The X Factor ITV ad campaigns compared: a tale of missed chances?

Would-be music stars will battle it out to become chart-toppers in the final of ITV’s The X Factor on Saturday.

But what is one of Britain’s TV shows is also the vehicle for a quite different fight – the scrap to be the leading UK internet TV platform.

TalkTalk is the show’s flagship sponsor for the fifth year running, this time choosing to market TalkTalkTV, its hybrid terrestrial-internet TV service.

The package, for which the firm reportedly paid £20 million for three years, earns TalkTalk idents in and out of commercial breaks. With around 12 exposures in each main Saturday show alone, it represents huge prime-time exposure.

The only problem? These idents say absolutely nothing about TalkTalkTV.

These 10-second videos – with names like Bear Lamp Voice, Bird Curtain and Dad Dancing – show illustrated living room decorations come to life…

Sure, they’re charming. But they don’t even attempt to sell customers on TalkTalkTV’s catch-up TV service, its well-regarded free YouView set-top box, large channel library or on-demand movie offering. It’s just eye candy, an expensive opportunity lost.

X Factor’s idents are not the only promotional opportunity squandered by TalkTalk

The company has also bought product placements which see contestants watching back their own performances using TalkTalkTV’s catch-up service. Yet, in these scenes, it is not TalkTalkTV but YouView itself whose product logo is displayed. It may as well have been a placement for Humax’s YouView box, which can be bought in shops without a broadband contract.

When the director cuts to this year’s new green room, a TalkTalkTV logo hoarding hangs above nervous performers’ heads during backstage interviews. The segment appears to have been created entirely to carve out this new opportunity. But, without any supporting information imparted about the service via the show’s other sponsorship vehicles, it remains simply a logo, isolated and useless.

“What’s TalkTalkTV, mummy?,” you imagine teenage viewers, whom TalkTalkTV should be switching on, asking their parents. “I have no idea, darling,” those parents would have to reply. In X Factor, TalkTalkTV is not a product, it’s just an empty word, a benefactor floating in space.

Ad campaigns that eschew detailed product pitches in favour of soft, pleasing messaging in this way are nothing new. Those in advertising might call them merely “branding” or “top-of-funnel” tools, designed to build general awareness before giving more detailed sales information to potential customers via other, later channels.

So TalkTalkTV’s tactic wouldn’t look like such a squandering of budget. Except, the company is now facing a titanic fight.

Now powered by the same YouView system as TalkTalkTV, BT’s rebranded Vision TV service is offering a near-identical product. Which is why it matters not just that BT is spending so aggressively to build its service through premium content acquisition – but also that it is describing the offering using a simple and direct marketing campaign.

Between the very X Factor idents on which TalkTalkTV has spent so much, BT has this season bought straightforward 30-second ad spots that explain its box, its YouView relationship, price point and content line-up clearly, complete with a sales phone number to on-board new customers right from their sofas.

Hybrid terrestrial and internet TV offered by a telephone company is not a simple consumer proposition to explain. But even BT’s “Flatmates” campaign series manages it between X Factor’s idents in a fraction of the time purchased by TalkTalk: “Must-have HD movies, sport and channels. TV from BT.” TalkTalk’s bears and birds barely manage a chirp.

Both BT and TalkTalk are locked in a battle for the future of UK digital TV. Between July and September this year, TalkTalkTV added more TV subscribers than its rival – 167,000 versus 70,000. But BT boasted a total 900,000 TV customers against TalkTalk’s 557,000. The X Factor sponsor forecast it will hit a million subscribers by year’s end.

A TalkTalk spokesperson said: “TalkTalk is Britain’s fastest growing TV service and we’re proud of the role our X Factor sponsorship plays in helping us achieve that.”

But the money BT is splashing on premium sports rights means TalkTalkTV is facing a massive challenge from its rival. If it can’t compete on content, it must at least compete for clarity.