The Unofficial Partner Column: Leeds United and the Benny Hill Test

Reflecting on recent marketing efforts in the sports industry, Richard Gillis recalls a lesson learned from the world of broad 1970s TV comedy.

The Unofficial Partner Column: Leeds United and the Benny Hill Test

Leeds United's disastrous badge re-design, which was pulled in the face of fierce fan backlash

When I saw the new Leeds United logo, I thought of Benny Hill.

I once talked to the producer of The Benny Hill Show about the difference between a good TV programme and a bad one.

His answer has stayed with me and I use it as a barometer of any creative output, from films and Netflix box sets through to 30-second ad spots, branded social content and, yes, sports marketing campaigns.

The simple rule is this: ‘Does the producer watch it?’

Do the people who made the show, the ones who came up with the idea and spent their waking hours bringing the project to fruition, inhabit the world they are targeting?

Do they have emotional skin in the game, or are they tourists?

Do they know the people they portray, or are they guessing?

Even when viewed through the lens of 1970s television, much of The Benny Hill Show was indefensible. 

Dodgy innuendo and lazy sexism, mixed up with politically incorrect impressions of Chinese people – ‘Why you not wisten?’ – and the final credits involving randy old blokes chasing ‘scantily clad’ young women around a garden with the film speeded up to match the theme tune.

And it was massively popular, both in the UK and around the world, even given the obvious caveat that there was no internet, only three TV channels and you had to get up off the sofa and walk across the room to change channels.

The point is, the producer of The Benny Hill Show loved The Benny Hill Show.

He laughed when Benny slapped the little old bald bloke on the head for the 1,000th time and fell about when Bob Todd did his deadpan bloodhound schtick straight to camera. 

The producer’s definition had little to do with quality or taste, but was about authenticity, or at least a version of it.

From Benny Hill to Simon Banoub

Simon Banoub was one of the bright sparks behind Opta Joe, the much copied and rarely bettered use of data storytelling to a mass audience.

Simon is very good on Twitter, where he self-identifies as a long-suffering Middlesbrough fan.

Sometime last year, we both did Matt Cutler’s SB Weekly podcast, before Matt got a proper job and started wearing linen separates.

We were all talking about advertising when Banoub went off on one, a summary of which would be: ‘I don’t recognise football fans when I see them represented by the marketing industry’.

Something is out of kilter, he said, the tone is all wrong. 

In short, they fail the Benny Hill Test.

When represented in advertising, and in popular culture generally, fans are not real people, they’re TGI-inspired composites, a proxy for the common man. There’s an obvious Brexit angle here.

Football is famously described as the game of the people, which is a patronising label that really means ‘the game of those people’, the ones who vote the wrong way, and probably wear flat caps, raise whippets and have dripping for tea.

Football is part of the cultural safari in to the heartlands of ‘real Britain’ currently being undertaken across the media and marketing industries.

This often involves a high-profile celebrity venturing into the darkest parts of our country, or Swindon, whichever’s nearer.

This is a worthy attempt to ‘understand and empathise’ with the people time forgot, who populate the imaginations of advertising creatives and documentary film-makers.

This real Britain is what Vice brilliantly parodied as full of ‘honest van drivers, snarling staffies, and neon-streaked takeaway windows’. They live in ‘estates left to peel and decay, the vacant pubs that used to bristle with life. The Sun-readers, the confused former-Labour voters, the unemployed factory workers.’ Them.

When you start with such a flawed notion of football fans, it’s no surprise when the output goes astray and it explains the growing appetite for the more authentic-sounding perspectives offered by the likes of Copa90, Arsenal Fan TV or Ball Street.

But it’s not just football that comes out wrong.

Sports marketing is a sea of clunking clichés, most of which are at least two decades out of date.

Golf is a shorthand for middle management, chinos and self-satisfaction, whereas the identikit rugby fan is the inverse of the football stereotype, and no less patronising: overgrown public schoolboys decked out in Hackett and bright orange brogues.

With this as the starting point, rugby marketing has evolved into a strangely pompous affair.

From the BBC’s Six Nations idents to many big brand campaigns, you can’t move for stirring Shakespearean speeches to the backdrop of classical music, with Ian McGeechan going full Henry V.

For this, I blame Eddie Butler. 

Like everyone else, I loved the BBC commentator’s rousing London 2012 promos, which captured the mood of the time. But he created a marketing trope that has morphed into weird inspiration porn for the Linkedin crowd.

It’s as real as a football fan with a rosette and rattle.

For Christ’s sake, make it stop.

Follow Richard Gillis on Twitter: @RichardGillis1

This column originally appeared in issue 98 of SportsPro Magazine. To find out more or to subscribe, click here.