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?

campaign Campaign Fail Copy Marketing

5 ways this HMRC marketing tactic is not okay

HMRC at the ATM

1. This is not okay because despite it being a threat to tax dodgers, its imagery unambiguously accuses you. It’s aim as a piece of marketing is to deliberately make you feel paranoid.

2. This is not okay because it is intrusive. This tactic has been chosen to threaten you as you are about to embark on the private transaction of getting your cash out. Despite the best efforts of Seth Godin, and his permission-marketing acolytes, we are all accustomed to be interrupted by marketing. But this is just unpleasant.

3. It is not okay because it is straight out of George Orwell. Here is Big Brother’s all-seeing eye representing the state. Does the state really want to be seen like that? Isn’t there another territory this can belong to, that is more positive and less reliant on poorly executed 1984 based-concept?John Hurt as Winston Smith. His own personal sadness helped him

4. It is not okay because of the physical context of the message. You may be getting money to buy some food, a fluffy kitten or something else utterly innocuous. Nevertheless this requires a cash transaction, a vulnerable moment in a busy street or public area. A great moment for the government to threaten you? No, actually.

5. It’s not okay because it creates anxiety. An agency of the state uses the old copywriter’s trick of stating the negative ‘If you’ve declared all your income you have nothing to worry about’. But it seeds the idea of ‘worry’ nevertheless. And even if you take the line at face value it is overpowered by the imagery and headline.

And, by the way, it’s not okay to threaten individuals while vast corporations get away with it. 

Decision Marketing

The HMRC campaign provokes more thoughtcrimes


So here is another HMRC campaign against tax evasion. First credit where credit’s due. This is less toxic than the previous campaign that infuriated me so much.

  • The copy tone is less accusatory. They are closing the net on ‘tax dodgers’ rather than what was previously implied that they are closing the net on you personally. And of course the sign off ‘If you’ve declared your income you have nothing to worry about’ is a vast improvement.
  • From a design perspective, it’s weak. The silly turquoise lines are there to suggest some kind of network tricknology to ensnare those wrongdoers who don’t cough up. But again, it still represents a minor improvement to the ghastly eye peering through grey paper they favoured last time around.
  • The Orwellian eye is retained, and despite being less threatening this time, this execution would dearly love to instil a little fear and paranoia if it hadn’t had its teeth pulled. But is this really what the UK government wants the overwhelming majority of its citizens who do actually do pay their taxes to feel? And there’s no need to state again who the real tax dodgers are: they’re not the people walking past this poster on their way to do a bit of shopping.

Why not help people to do the right thing instead?

Here’s an idea. Rather than infantalising us this way, why don’t HMRC opt for a territory that is about making a decision instead of popping out to say boo! to us. Talk to people as if they were adults for God’s sake. Remind them they have a responsibility to pay up, and if they are facing difficulties, the best thing they can do is talk to the tax office to try to sort things out. Remind people that they have the power to decide to pay or decide to engage. For after all, the alternative is exactly the paranoia inducing state that this poster would love to induce.

Of course marketing exists to prompt decisions. In what I call Decision territory anxiety is introduced to add urgency to the purchasing process. But create too much anxiety in a campaign and people will do nothing. (This is true in healthcare and charity sectors too).

The HMRC could instead make the decision to pay look easy and rational. Allow the taxpayer to feel they are able to engage with the tax office, and that they have it within their power to do the right thing. This must surely be better than sticking a giant eye on the side of a public phone box (network geddit) like the one below.

So HMRC, if you’re listening. Lose the 1984 shtick and treat us like adults. Or in other words show us a bit of the carrot, and not just wave the increasingly limp and discredited stick.

Campaign Fail Marketing

HMRC undeclared income campaign

I encountered the new HMRC campaign for the first time this morning at a cashpoint. As I was waiting for my hard-earned cash to be vended, a pair of piercing blue eyes stared up at me from the screen, with the line ‘We’re closing in on undeclared income’. It was the most unpleasantly Orwellian moment I have ever experienced from a piece of marketing had from a marketing tactic.

As a poster on the street (see below) I would have seen it for the badly-executed visual cliché it is. But context is everything. On a ATM machine, you are in the middle of a private (and, on some streets, vulnerable) transaction. Suddenly finding yourself being threatened by the state comes as a shock.

I was cheerfully getting some cash with the idea of buying a few groceries, but for a full minute I found myself surprisingly angry. I pay my thousands of tax each year and always have done, but is the UK now a country where state bullying is acceptable?

As fate would have it, the ATM was on Jubilee Street, Brighton, a few doors down from Starbucks. I don’t need to spell out the irony of this. But here’s an idea HMRC. Instead of threatening random ATM users in the street, how about advertising your success at retrieving the countless millions owed by international corporations, such as the one hiding in plain sight a hundred yards away?