A tote bag designed to look like Mrs Thatcher’s favourite handbag was the must-have accessory for men and women alike at the Conservative Party Conference this year, and, like the pint of milk left among the floral tributes outside her home when she died, it seemed a suitable and affectionate tribute to her memory.

Would that the same could be said for the Royal Baby tat I’ve seen advertised recently – everything from spoons (OK, traditional) to, er, a commemorative 5% off car insurance. No, really. There is a difference between being in tune with the times, and piggybacking on current events, and if you’ve ever seen Alan Bennett’s vicar compare life to a tin of sardines (http://youtu.be/UOsYN—eGk), you’ll know where this is coming from.

Topicality is such an important part of delivering a message, whether you are advertising a product or speaking at a dinner. It gives the message a freshness, timeliness, and the sense that this is for now: it can’t last forever. Recently, I’ve been breaking the ice by asking the audience how many of them can remember the last time they cleaned behind their refrigerator, a joke that I have already retired because (mercifully) people have moved on from Godfrey Bloom’s ill-fated attempt at humour. Fortunately, prominent politicians are often to be found making generalisations, and the next time one does, I will dust off the audience survey with a brand new question designed to quickly reveal the falsehood behind the assumption.

A chance remark on a re-run of the BBC’s QI struck a chord with me: Stephen Fry observed that since tobacco advertising had been banned, it had done the industry a huge favour by absolving cigarette companies of the necessity of fighting an expensive PR battle with each other. It was a comment which made me look at advertising in a fresh light: how effective is advertising anyway? If companies couldn’t spend money on posters and TV commercials, what would they spend it on instead? Would this under-the-counter style marketing be more effective? How much of advertising is just an escalated ‘arms race’ against rival firms? And does anyone really change their car insurance because Brand X tip their hat to Prince George in a newspaper?

The strongest brands of all make their own news and inhabit a space no other product dare step into. Guinness springs immediately to mind, as does Apple. You know their marketing with the sound turned down and out of the corner of your eye. There is a saying that the great comedians are recognisable by their silhouette (think Chaplin, Tommy Cooper, Morcambe and Wise, although that’s a bit of a cheat because there are two of them). I think Thatcher’s handbag would probably pass this test, and I don’t know how many other politicians attire would.

It comes down to confidence. There is no harm in being flexible in the face of changing circumstances, but how you respond tells people a lot about who you are and what your attitude is. Whether you are representing a brand, or just yourself, it’s a question you should ask: are you responding to events – or making them yourself?

PS Programmes deliver presentation skills, TV and radio media training and crisis media management, tailored to the needs of our clients. This article also appears on http://www.presentationskillsprogrammes.co.uk