Countershape Marketing

Looking the other way: Paul Fusco and the power of implication in marketing

Paul Fusco
Paul Fusco, 1968 Robert F. Kennedy’s Funeral Train.

Paul Fusco is quoted in The Guardian this morning.

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.

Volkswagen Das Auto
Volkswagen Das Auto

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.

Airline Marketing Zen

Zen and the art of flogging stuff

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?

Marketing Real life TV advertising

Weight Watchers – ‘My Butt’

I  caught this US ad for Weight Watchers on the Best ads site. What I like about it is that it refers to ‘my butt’. I worked on a campaign for an appetite suppressant drug, where a larger woman was pictured was saying, ‘I decided to stop being fat’. The word fat proved controversial, with some countries balking at the idea of running it. So hats off to Weight Watchers and Wieden + Kennedy, Portland for actually using the language that the majority of their target audience would use.

The voiceover ends with ‘the relationship with my butt had nothing to do with my butt, and everything to do with my brain’. Am I alone in finding this a bit odd? It could point to a potentially uncomfortable objectification of women’s body parts, but I think the ad does enough tonally to avoid this.

The concept, the rueful voice over and the copy approach what I’d call ‘Real Life’ territory – being matter of fact in tone and somehow suggesting it’s time to face up to reality and act. Sadly the execution loses its nerve visually. The butts on display remain aspirational for those in its target audience. Weight Watchers want you to get real and think about your own huge post-festive butt, but then lose their nerve.

Sad this, for what Weight Watchers are asking us to trust it with something about which many people feel deeply vulnerable: their weight issues. But as it does not reflect the truth when it is trying to acquire customers, it undermines this potential trust. A vague ‘support system for the brain’ doesn’t quite compensate for not staying real.

Comedy Drinks Industry IT Postmodern Irony TV advertising

Somersby Cider wobbling on the shoulders of a giant?


The Somersby Cider advert is funny, and quietly remarkable. For it relies on a knowledge of  Apple stores, and the Apple brand.

It is no coincidence that Apple’s fanboys and fangirls are stuck to the flypaper of creative departments everywhere. It subverts the seriousness of Apple stores, replacing customers with drinkers examining pints of cider with intensity and fascination. At a stroke it makes other cider marketing appear creakily old-skool.

A win for Somersby?

Yes. It is getting Somersby talked about, and making people laugh. Then yes it is as great result.

But here’s the caveat

What we are doing is combining a streak of comedy – and this was one of the few ads that actually made me guffaw when I saw it – with Postmodern Irony. This is an advert that is busy nudging us in the ribs, and making us co-conspirators in the knowledge that we are watching an advert.

The danger in combining comedy with postmodern irony is that you can disappear up your own marketing fundament. For the Somersby ad is as much about advertising as medium, than it is an advert for cider.

The ultimate winner from this marketing spend is Apple. Hitching a ride on a global brand is an interesting strategy, but not without danger. I watch Somersby’s progress with interest.

Financial Postmodern Irony TV advertising

The Barclays squirrel of postmodern irony

Postmodern irony is one of those terms whose meaning depends on which academic discipline the Hogwarts sorting hat chose for you. For our purposes, however, Postmodern irony stands for ironic self-reference and absurdity, and it is a territory that advertising and marketing regularly dwell in.

Nudge-nudge, wink-wink

The 2011 Barclays Tracker ads with Stephen Merchant’s voiceover. One example, started… ‘Ere we go. This one’s about Barclays Tracker Mortgages that’s why these people are on some kind of track. Cut to a laboriously symbolic hill of rail track with two people on a pump truck.

Barclays Tracker
Barclays Tracker Mortgages

Now being on a tracker mortgage when the going’s good is good – there’s a squirrel – but if times get tougher… The random squirrel is glanced at for less than a second – and then we get back, um, on track with the information. Luckily the random squirrel has also jolted us out of a mortgage talk coma. Later in the ad the voiceover says: I don’t know if the squirrel’s relevant. Is the squirrel relevant? The squirrel’s not relevant. Ignore that.

Barclays' postmodern squirrel
Barclays’ postmodern squirrel

Merchant’s voiceover is spoken as if he is viewing the execution for the first time and saying what he sees – in the way that people do when commenting on the TV at home. This marketing trickery puts the endorser of Barclays side by side with its customers on the sofa, watching the advert together.

Barclay’s self-depreciating positioning

Given a backdrop of unprecedented hostility to the banking sector, the choice Barclays made to situate their products in Postmodern Irony territory was calculated. This self-depreciating approach made it less vulnerable to attack from a public more disposed to taking offence.


Advertising is not Art

Once in a blue moon you will get a client who just wants to look fantastic, which gives creatives the opportunity they usually can only dream about. But however arty we get in advertising, what we produce is not art. For in advertising there is always that pesky overriding driver: to sell things.

Often what it appears we are selling is the idea of cool, or masculinity, or sexiness… but usually only in relation to an encounter with a product. Lynx adverts, of course, parody this wonderfully. The Lynx Effect, causes women to throw themselves at unlikely blokes simply because they have sprayed themselves with a frankly unappetising underarm deodorant.

Of course, artists have commissions. I expect even Michelangelo had to sign some dotted line for Pope Julius II before he did all the upside down stuff on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. But ultimately a piece of art has only to sell itself.

In advertising we are charged to use artistic methods, techniques and so on to sell a product. This is why, for me, advertising can be artistic, but it can’t be art, however much we try to kid ourselves.

Guinness is a client who has a history of being artistic. Who can forget the advertising from the noughties of black and white waves with breakers containing wild white horses, to beats from ‘Phat Planet’ by Leftfield all in the business of selling a decent pint of porter?

It of course this wonderful advert gained some of its gravitas from geniune art. References to Ahab (who, lest we forget, was in search of the  White Whale in Melville’s Moby Dick).  For me it remains an outstanding TV advert, and one of the most artistic things ever to grace our screens.  Visually too, it takes its inspiration from Walter Crane’s Horses of Neptune – but there’s nothing wrong with that.

But was it art? No. Because you always have the ultimate bathos of it being about selling a glass of beer. Artistic adverts end in disappointment. And disappointment awaits creatives who fall in love with the art in their concepts. At the end of the day your work is always there to sell something. But, my God, it can be fun getting there…

Below Horses of Neptune, and one of my favourite TV adverts of all time.

Creative gulfs: UK, France and US

I have been working with two agencies lately. One is a French-owned agency, and I am writing English copy for French companies hoping to infiltrate the UK market. The other is a US-owned healthcare agency, where your creative ideas must be run past creative directors in the New York office. This has given me a fresh opportunity to observe again cultural differences when it comes to agency creativity.

Broadly speaking, the French want what seems to me to be florid, overwrought copy. I find myself being asked to make descriptions even more descriptive, and I have to push back by saying that in the UK if you look like you are trying too hard, people smell a rat. And that copy that’s forested with adjectives and adverbs is hard to follow. And, of course, the whole point of advertising copy is that people can read it with minimum effort. To get all Pooh bearish for a moment, I want my copy to slide down like warm honey, not to stick around like chewed thistles.

Unerringly the New York office are drawn to what seem to be, to my UK eyes, risible ideas. Worse still, for pharmaceutical clients anything psychological, or on a human scale is quickly rebuffed. US approved concepts I’ve encountered are usually visually spectacular: over the years I’ve seen things like sharks, two-headed dogs to symbolise cholesterol, apocalyptic earthquakes with people tumbling into them to symbolise the dangers of a particular medical condition. But they just make me laugh. To me they like some absurdist Monty Python throwback.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the US and met extremely talented and smart people. What’s more they care passionately about the product they are trying to promote on behalf of their client, often in a completely irony free way. I also know that to them UK creative can seem half-hearted, and underwhelming.

It is lazy to say this is about irony. But I honestly believe that this is at the root of a cultural gulf, which as ideas cross and recross the pond in teleconferences, and even in portfolios on planes, can cause a good deal of mutual incomprehension.