The Big Lie – the complete book online - 13 Demonstration

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Chapter 13

Seeing was believing


The little girl bounced up off the sofa and pulled it out to make a put-me-up bed. Time after time after time. Throughout the 1950s, night after night, viewers of off-peak-time television in the New York City area saw a black-and-white commercial in which the Castro Convertible sofa bed unfolded in real time. The sofas sold like hotcakes, and the girl in the commercial, Bernadette Castro, the daughter of the man who owned the company, grew up to run it.

In television’s early days advertising people hailed the new medium because of its new power of demonstration, adding motion and sound to vision. The simple sofa bed commercial was a paradigm: the Castro Convertible is so easy to set up a 6-year-old girl can do it in less than sixty seconds. You’ve seen it happen with your own eyes.

So why is it you hardly ever see a demonstration commercial on British television these days? Partly it’s because most brands are alike in performance, and so the emphasis has shifted to attempting other means of differentiation – expressions of brand personality and attitude. And partly it’s because the British advertising community disdains the technique, and all direct selling techniques, as unsubtle, hence uncool. They try too hard to sell the product. The few demonstration commercials which filtered on to our screens in the 1990s tended to be low-budget productions by fringe advertisers, or American derivatives, such as the Head and Shoulders anti-dandruff shampoo split-screen test comparison, which had been on television screens since Bernadette Castro was a tot. Even this campaign was moved to gently mock the genre, by using the new technology to split the presenter himself in half, while two different girls shampooed him with different brands of shampoo.

The power of simple demonstration is that it makes its point with absolute clarity and economy. A 1995 press advertisement for British Meat showed two plates, one with plain cottage cheese and the other with a grilled pork leg steak and the headline, “Which one has the lower fat level?” It is of course the pork steak. A Sony press ad for a mobile telephone so small it could fit inside a box of cook’s matches simply showed it nestling inside one with the title: Telephone Box. To emphasise build-quality a 1992 commercial for Nissan heaved the car out of an aeroplane. A 1999 public safety commercial showed in three easy steps how a fireman safely puts out a chip-pan fire, and also powerfully demonstrated why – when the voice-over narrator was revealed as a woman with a face disfigured by burns.

These are exceptions. When a distinctive new product or service does comes along that really should be demonstrated, admen often seem to have forgotten how to do it. When Vauxhall introduced a truly revolutionary “dual fuel” system for the 1998 Motor Show, a range of cars with two fuel tanks which allowed the driver to switch between petrol and natural gas, it did so in long-copy press advertisements without illustrations (as there were only 100 or locations in the UK where you could fill your tank with natural gas, it was more of PR stunt than a serious commercial undertaking).

While straightforward product demonstration remains a stalwart performer in the arena where the test is to actually sell goods right this minute – the televised shopping channels – more sophisticated advertisers, bound by less stringent and less measurable criteria, have the budgets to indulge in subtlety. The difference between the two approaches was exemplified in 1995 when two competing airlines presented the same idea: both now offered passengers more space in business class. British Airways invoked fashionable production values, freighted with misplaced symbolism, illustrating a verbal pun by showing a spaceman lumbering about the interior of the aircraft. The Virgin Airlines commercial simply showed a seated passenger stretching out her legs, with the comment: “If your toes touch the seat in front you’re on the wrong plane”. It was something which, like Bernadette Castro, you could test for yourself.

While generally disdaining straightforward demonstration, advertising art directors, like many creative artists, are receptive to its cousin, visual analogy. This is Arthur Koestler’s theory of creative intelligence in graphic form: what else does this shape or colour remind you of? As Pablo Picasso put it, “A green parrot is also a green salad. He who makes it only a green parrot diminishes its reality”.

Visual analogy distorts fact through simile. It is the simple thought behind a great deal of what has been accepted as transcendental modern art, such as Magritte’s umbrellas descending as raindrops and Dali’s red lobster telephone. It is also the inspiration of kitsch art: teapots presented as country cottages or a watch-face using Mickey Mouse to point the hours. The line between the two is hard to draw, as the avant-garde Italian designer Samuel Mazza demonstrated when he commissioned riffs on the theme of the brassiere from contemporary artists and designers. His exhibition included bras with aeroplane propellers on the nipples, bras as edible sweets, flowerpots, Fiat head lamps, plumber’s plungers, globes of the earth, bras with electric switches, bathroom taps sprouting from brass hemispheres, inflated rubber gloves, and 192 other conceits.

Visual analogy is the thought behind a great deal of humour, too. Much of the attraction of the cartoon The Flintstones lay in the ingenious Stone Age inventions: the woolly mammoth’s trunk as a lawn sprinkler, the gramophone using the beak of a living bird as its needle. It’s fundamental to the art of the mime and the Marx Brothers.

From its beginnings, advertising has often been based on laboured visual interpretations of wordplay. A 1994 magazine ad for a pen called the Parker Sonnet showed us the pen and an attractive oriental female violinist. It needed a headline to explain the connection: “Born to perform. Just like a Parker”, and it needed text to explain why she is oriental: “The Ambre lacquer is a genuine Chinese lacquer”. But visual analogy doesn’t need to be explained in words. The campaign which launched the 1993 Nissan Micra dramatised the shape of the car with simple line drawings which looked like bubble-cars drawn by children. It was the shape the manufacturer wanted to get across: not a typical aggressive car, but different, round, and cute.

Visual analogy is a gift for art directors. When they can persuade an advertiser to attempt to “own” a shape or a colour, the advertising message is reduced to a simple mnemonic device, and the rest is money for old rope. The mid-1990s campaign for the Halifax Building Society centred on the letter “X”. A series of expensive commercials filled television screens with determinedly cheerful cross-sections of the British ABC1C2 population clambering over each other to form various structures of that shape. In the UK alone, Pepsi-Cola spent £330 million in 1996 on Project Blue – their decision to change their cans from red, white, and blue to blue. This earth-shaking event required the repainting of Concord and printing an issue of the Daily Mirror on blue paper.

There is a beverage which, by legal requirement, has no distinctive colour, aroma, or taste. Apart from its packaging, there is no way a consumer can tell one brand from another. How do you sell the distilled liquor vodka? A traditional response is to search for some characteristic of the production process, which though neither meaningful nor distinctive in itself could be stressed as a brand property – in the words of Rosser Reeves, a “Unique Selling Proposition”. One American brand of vodka, Cristall, has been promoted as the vodka which is filtered twice through quartz crystals. Other vodkas are made the same way. Whether quartz filtration is, in fact, a better method of producing vodka than using sand or charcoal is a moot point; certainly the person who drinks the product would not know. What matters in this tactic is to produce an apparent difference which can provide a focus for the presentation of the brand and, to the consumer, a rationale for preferring it. To pre-empt a common fact in this way is a time-worn deception; in the 1980s Harp lager tried and failed to revive its flagging fortunes with the claim that it was “precision-brewed”, while sixty years earlier the USP for an American beer was that its bottles were “steam-cleaned”, a precaution required in all bottling processes.

Absolut vodka, one of the great American marketing successes of the 1980s, chose a less logical route in its advertising. In 1979 it entered a market in which nine out of ten bottles of premium vodka sold had the name Stoli on the label. By the end of the decade Stoli’s share had reduced to two bottles out of ten, while Absolut dominated the market. In one sense, its press advertising campaign was a throwback: the brand as hero. The early examples were reasonably conventional booze ads, simply an illustration of a clear glass bottle with a somewhat unusual short-necked shape with the word Absolut underneath. Plus a good deal of copy about Swedish tradition written on the bottle in fine lettering. Later headlines used the brand name as a modifier: “Absolut Perfection”, “Absolut Hollywood”. Absolutely simple and obvious. As the decade progressed, the campaign distilled to its essence, abandoning the real bottle for surreal impressions in which the shape of the bottle became the point of brand distinction. A typical advertisement showed the bottle shape imposed on a computer circuit board with the headline “Absolut Intelligence” and a few words about making a logical choice. An advertisement relating to the 1994 Olympics showed an overhead view of Atlanta airport presented as a – just recognisable – bottle shape with the two words “Absolut Atlanta”. Finally, even the word Absolut was dropped. Absolut ads imposed the now familiar shape on almost anything – the Brooklyn Bridge or a beehive hairdo. The impression which long-lasting campaigns like this succeed in achieving may not seem like very much: they have simply converted a word into a graphic mnemonic – a kind of visual shorthand for the brand. But because it is a picture, it will now be remembered, and the stylish photographs and the media in which they appear bestow overtones of snob appeal. In the battle for consumer preference for a product which is tasteless, odourless, and with absolutely no physical brand distinction, these two factors may well be enough. By relentless concentration on this core idea in prestigious upmarket publications, Absolut vodka established itself as a “badge” product. The consumer reward was not the effect of the drink, but the opportunity to show off one’s sophistication. You drank and, importantly, served Absolut because it was the one to drink and serve. Just as you wore an Armani suit, drove a Porsche, and perhaps wore a Porsche wristwatch and sunglasses as well.

In advertising as elsewhere, innovation spawns imitators who transpose the original idea to less appropriate environments, often torturing it to breaking-point. A 1999 press campaign for Ruddles County beer showed a hayrick rolled into the shape of a can with a tab opener. A reasonable tactic, perhaps, for a beer presenting itself as “Country born and brewed”. A 1994 Michelob campaign seemed less appropriate. Does it matter that you could, if you wanted to, carve a bottle of beer out of wood on a lathe? Does a bottle of beer really resemble what appears to be an industrial-size spool of cotton with brown thread where the beer usually is and gold thread where the neck label is? Does either ad justify the slogan “a subtle quality”? Do they mean anything at all?


Visual analogies are valued because they can attract attention and create a memorable look for the brand. Advertisers rarely seem to consider their more powerful effect: the adverse associations they can produce. The most obvious are very powerful gut reactions provoked when illustrations tamper with food; literally they leave a bad taste in the mouth. Another advertisement in the Michelob campaign showed the bottle as an illuminated glass base filled with an oily liquid with nasty free-form bits suspended in it. The line “Are you missing something subtle?” pointed readers to the deduction that this was a representation of a 1960s lava lamp. The advertiser may have been missing something rather more obvious. A 1992 American colour advertisement for Maker’s Mark bourbon showed the liquor on the rocks, but in an ice cream sundae glass topped with a twirling pyramid of whipped cream and a maraschino cherry, an assault on the stomachs of whisky drinkers and ice-cream fanciers alike.

A 1990s press campaign for Boddington’s beer won considerable acclaim in advertising circles for its irreverent approach to traditional beer advertising. However, it sent very confusing taste signals, such as a glass of beer with the foam on top whipped into the kind of frothy ice cream sold from travelling vans. But what was going through the mind of the art director who showed a glass of beer riddled with holes to resemble an Emmental cheese? The answer came in the slogan which completed the ad: “The Cream of Manchester”. Cream is a dairy product. So is cheese. Get it? Or do you get the impression that this beer tastes like cheese? Worse was to come. The creamy head of this beer can also be contrived into an oily quiff, with a steel comb laid alongside just it in case you miss the point.

In 1995 the Covent Garden Soup Company replaced the usual steaming bowl of appetising soup with a photograph of its sticky remains in an unwashed bowl, a gnawed crust of bread and four spoons. This was intended to illustrate the idea that soup can be served for all four courses. Marks & Spencer reprised the anti-taste appeal approach in its 1999 press campaign showing only the sticky remains of its seafood terrine and chocolate dessert. Or, you may prefer old man’s sweat and dandruff on your sausages. A bizarre 1994 press advertisement introduced “the Famous Porkinson Banger, the first sausage from an internationally renowned photographer”. It showed an elderly man who wore on his thinning scalp a crown of fat sausages dangling down his naked chest and looped around his neck like a turban. Referred to as “Parks” in the copy, he was apparently the distinguished fashion photographer Norman Parkinson, and this picture was an attempt to satirise what is beyond satire: the fashion photograph – at whatever cost to readers’ stomachs.

The new technology makes it easy to create the impossible. A 1994 television commercial featured a team of all-time Manchester United soccer greats. A contemporary star, Ryan Giggs, scored a goal after passes between ancestral team-mates from the past fifty years, such as Denis Law, Bobby Charlton, and George Best. Each frame of black-and-white film was manipulated so that it would appear they were all playing together in the same stadium, and hand-coloured to match the contemporary red strip and white ball. Its production consumed 600 hours of computer work and cost £1 million, which may seem a lot, as only Ryan Giggs wore a strip advertising Reebok. However, for the price paid to the copyright owners of the film footage, the brand purloined the tacit endorsement of the other players, too. The remaining ten members of this dream team never wore Reebok boots; the great goals scored by Law, Best, and Charlton were booted in by Adidas.

Visual demonstration carries conviction only if it appears to be really happening. Ever since the invention of photography, despots, cranks, and opportunists have sought to deceive by airbrushing people and events in and out of reality. How long will such techniques as visual analogy continue to arrest attention? Now that literally anything can be made to seem to happen, viewers will become increasingly confused about the dividing line between the real and virtual world. For a while this may seem to give the advertiser added powers; in the long run consumers may become less willing to extend credibility to anything they see.


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