President Who: One weekend, two momentous events

If they haven’t started already, the next few days will see plenty of people attempting to tell you where they were the day President Kennedy was assassinated. I’m afraid I’m about to join them.

My account of the incident won’t help our understanding of it or provide much of a snapshot of life in 1960′s Britain, but it was certainly a significant event of my childhood. So I’m recording it here because, one, some horrible illness may one day prevent me from remembering it with any clarity, and two, the act of writing it down rather than telling you orally means I won’t see you start scanning the room for someone more interesting to talk to.

So. It’s a Friday evening in Bournemouth, England. My dad has to collect something from the home of his mother-in-law who lives about a mile away. He doesn’t want to do this at all; he just wants to eat supper and start his weekend. But for some reason the errand has to be done now. He gets me and my brother to go along with him.

How does this help? Well, my dad has a stiff leg; the result of being shot during the war. Walking presents no problem but climbing up and down stairs is a little trickier. So my brother and I are dragooned into helping. We’ll be able to bound up the stairs, grab whatever it is we’ve been sent to collect, and charge back down to dad who’ll be waiting in the car with the engine running.

Another reason might be that dad won’t have to get into a potentially evening-sapping conversation chat with granny. Why he chose to take two sons when one could have done the job just as well is a mystery. Give mum a bit of peace, maybe.

President John F Kennedy, moments before the fatal shots that etc etc
Credit: Reuters

Anyway, we get to grandma’s house and run up the stairs to find her huddled close to the radio. (She’d have called it the wireless, of course.) She looks up and tells us that the President of America has been shot. We sit down and listen to the announcer for a while. I was only 9 years old but I’d heard of President Kennedy and, even if I didn’t understand then what a huge event this shooting was, the tone of the announcer’s voice must have told me that it was very grave indeed. We listen as the news unfolds until eventually we hear our dad sounding the car horn. We grab whatever it is we were sent to collect and rush downstairs to the waiting car.

Dad’s furious. Why did we take so long? When my brother tells him that we were listening to news about the President being shot, he doesn’t believe us. He thinks my brother’s making it up. I chip in and tell him that it’s true, but he won’t have it. He’d prefer to think we’re storytelling than imparting the biggest news story since war was declared. So he drives us home in angry silence. We’re angry too: the worst thing when you’re a kid is not being believed by an adult. Especially when it’s your own father.

Salvation of a sort occurs as soon as we pull up in front of the house. Through the kitchen window we can see mum staring straight ahead. Uncharacteristically, she doesn’t acknowledge our arrival. We go indoors and notice that she’s actually crying. Dad asks her what the matter is. Through tears she tells him that President Kennedy is dead.

“Christ, not you as well!” shouts dad.

Not really. That would have been a good punchline to the story but the truth is, my memories of the day stop at that point. My only other Kennedy-related reminiscence is of a special assembly held the following week at school. Everyone was told to pray for America and for the world. Me and Steve Green had a go at praying when I went round to his house for tea, but we soon started giggling and changing the prayer to include the presents we wanted for Christmas. A Johnny Seven for me, probably.

Death and birth

The other big event that weekend in 1963, as everyone knows by now, was the first-ever transmission of Dr Who.

It struck me then as being unlike any children’s television programme I had previously seen. Clearly aimed at kids but with quite sophisticated ideas, it’s probably true to say that discussion of this new series overshadowed talk about Kennedy’s assassination in school playgrounds on the following Monday. I still believe that the thinking behind the Tardis warrants the tag of genius. A time-traveling machine that was bigger on the inside than the outside fits perfectly with the theme of ‘time and relative dimensions in space’, AND gave the writers carte blanche to do what they like within the Tardis’ four (?) walls, subject to the  production department being able to achieve it. Then, devising a backstory that ‘explained’ the appearance of the Tardis (it was supposed to adapt to whatever environment in which it materialised, but there’d been a fault with the mechanism) was another masterstroke. It was also  deliciously British – there was never a problem with the Enterprise that wasn’t the result of battle.

Cantankerous old bastard – the first Dr Who, played by William Hartnell. Plus other actors.

Did I do the now clichéd thing of hiding behind the sofa during the scary bits of Dr Who? Yes I did. The series that particularly frightened me was the second time the Daleks made an appearance. Their arrival in London brought the terror too close to home and made the sense of hopelessness all too real.

So there we have it. One life-changing weekend - or life-ending, depending on who you were - in November, 1963.

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Do you ever use A COMPUTER?

In this guide from 1986, nightmarish characters tell you…

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The hairdressers of New Malden

You’re looking for a book that isn’t by James Patterson or Maeve Binchy.

You’re under 30 and you fancy a new shirt or a pair of trainers.

You like browsing around antique stores or record shops, or enjoy buying your meat from a butcher and your fish from a fishmonger.

If any of these apply to you, you can safely give New Malden High Street a miss. Try Wimbledon or Kingston instead. But if you want a haircut, then our high street is definitely THE place to come.

At the last count there were no fewer than 11 hairdressers on this half-mile strip of road. (That’s excluding the slightly dodgy-looking ones located up narrow staircases, behind single doorways at the side of shops.) In New Malden, only estate agents and food outlets are thicker on the ground.

Right next to the station, this is probably New Malden’s busiest barbershop.
No one who works here is called Sam.

Inside Sam’s.

Judy isn’t clear about whether to include an apostrophe, so covers her bases.
Judy is also as real as Sam.

Inside Judy’s. Or Judys. Note the modern, understated furniture.

Located just doors away from Judy’s. #koreanhairfight

Inside The Hair Salon. You don’t get that kind of wallpaper at John Lewis.

The long-established Headmasters.

Headmasters was one of just three shops that wouldn’t let me take a shot inside. “We have a marketing department, and they’re very strict on that sort of thing.” Surprisingly, it is also the only local hairdresser to have a hair-based pun in its name.

New Malden’s newest hairdressers*

* Actually, it’s difficult to tell with this site. Hairdresser shops tend to come and go here, sometimes starting off as one neat single store, then growing to become double-fronted before being trimmed back to a single shop. The staff can vary in sex, number and ethnicity, while the name of the shop changes with the frequency of Lady Gaga’s hairstyle.

Only an hour before this picture was taken, ‘BARBERS SHOP’ occupied the left hand side while the food takeaway ‘Baguette, Set, Go’ enjoyed its all-too-brief existence on the right.

Inside Sam & Sunny’s. No idea who’s who.

“J-j-j-ust a haircut please”

Inside Sopranos.

Dee biarsee? Die Bias? No idea.

Apparently there’s been a DiBiase salon in New Malden since 1914. I hope they’ll be playing lots of Haircut 100 next year.

No interior shots, I’m afraid. I know you’re massively disappointed.

Apparently, essensuals is ‘the diffusion group of Toni and Guy’, although it looked like a ‘hairdressers’ to me.

Inside essensuals.

The strangest retail pairing in history.

From the outside, Carrington Wood looks (and sounds) like an estate agents. Then you notice those posters in the window  advertising eyebrow threading and waxing. So what exactly is it? Well, it’s perhaps Surrey’s first hybrid estate agent/beauty parlour/hairdresser/lettings agent. Inside, the front of the shop has a few office desks and filing cabinets in the typical (though slightly down at heel) estate-agent style, while the back is given over to the hair and beauty side of the business. They wouldn’t let me photograph inside the shop, evidently thinking it a bit of an odd request. They know all about odd at Carrington Wood.

“Hi! I’m looking for a Victorian semi, three beds, about £350,000?”
“Sorry mate, the best we can offer is a modern semi for £395,000.”
“Oh. Shame. How about a number two on top and a one on the side?”

Just as some of the best New York shows are found off-Broadway…

Here’s George. Unlike Sam or Judy or Sunni or the other Sam, I’m pretty sure George is his real name. He’s cut hair in New Malden since the 1970s and I don’t think he’s ever going to expand into eyebrow threading, diffusion products or real estate.

£9 to you, squire.

PS – thanks to New Maldenite Matt Lord (@ThatChapLordy on twitter), we now have a pic of the hairdressers that catered for the very, very old of New Malden. Bebe was demolished in 2006 to make way for a vacant area of rubble.

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You can’t write this sign any better. Or can you?

This sign has become a familiar sight on the back of many of Britain’s vans and lorries:

Mirrors sign

I like the sign’s brevity and its irrefutable logic. I don’t know how it can be improved. But that hasn’t stopped some people from having a go. In recent months I have seen several versions*:

IF YOU CAN’T
SEE MY MIRRORS
THEN I CAN’T SEE YOU

The addition of the word ‘then’ seeks to cement the link between the two clauses of the conditional sentence – the protasis, which expresses the condition, and the apodosis, which conveys the consequence. But in my opinion it adds nothing but five additional characters.

IF YOU CAN’T
SEE MY MIRRORS
I CAN’T SEE YOU

See the connection? We’re talking about you and my mirrors, here. Think mirrors and you, mirrors and you. It’s not about looking for my door handles or sun visor. Ignore those; they don’t matter. It’s mirrors you should be looking for. Sorry, MIRRORS.

IF YOU CAN’T
SEE MY MIRRORS,
“I CAN’T SEE YOU”

This is a weird one. We’ve got an added comma, which is probably correct for formal writing though unnecessary in a sign, but then we’re suddenly hauled inside speech marks. So who’s saying the “I can’t see you” bit, the van driver? Who’s saying the rest then, an anthropomorphised van?

Or has this been done by someone who thinks that putting something inside quote marks instantly invests it with more authority? To compound the felony, in the version that I saw the last line appeared in Comic Sans, and I know how much you hate Comic Sans.

IF YOU CAN’T SEE MY MIRRORS I CAN’T SEE YOU.
THIS MEANS THAT I’M MORE LIKELY TO KNOCK YOU OFF YOUR BIKE,
CAUSING YOU PAIN AND SUFFERING OR EVEN WORSE

This is a version we haven’t seen yet. It’s on the back of an imaginary lorryload of copywriters, one of whom has clambered out to improve the sign by adding a benefit. The benefit in this case being not getting crushed under the wheels of an artic.

How would different professions word the sign? I’m thinking of compliance officers, civil servants, manufacturers of smoothies…

A free HGV licence to the winning entry.

* No photos for these signs, I’m afraid. I saw them when I was driving.

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How to ruin an ad

We are deep into the 1980s and advertising agency de jour Collett Dickenson Pearce (CDP) has just presented its solution to the latest brief from its client, Parker Pens. Like previous executions in a long-running campaign, the ad takes the form a 48-sheet poster.

This ad features a pen that, unusually in an era of shiny silver and gold pens, is finished in matt black.

The poster ticks all the right boxes. Just seven words, lots of standout, nice pack shot, and a headline that completely wrong-foots the reader. You’re expecting it to say ‘clever’ or ‘smart’ or ‘gorgeous’; anything but ‘dull’. By confounding our expectations, the ad encourages you to look at the image, reread the headline, complete the equation ‘dull = not shiny’, then study the caption and make a mental note to try the pen out next time you’re in Smiths. Job done.

The client loved the ad and ran it. It picked up a few awards and probably shifted loads of pens.

The following is what could have happened had the Parker client been one of those people who likes to ‘improve’ ads.

And what could have happened had the agency been one of those that doesn’t stick to its guns…

“I like it,” says the client, ‘but I’ve seen research stating that people don’t like negatives in ads. Can we turn the headline round and make it a bit more positive?”

“Sure”, says the account director. “I’ll get the creatives straight onto it.”

“Much better,” says the client. “Very strong. But I’ve been discussing the ad with my team and some very good points were raised.

“The advert doesn’t make any mention of price. The pen you’ve chosen is quite expensive, so I was wondering if the ad could reflect the fact that Parker make a range of pens. You know, to suit every budget. We don’t want people to think we only make pricey pens!

“Also, and this is probably my mistake, I neglected to mention the matching presentation case the Parker 25 set actually comes in. And the guys in Brand went ape about the lack of a logo! Can you add the logo, and our Royal Warrant?

“Oh, and we’re in October now. People will be thinking about Christmas. Could you just add a nudge in that direction? Thanks”

“No problem,” says the account director.

“Brilliant! You guys rock. And that’s so true, about Christmas and Parker. Well done.

“You know, I was wondering if we could perhaps capitalise on that whole Christmas giving thing? I only ask because Parker offers an engraving service. That would be such a neat idea at this time of year. Plus I went on this advertising course where they kept going on about how the ‘offer is king’. So let’s just push this engraving idea, shall we?

“Otherwise it’s fine. Although we could perhaps big up Parker a bit. They don’t throw out these royal warrants willy-nilly, you know. We shouldn’t undersell ourselves.”

“Of course not,” says the account man. “I’ll see what the studio boys can rustle up.”

“Perfect. Looks like you’ve got everything in there.”

*reads for several minutes*

“Good. Very good. Although…”

“Yes?”

“Well, I showed the previous ad to Mrs Client, and she pointed out that it didn’t really shout ‘Christmas’ enough. Could you just make this one a tad more seasonal, do you think? Then we’re just about there, I reckon.

“Oh, and following on from that ‘the offer is always king’ thing I was telling you about, I had a bit of a brainwave about how we could drive sales by offering another of our products at the same time. It’s all about driving sales at the end of the day, isn’t it?”

“Ha ha ha, of course it is. I’ll ask the studio…”

“And the pens look a bit all over the place. It’s not immediately apparent who they’re aimed at. Could you group them according to whether they’re male or female pens?”

“A fantastic suggestion! I’m on the case.”

“We’re getting there. We’re certainly getting there.”

“That’s great news. I’ll…”

“Although, looking at it, there is rather a lot to take in, isn’t there?”

“Eh?”

“For a poster. Aren’t they supposed to have a maximum of eight words or something? That’s what you told me, I distinctly remember. You’re ignoring your own advice!”

“But…”

“Don’t worry. I have a solution. Instead of a poster, make it a press ad. That way you can get in a few more sales points. And a list of dealers. I know! Duh! Let’s make it a direct response ad and sell pens off the page! You know, I think we’re going to end up with something really quite different.”

“Yes, I think you might be right.”

“Brilliant! Anyway, must dash. I’ve heard a rumour that our share price is slipping…”

About this article

I found this piece in a very old edition of Creative Review. Although when I found it, it was called ‘the latest edition of Creative Review’.

I kept the magazine because I thought the piece was a funny and telling demonstration of many truths. How ideas are precious things, how the desire to ‘improve’ an idea is part of many people’s make-up, and how a willingness to please (or appease) a client can result in poorer and less effective work.

I lent the magazine to a creative director who thought it would be good for a talk he was delivering on the subject, and that was the last I saw of it. However, he had kept the visual elements of the piece, and these he kindly emailed to me. Unfortunately I don’t remember the author of the text that originally accompanied the visuals – I think it might have been the ex-CD of CDP, John O’Donnell. I hope my words have maintained the spirit and, hopefully, some of the wit of the original.

Resources

A (relatively recent) history of the Parker Pen Co, Wikipedia’s entry on Collett Dickenson Pearce, and some of their ads

Text © Kevin Mills 2013

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Fuelling anger

The Chief Executive of Consumer Focus reckons that 6 million UK households are currently experiencing fuel poverty, a figure set to rise to 9 million by 2016. That’s a lot of people thinking twice about putting the heating on, or having to make choices between eating and staying warm.

Just like petrol prices a few years back, the inexorable and dramatic increases in the costs of gas and electricity are causing anger and outrage as well as real hardship and, too often, premature deaths.

You’d expect the big energy companies to bear this in mind when briefing their ad agencies or approving the work they produce. They must be aware that the EDFs and E.ONs of this world aren’t amongst Britain’s best-loved companies. Especially as they’re French. So I can’t understand what makes E.ON think that this advert conveys the right message to its customers.

e.on advert

“I get money off my energy bills with E.ON. Great. More money for online shopping.”

Because that’s obviously the alternative. Not food, or clothes for the kids. Any money you don’t give to e.on can be added to that huge fund earmarked for Net-a-Porter. And what’s with that gratuitous inclusion of ‘online’? That just compounds the felony, as a simple ‘shopping’ would indeed suggest the weekly trip to stock up on life’s necessities. ‘Online shopping’, in contrast, still evokes the buying of treats and luxuries, especially when viewed in context with the image.

I think it’s insulting. But then it gets worse with that clunker of a strapline.

‘Helping our customers. We’re on it.’

To me, that comes across as ‘Helping our customers, you say? Worth a try, I suppose.’

Or: ‘We’ve heard about offering help to our customers , instead of remorselessly f*cking them over, and we’re going to give it a go.’

‘We’re on it’ doesn’t suggest an ongoing programme at all. The singular version – ‘I’m on it!’ –  is what an eager young intern says when asked to perform a challenging new task,  usually accompanied by a snap of the fingers. In fact it doesn’t even have the sense of a gradual process as evinced by its much-maligned predecessor, British Rail’s ‘We’re getting there’.

Essentially, the news from e.on is good. It is at last doing something positive for its  customers, probably as a reaction to the criticism that’s been levelled at it from all sides saying that existing customers are always ignored in favour of lucrative new ones.

But I think they could have conveyed the news in a far more sensitive and appropriate way. Meter reading: 0000001.

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Those allegations. Do you deny, dispute, refute, rebut or contest them?

From (allegedly) kiddie-fiddling cardinals to (so they say) overly-lascivious Lib Dem leaders,  allegations of inappropriate behaviour are everywhere these days.

Leaving aside whether the use of that word ‘inappropriate’ is appropriate in these cases (is it really being too judgmental to take the view that abusing children is ‘wrong’ rather than merely ‘inappropriate’?), the allegations are generally followed by a denial of any wrongdoing.

However, a common-or-garden denial is somehow seen as insufficient. So the accused party will instead say he refutes the charges, presumably because it sounds like a more robust kind of denial. Sometimes they’re reported to be ‘contesting’ the accusations, or alternatively they might ‘dispute that version of events’. A ‘rebuttal’ of child-sex allegations is heard less often, perhaps because the word sits rather awkwardly with that particular offence. As does ‘sits rather awkwardly’. But shush.

The question is, if you’re a copywriter who’s been accused of something untoward, just what type of denial should you hit back with? Here’s your handy at-a-glance, cut-out-and-keep guide:

“You’ve been in the pub!”
A straightforward denial should be enough to counter this outrageous slur, provided you don’t allow your accuser to get close enough to smell your breath, or mangle your words to the extent that your very denial becomes an outrageous slur.

“Your copy is off brief!”
This is one you can refute, because to refute something is generally held to mean disproving it through evidence.  So you simply hold the creative brief up in triumph and say “See? You specifically asked for the copy to focus on the kill-rate of the MP7 Sub-Machine Gun, and for the tone to be light and whimsical!”

“You’ve lifted this copy!”
You can either deny or dispute this accusation, although disputing it suggests it contains at least a kernel of truth that warrants  argument and debate. Better to deny it outright, at least until your accuser comes back with the proof. Then you’re on your own.

“Your copy didn’t generate a response”
You can rebut this criticism simply by providing a sheaf of the responses your ad did get, taking care not to mention that 90% of them were complaints about tone, veracity or plagiarism (see above).  Rebut, then, is similar to refute, although back in the 90s New Labour was famous for its effective ‘rapid rebuttal unit’ (strapline: ‘Yeah but, no but, REBUT!’) rather than a ‘rapid refutation unit’. That would have been silly.

“You totally lost it with the client when he rejected all your perfectly reasonable ideas, telling him he had the imagination of a small stick before pouring coffee over his head.”
Up to you. If it didn’t happen, deny it. If you can produce a happy, smiling client, refute it. If it was tea not coffee, dispute ‘that particular version of events’. But if the accusation is that it was your art director who carried out the assault rather than you, you should take legal advice and contest it.

All clear?

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