I am off to Chad. In less than a month I shall be going to what is, according to the United Nations human development report 2011 is the fifth poorest nation on earth. I will be part of a small team to fact-find and shoot film for fundraising activities. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit twitchy about the idea at first (Chad being roughly three thousand miles outside my comfort zone) but this rare opportunity to do something good in the world has to be seized. My trepidation is rapidly being replaced by curiosity and excitement at the opportunity to grow as a writer and a person.
Telltale Press news… The Poetry Book Fair is happening on Saturday 26th in The Conway Hall London. I’m really proud to be on the Telltale stand (it’ll be our first time and we are sharing a stand with the lovely folks at The Frogmore Press) with Robin Houghton, Siegfried Baber and Sarah Barnsley.
Sarah’s spanking new Telltale pamphlet, The Fire Station, is about to released into the wild, and having read it I can tell you it is wonderful.
My own poems have had a couple of cheering acceptances lately. From Under the Radar magazine another with The Island Reviewwhich is a beautiful site visually and in content. While the excellent poetry anthology edited by Josephine Corcoran called And Other Poems will also feature a poem later this year. No doubt I shall be bragging about these more when they see the light of day.
I really, really despise the campaign for Haribo sweets, currently making a return to UK screens as welcome as a bout of acid reflux. What’s weird is that I don’t understand my own irrational, visceral loathing. After all, it is patently intended to be a funny and cute little advert about how Haribo sweets bring out the child in grown-ups.
Sure it is pathetic and creepy and makes me want to projectile vomit in the direction of the TV. Even so, the technique of adults channeling children’s voices is not new, or unique to Haribo. Last year for example there was one for Harry Potter Studio tour, which although it used the same device was slightly less nauseating.
The agency I worked at in the noughties, my boss at RAPP Ian Haworth wrote some DRTV ads for NSPCC which used the same technique. A woman in her twenties who had been sexually abused, an overworked housewife remembering her parents abusing her as a child, and a man obsessed with self-defence recalling the fragile child he once was. These ads had a purpose and, at the time, were striking. However, although in my opinion were truly excellent adverts, they weren’t the most successful at fundraising as other campaigns the NSPCC ran.
Unlike the clearly successful dumb as nuts Haribo ad. The fact is this godawful thing is in my brain. It has worked. It hasn’t changed my opinion on Haribo Starmix about which I am resolutely in the meh camp. But Haribo is a product I now can’t forget. Gah! Sometimes I hate advertising.
Dark and fascinating advert here for the Mumbai Mirror, made by Taproot India found thanks to bestadsontv.com It shows how the Mumbai Mirror newspaper is hated by those up to no good. We see a doctor conducting illegal organ harvesting, a pair of sex criminals, a woman prostituting young girls and the public scandal of train platforms leading to injury.
It takes a good deal of confidence to market a product as being hated, even if it is by the bad guys. This falls firmly into what I call ‘real life’ territory with its grim black and white world and glamour-free casting (and, by the way, the performances strike me as excellent in this).
Of course real life territory is as artificial as any other. For life as lived by real people is utterly diverse. And here is the Achilles heel of this approach: for it to work, the life it depicts has to be recognisable. Elsewhere this can mean that banal moments like getting wet in the rain, or missing a bus become its currency. The desire for common experience means that gritty realistic portrayals can drift into cliché. But this advert, perhaps because it is from India and a visual culture I am not so familiar with, seems to me to excellently sidestep the expected in a compelling and confrontational way.
Yesterday I attended a talk by Ken Eklund, a writer and games designer based in California, at an event organised by The University of Brighton, and excellently hosted by Matt Locke of Storythings. Ken creates ‘cli-fi’ games that allow people to ‘immerse themselves without fear’ in challenging future environmental scenarios.
One game requires people to locate unusual plastic objects which have been scattered, apparently randomly, in several countries. The gamer who collects these objects finds they correspond to a voicemail from the future. These messages allude to future climate change events, such as suggesting that an airport is underwater.
Another game in 2007 saw people documenting a fictional oil crisis. People used various internet platforms to contribute to a crowdsourced fiction about life in an oil crisis. Ken said a pivotal moment was when one person suggested they stop posting doom scenarios and instead find a way of tackling the problem.
Ken creates a game playing environments that are ‘multi-sourced, open and emergent’, he also calls this ‘Authentic Fiction’.
As there was an opportunity for questions, I asked Ken to say more about how while advertising uses creativity to funnel people towards an outcome, such as buying a pizza, his fictional activity turns the funnel the other way to allow for a multiplicity of crowd sourced responses. Would the desired message be dissipated?
Ken said he wasn’t in advertising, but instead created a playful space for the issues to be raised. I liked this as Ken is the kind of storyteller who creates the frame rather than the picture.
While the idea of a messages from the future is an SF staple, it certainly doesn’t crop up much in advertising and marketing. The UK First Direct bank’s confident first effort back in 1989 (a message from the then future of 2010) was the first one that sprang to mind. In a game-playing context, however, those who are ‘playing hard’ are far more willing to suspend disbelief than someone passively watching their TV. In Ken’s scenario the messages from the future become valuable and sought after. Marketing, which naturally is seeking ways of making its messages more magnetic, definitely has something to learn from Ken’s work.
With my other hat on, as a writer, poet, etc. I found the scenarios a little predictable, but I think Ken’s focus was in unleashing the creativity of others, enabling what he called ‘the resurgence of my story’ to feed into a greater narrative arc. In that way richness and unpredictability is organically added.
His latest project in development is around how artificial intelligence may take over human activities. A project which coincides with Channel 4’s excellent new Humans series about AI being aired in the UK. One scene nails Eklund’s concern where Mattie, a teenage character resentful of the robots, questions what is the point of her continuing to become a doctor. “That’d take me seven years, but by then you’d be able to turn any old synth into a brain surgeon in seven seconds,” and goes on to asks if they are all supposed to become poets.
I found Eklund’s work fascinating and I will be keen to keep tabs on his future projects.
In 1968, I was assigned by Look magazine to get on the train bearing Robert F Kennedy’s remains from New York to Washington DC. Barred from photographing the Kennedy family in their private car, I took note of the people lined up along the track to pay their last respects, and decided to photograph them. I was surprised that the other photographers on the train either failed to notice them or chose not to take pictures. These photos, first published more than 30 years after RFK’s death, are among the among most important I’ve ever taken.
In these poignant photos, you begin to appreciate the full weight of what Senator Kennedy’s assassination meant for some of the ordinary people of the USA, for this the most important part of the news story. This is a lovely example of what I call Countershape territory. By countershape I mean what is being suggested rather than what is immediately obvious – is an elite skill for any creative person.
Other examples are easy to find once you get your eye in. Composer John Cage’s revolutionary piece 4’33” (1952) eliminates the sounds of instruments. While each musician within the performance has the potential to break the silence, they restrain themselves; they remain tacet. Cage (in what he considered his most important work) instead invites us to listen to the absence of music as if it were music.
In visual art, the countershape it is easy to spot. In Robert Mapplethorpe’s black and white photographs, beautifully-lit skin is surrounded by a dark negative space, which as a shape is as pleasing as the model’s body and contributes equally to the photograph’s composition.
While British artist Rachel Whiteread’s work solidifies the countershape and on famous piece House, (1993) casts the interior of an entire Victorian house in concrete – so that the interior spaces of the rooms inside became solid objects.
But what about Marketing and Advertising? It takes chutzpah to omit the product completely such as in this example of a press execution for Volkswagen[i]. Its copy reads Volkswagen City Emergency Brake. For when you get distracted. The image is of the distraction: a partially clad woman in a window, and you’ll notice how the car with the special brake is absent.
Not a bad example of the use of countershape territory, although it seems to be fairly sure that its potential audience will find themselves attracted to women.
[i] Adam&Eve DDB Credits – Executive Creative Director: Jeremy Craigen. Art Director: Matt Gay. Copywriter: John Long. Head of Art: Daniel Moorey. Designer: Pete Mould. Group Account Director: Jonathan Hill, Jason Lusty. Account Director: Josh Davoren. Photographer: Jason Hindley.
In the frenzy of creating concepts to an agency deadline, invariably someone will propose a ‘Zen’ execution. Usually this can be attributed to a free-floating miasma of stress, or too much coffee. It is a knee-jerk idea that you see all too often.
This Zen territory (as I call it) has little to do with the school of Mahayana Buddhism, developed in China which spread to Korea, Vietnam and Japan. Instead Zen territory is a comforting vision of meditative, lotus-positioned calm.
Zen – as it filters through to the west – suggests that a quick win of instantaneous enlightenment is sometimes possible. This moment of enlightened insight is called satori, which in Zen stories are often triggered by paradoxical, riddle-like koans such as ‘what is the sound of one hand clapping?’
Marketing is of course not interested in any of this. It is, however, interested in images of tranquility. A perennial stock shot favourite is of someone meditating on a rock before a empty horizon. As weasel creatives, our task is to introduce the reason for this tranquillity, even a spot of yogic flying, that comes from completing a tax return before the deadline… As in this example from 2013.
Of course doing tax returns can trigger all kinds of negative emotions, such as fury, fear and a whimpering dark night of the soul. Images of inner peace can therefore be useful when there is something to be nervous about. Flying often makes me particularly nervous, so when I worked with Air France I could see the wisdom in their brand’s insistence on always showing cloudless blue skies, which seem to promise that on an Air France flight turbulence was improbable at best.
Air France’s creative work derives from the insight that the journey should be an enjoyable part of your trip, not an endurance test. So their executions show people in a reassuringly relaxed frame of mind, such as the example below, full of the dream-like tranquility of first class travel.
Such images show a post-consumer moment, where the characters need nothing other than to be left to their cross-legged enlightenment, with all the pain of making a difficult purchase behind them.
Ah, relax now. Shoulders down. Can’t you just feel the bliss that comes from spending money?
The Rupert Murdoch-owned UK tabloid The Sun reached new depths this week. That Murdoch, an Australian-American can so blatantly intervene in British politics is of course galling enough. His discredited newspapers have been implicated in the phone hacking scandals, necessitating a personal apology from Murdoch to the family of a murdered child Milly Dowler, after his newspaper had hacked the dead girl’s phone.
While Milliband looked silly eating this sandwich, it is the subtext that is so toxic: a barely-coded slur on Milliband’s Jewish background. Interviewed in The New Statesman Milliband said:
“I am not religious. But I am Jewish. My relationship with my Jewishness is complex. But whose isn’t?
My family history often feels distant and far away. Yet the pain of this history is such that I feel a duty to remember, understand and discuss it – a duty that grows, rather than diminishes, over time.”
Against the backdrop of the election, held the next day on May 7th 2015, which saw millions unashamedly voting for the blatantly racist UKIP party, The Sun did it’s best to overturn Milliband’s assertion that “The first Jewish leader of the Labour Party.” It says something about me and about Britain that I am rarely described as such.
The Sun did what it could to slur Milliband on racial lines, making sure Milliband’s Jewishness was front page news – and it makes my blood boil.
Hilarious. I’ve not enjoyed an advert as much for a long while. Love the mockery of po-faced artistic statements and its talk of ‘Postmodern Homelistic Art’. Also hats off for recognising the latent botcher in us all and how, having botched something, we attempt to justify it.
Madefor Promart by the Fahrenheit DDB agency in Lima, Peru. Great job.
Many creative people learn to accommodate seemingly random events into their process. Film maker David Lynch, for example, invented a terrifying character when he glimpsed Frank Silva, a set dresser on the pilot of Twin Peaks, accidentally reflected in a mirror during the filming of a scene. Frank Silva was then cast as Bob, a demonic killer who was pivotal in the unfolding drama.
The I Ching, known as the Chinese Book of Changes in the west, is a book of divination, a way of seeing into the future. Used for more than 2600 years as a fortune telling device, it is also a repository of Taoist and Confucian philosophical thought.
I first started delving into the I Ching* in my teens. I found it a source of sagacious advice and interest. For a westerner its sheer otherness drew me in. But one of the first things it taught me was that randomness is part of the world. The random act of throwing coins to obtain your reading deliberately accommodates chance into the process, for the world is full of it.
The composer John Cage was given a translation of the I Ching in 1951, and found it a springboard to composing a new kind of music such as Imaginary Landscapes No. 4 using radio receivers, and Music of Changes. The I Ching enabled Cage to strip away the influence of the human voice on the sounds he heard, and connect his music with natural, unmediated sounds.
When I hear what we call music, it seems to me that someone is talking. And talking about his feelings, or about his ideas of relationships. But when I hear traffic, the sound of traffic—here on Sixth Avenue, for instance—I don’t have the feeling that anyone is talking. I have the feeling that sound is acting. And I love the activity of sound […] I don’t need sound to talk to me **
For me, it has left me with a legacy of noticing mistakes, wondering what they have to tell me and incorporating accidents into the work I produce. Some mistakes of course, are simply annoying, but frequently others make an idea more fertile. Introducing chance into the process is irrational, and precisely because it is not predictable it becomes memorable.
Advertising of course is full of randomness, and the appearance of randomness. Why use meerkats for a price comparison site? It seems irrational, but as we all know random things seem funny. Of course the whole shtick of the advert is that market and meerkat sound similar if pronounced with a strangulated eastern European accent. So its origin may have arisen with simple word association. Success, of course, has many fathers and there are claims that suggest employing meerkats was encouraged due to the 5p cost per click of the word meerkats against a £5 cost per click for markets.
All I’m saying is: notice your accidents.
* In the famous translation by Richard Wilhelm, (further translated into English by Cary F Baynes with an introduction by C G Jung).
** I stole this quote from wiki, which attributes it to: John Cage, in an interview with Miroslav Sebestik, 1991. From: Listen, documentary by Miroslav Sebestik. ARTE France Développement, 2003.
Alison Jackson is an artist and filmmaker who began using lookalikes to ‘depict our suspicions’ of the private lives of people in the public eye. Jane Mosse (pictured above holding a corgi) is Britain’s leading Camilla lookalike and is a close friend. I know she regularly finds herself swept up into various Alison Jackson projects such as those for Kleenex, Peter Alexander and Notonthehighstreet and the extremely successful TV commercial for T-Mobile 2011. Jane also features in Jackson’s latest foray into TV advertising for The Body Shop which urges us to treat your mother as if she were a queen – and amusingly depicts Charles and Camilla with corgis, apparently bringing The Queen breakfast in bed.
The Royal family are a frequent subject for Jackson, while they are incredibly well known, the vast majority of us naturally will never have an idea what these people are like in private. This is a gulf that our imaginations are happy to cross however. Jane says of those times when she makes a public appearance, “the interesting thing is that even when the public know you’re not the real deal they still act as though you were… When Gabi and Simon (lookalikes for Kate and Wills) went to Australia, they were mobbed in a shopping mall.”
As viewers of Jackson’s work we know we are not watching the real Royal family, but there is something about using these doppelgängers makes us feel we are glimpsing a parallel reality. People like Jane are not not actors depicting a character, they are people who seem a hair away from the part. For me this is where much of the fascination Jackson exploits arises.
In Jackson’s interesting Ted talk from 2005 she talks about how ‘photography removes us from the real subject matter’ but this means that depictions of Princess Diana, have their own independent reality.
As a marketeer, I can say the main challenge with celebrity endorsement is that it means you are overlapping two brands: the personal brand of the celebrity, with the product you are trying to promote. This is why a celebrity endorsement works better when there is a connection, however tenuous –so former England footballer Gary Lineker can naturally endorse Walkers snack foods because Walkers come from Leicester and so does Gary.
Naturally, seen as a brand, the Royal Family is enormous. Its gravitational pull is far greater than The Body Shop and lesser brands love to associate themselves with royalty. Using lookalikes, however, allows Body Shop to cheekily associate itself with the Royal Family, and profit from the crumbs that spill from that vast brand’s table. And there is no hint of toadyism in Jackson’s work, it is postmodern, warm and irreverent. A lovely balancing act.