethal weapon in the early days of the war was the air-burst artillery shell.

As the troops were advancing, the shells would explode above the ground.

Shrapnel would go straight through the cloth caps and take their heads off.

But the shrapnel couldn’t penetrate the tin helmets. So it hit the rest of their body.

And they were wounded instead of killed. And hospital admissions showed a sharp upturn. Looking at the facts differently presents a completely different picture.

Later in the war it became apparent that Britain was in danger of losing the war to the U boats.

Britain is an island, it can only be supplied by sea. If the Germans cut this link, Britain could be starved into submission.

One answer was to form the cargo ships into large groups. Convoys that could be protected by Royal Navy warships. But when they looked at the numbers they saw there were thousands of ships sailing from British ports every day.

They couldn’t possibly arrange that many ships into convoys. So they didn’t try, and Britain nearly lost the war.

Until someone spotted that 90% of those ships were sailing across the English Channel to France.

The trip was so short they didn’t need protecting. The vital 10% of ships that were going to North America could easily be formed into convoys.

And, in two world wars, that was the system that won the Battle of the Atlantic. But, if no one had bothered looking at the numbers differently, we’d all be speaking German.

When I was at BMP, we were working on a COI account: Fire Prevention. In those days, most domestic fires were due to chip-pan fires.

David Batterby was our MD, and he came to see me, really excited. He said he and the planner had just had a great idea. Here it is:

Creative Leap

What measure will the COI use to evaluate if the fire-prevention campaign is successful?

Obviously, the only measure they’ve got is the number of times fire engines are called out.

So the real focus of the campaign is to
reduce Fire Brigade responses.

Creative Leap

How can we reduce the number of call-outs? Well if people could put the fire out themselves, they wouldn’t need to call the fire brigade. So let’s tell them how to put out a chip-pan fire.

Creative Leap

But this is a ‘fire prevention’ campaign.

So let’s show them how to put out a chip-pan fire in such a scary way that they never want to have one. So that was the brief the account group gave the creatives. After the campaign ran, Fire Brigade callouts to chip-pan fires went down by 40%.

We won a D&AD silver award for the ads. But the real creative work was done before the brief got anywhere near the creative department.

  • CF

    Dave, there’s a book you’d love called ‘Churchill’s Wizards’. It’s about how we won the first and second world wars by using our brains to outthink the enemy. I think it would be right down your street…

  • Dave Trott

    Hi Claire,
    I’m going to check it out on Amazon right now.

  • Thomas Heginbotham

    Another good post dave.
    Seeing the same information in a completely new way…
    Reminds me of the ‘Gestalt effect’ or what Thomas Kuhn called a paradigm shift.
    The old duckrabbit rabbitduck example:

  • Dave Trott

    Excellent article Thomas.
    As you say, it reminds me a lot of Escher.
    Once you’re locked into seeing it one way, it’s difficult to go back to the other way.

  • Bob Ashwood

    Dave, A lot is said about ‘the solution is in the problem’. Agreed. However, the problem is, a symptom can often be mistaken for a problem and that’s what gets addressed and the cause is overlooked. I’m great believer in spending as much time as it takes with planners and client brand managers to nail this.

    To keep repeating words to the effect of ‘WHY IS THIS SO?’ like a four year old kid until you run out of answers. It’s usually then that you’re getting close to the nub. A rock to build a brief on. AS you say, it can be an enthralling creative process.

  • Kevin Gordon

    Hi Dave,

    Forgotten Voices.
    The accounts of soldiers in the trenches in France in WW1.
    One of the most touching books I’ve ever read in my little life.

    Bob made me think: There’s also the solution between two problems. The other night, I was watching a TV programme about Neville Chaimberlain. They explained how he worked so hard to retain peace, and went down in history as a politician who gave in. Chaimberlain reduced national debt for 6 years between two world wars. If he had not done so, Britain would have been unable to meet its commitments for Part 2. They say history never repeats itself, I hope they are right, because we are now in part 2 of the war in the Middle-East. Thatcher said: “My only regret about the first Gulf war was we should have finished him off when we had the chance.” I’m glad my local geeengrocer doesn’t think like that. Even her hero Churchill said “Jaw Jaw not War War.” which may explain why when the war was over he mentioned he had to take a little leave to “rewrite history” indicating even the big man may have had doubts himself about whehter we were going to pull it off.

    I had a look on You Tube, the other day. A short journey through the massive amount of unedited footage shows first hand what is really happening in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the UK it’s like the war has never happened because most people (myself included) are comfortably unaware of what is happening out there. It unsettles me how the media only tell us about British casualties. There are Americans, Brits, Germans, French, Italians, Canadians, Afghans, and many other nations fighting out there right now, and your aptly timed blog will ensure “We will remember them all.”

    I met a group of 24 year-old Italians and Americans on leave out in the Middle East. They told me on a good day, you only get shot at once, and on a bad day, the bullets miss three times and then you get fired at by a rocket. One of them even had his Hummer turned-over by a landmine in the road and only survived because he bent down before the roof caved-in as the Hummer flipped over. I guess this highlights another solution between two problems.
    The problem of fighting a war nobody wants to fight, and the problem of keeping the public informed not infuriated. It’s a very difficult war out there, especially as the drug barons are supplying the Afghan Army with copious amounts of drugs knowing it causes a real management problem for allied troops, which is why Gordon Brown quite rightly addressed the situation the other day by warning the government to shape-up or we’re shipping out.

    On a lighter note:

    An Art Director I knew got very frustrated one day. The client kept looking at the competitors ads and running ads to compete against them. Meanwhile the competitor was running ads to compete against his ads. The only difference between all the ridiculous amount of money being spent were the logos for each company. To make a point, he put a competitors logo on the client’s ad and sent it to the client. The client made the leap, but unfortunately it was not the one he was expecting. They never shaped-up, and he was shipped out.

    As discussed Dave, half the idea is the idea,
    the other half is how you present and sell it.

  • Phil Johnston

    Hello Dave,

    Ive been enjoying your blog for a good while now. “Facts” got me thinking about working at GGT as a young, wet behind the ears planner and being introduced to your concept of ‘f**k me’ facts.

    Facts that were so interesting they gave the ads a head start in terms of interest and impact.

    Pitching the Docklands, your brief to me was simple… Go away and get us some f**k-me facts. Once it was explained to me what you wanted I actually enjoyed the process and even 20 years later I remember coming back with such gems as:

    Docklands: More waterfront promenade than Brighton and Blackpool combined
    Docklands: More shops than Regent Street

    Never mind the fact that Docklands at that time was a building site and we were selling the future. The facts made for an interesting story, sold the dream.

    You taught me a valuable lesson with the ‘f**k me’ facts concept. There’s always a more interesting way to approach facts, a way that capures peoples’ imaginations, intrigues and challenges conventions. And as you point out with your chip-pan example it’s not just the creative department’s job to look for the interesting way.

    Glad to see you’re still passionate about advertising Dave. I’ll add my voice to the many that thank you for inspiring them, in my case both in the past and now.

    Cheers. Phil.

  • Dave Trott

    Thanks Phil,
    That really brightened up a grey Monday morning.
    If you can train more young people to think like that it will be better for advertising, creatives, planners and suits, in general.

  • Rob Mortimer

    That ad put me off chip pans for life… thanks!

  • Alex Jenkins

    Great post. I’ve just been reading the case study Chris Cowpe wrote about the chip-pan fire campaign which has some fascinating and compelling facts in it:

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