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:
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.
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.
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.