“You were always on my mind”

Who was that by? The Pet Shop Boys, wasn’t it? Or was there an earlier version? Fastrack would have told me. Fastrack was an outfit that sold CDs by post. (Straight away you can tell that I’m going back to olden times, here.) You rang them up, said the name of the song or the album, and they’d send it to you for less than you’d pay in Our Price or Tower Records. The important thing, and what distinguished them from other CDs-by-post people, was that Fastrack wasn’t a music club.

“So they don’t want the ads to look like ads from a music club, like Britannia.” This was the account man at an agency I was working for at the time, briefing me and the art director. “It’s not a club, you’re not a member, there’s no subscription and no commitment.”

“You sound like the ad!” I might have said. But he was right to make the distinction. Britannia’s ads were a staple of the printed press throughout the 70s and 80s. The music-club business model was to lure you in with a seemingly great offer, then trap you into receiving four or five CDs or videos a month at pretty much shop-bought prices. You had to send them back if you didn’t like them. Something like that, anyway. Britannia was aimed at people who liked collecting stuff rather than those who actually liked music.

A Britannia ad from 1986

The ads the art director and I came up with looked very different. No lists, no album covers selected to appeal to the biggest demographic, and definitely no coupon. One of our headlines was ‘From Abba to Zappa’ (a line that would be used by the Observer for their monthly music magazine some 15 years later). We were showing it to the agency’s MD and he shook his head. “I like it, but we can’t present it,” he said.
“Why not?” I asked, not unreasonably.
“Well, what if someone wants an album by the Zombies? They’ll think Fastrack can’t get it.” He was serious. At this point, you’d expect the creative director to step in and deliver an almighty slap, but he was off doing something else. So that ad never appeared. Neither did the one we came up with in response to the weirdest media brief I’ve ever encountered. The ad would be about the size of those cards you get in a newsagent’s window, except that in this case the newsagent was an army barracks and the window was a notice board in the servicemen’s canteen. The strategy was sound: squaddies can’t easily get off base to buy the latest CDs, so here’s a way the CDs can come to them.

My headline?

The MD looked at the headline for what I felt was an inordinately long time. Like, longer than the quarter-second needed to read and understand it.
“Incoming? You mean, like a message or something?”
“Not a message, no,” I said, and virtually shouted the word whilst looking terrified at the office ceiling. Then I looked back at him.
“Not with you,” he said. “Does it mean something?”
“Yes! It’s what people in the army shout to each other when they’re about to be attacked by mortars or bombs or whatever. INCOMING! Like that. But in our context, it also means that their favourite CDs will be incoming, or coming in, to their base.” Fuck me, I was patient.

“Nope,” he says finally, “I don’t think anyone will get it.”

I still think it was good and, yes, I still remain bitter. ‘You were always on my mind,’ I say to myself. So what ads DID run? In the end, the MD overruled me, the art director, the creative director and everyone else, and declared that the agency should present ads that look exactly like music-club ads ‘because obviously they work.’

Despite my best efforts as a customer – I used to know their number off by heart – nobody ever heard of Fastrack again.

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Tech woes

Do you have much technology around your home? Probably. And do you find that it all works reliably, consistently and seamlessly? Probably not. Hopefully not, in fact. Because I’m reluctant to concede the idea that it’s just us who suffer almost daily occurrences of unreliability, inconsistency and seamlesslessness.

Here’s the set-up: An Amazon Echo and two Sonos speakers in the kitchen, an Alexa-enabled Sonos One in the bedroom and a few other Sonos speakers dotted here and there. A couple of TVs and Wi-Fi courtesy of Virgin Media.

For a while, everything worked as it should. Usually, anyway. At bedtime, we’d set the speaker in the bedroom to play the Alexa sleep sound ‘Rain On A Tent’ for 30 minutes, and neither of us would ever be awake to hear it end. (Trouble nodding off? Give it a try.)

bedroom sonos

In the morning, we’d ask Alexa to play Radio 4 or Radio Paradise (an ad-free station that plays non-challenging music of a certain vintage) and Alexa would happily oblige. Meanwhile, true to its raison d’etre, Sonos would stream music from Spotify in whichever room we wanted. We could watch Netflix, Amazon Prime, BBC iPlayer…

All was well, techno-wise. But gradually things started to go awry. Not hugely, as in total system failure. But in niggling, inexplicable ways. (I’ve compressed the timeline. This all happened – and is still happening – over a period of months.)

“Alexa, what’s got into you?”

A request for Alexa to play ‘rain on a tent’ meets with ‘Sorry, I don’t know that one.’ I change the wording, making it explicit that I want the Alexa sleep sound. Same response. Luckily, there’s a phone app called RainRain that does much the same thing, although the sound quality obviously isn’t so good.

But then, a few months later, Alexa somehow rediscovers sleep sounds. Hurrah! We climb into bed and are soon fast asleep. Some hours later, I awake for a pee and find that rain on a tent is still playing. That’s weird – I’d set the timer for 30 minutes. ‘Alexa, stop.’ Alexa briefly pauses, then resumes. ‘Alexa, stop playing rain on a tent.’ Same thing happens. I physically turn it off, but Alexa immediately springs back into life with more rain. Eventually I have to unplug it and hope it doesn’t somehow re-energise, Christine-style.

In the morning, we plug Alexa back in and ask it to play BBC Radio 4. ‘Here’s BBC Radio 4,’ she confirms. But then – silence. ‘Alexa, play, er, Tom Waits.’ Nothing.

Downstairs, we ask kitchen Alexa to play Radio Paradise. She’s never had a problem doing this before, but now there’s just radio silence or ‘I’m sorry, I can’t find that one.’ I go online to try and sort things out. Some people say I have to disable the Sonos skill, then re-enable it. How that will help Alexa find a radio station? And what’s it got to do with Sonos anyway? But I go ahead and do it. The results are not what I expect.

Kitchen Alexa will now play Radio Paradise (RP), but has elected to play it through various Sonos speakers rather than via the Echo unit itself. This means we can’t control the volume using the handy buttons on Alexa, only via imprecise voice controls. Even more strangely, it’ll play the same four songs on a constant loop, with none of the normal station idents (Hippy Californian voice: ‘You’re listening to Radio Paradise daht cahm’).

Meanwhile, bedroom Alexa says it WILL play RP, then a week or so later decides I’ve listened to it enough and refuses to play it anymore. FFS. I give it a few days and try again and, guess what, Alexa has evidently decided that RP is okay for us to listen to after all. But there’s a catch. We can only listen to one song. Which she plays again and again to the point of audio torture.

Call that a password?

During one of my numerous attempts to get to the bottom of all this, I notice my iPhone is saying that our Wi-Fi security is weak. What new hell is this? I google the warning and discover that this is possibly the worst thing in the world, that passers-by will be emptying my bank accounts and ordering superyachts. But then others say it’s nothing at all to worry about at all; just Apple being over-cautious.  To be on the safe side, I set about reconfiguring the Virgin router. I enter the password and am told that it isn’t strong enough. Well possibly, I think, but that’s the one we agreed on three years ago, so let me in because I’ve got some serious reconfiguring to do. Nope. I can’t use my previously acceptable password until I’ve changed it to a much stronger and of course far less memorable one. So I change it. Now of course we have to update Netflix, iPlayer and Amazon Prime on two TVs. This is where my day goes.

(The irony here is that the TV is supposed to get its WiFi signal from our Tenda mesh system, which has a different password altogether. I AM SO CONFUSED.)

Anyway, can I reconfigure the router? Can I heck. I don’t have the skills or the patience. But I do notice that the little white light on our router is suddenly glowing red.

Danger, Will Robinson!

This could be bad – red is the international colour of imminent threat. I ask @VirginHelp for help. They ignore me. On Virgin’s website I learn that the reason it’s red is because the router is overheating.

Ignoring the fact that we’re in England in October, that the router isn’t perched on a radiator or been covered with a cloth and that we haven’t lit a small fire next to it, I nevertheless do what’s suggested and TIOATIOA. 15 minutes later it reboots with the same red light.

So I call Virgin and, after 30 minutes, get through to someone in Bangalore. “It means it’s overheating,” they say. “Turn it off and turn it on again.” I explain that I have already done this, that it’s not hot where we live, and that there are no nearby fires etc. “It’s nothing to worry about,” they say. “Just leave it.” But a red light signals danger, I say. The light should be white.

“Well, if you don’t like looking at it, says the Virgin expert, “cover it up with a cloth.”

When the country went into lockdown I started growing my hair. Now, some eight months later, I’m just about ready to tear it out.

Postscript: In preparing this blog post, I tried to AirDrop the photos from iPhone to Mac. It always used to work easily. But now, suddenly and you could say inevitably … it doesn’t.

Postscript #2: Something else to get my head around. WordPress has suddenly changed the way blog posts are created. Everything is different, and it won’t let me add captions to photos.

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How To Do An Advert

A trade ad for lawnmowers

Text:

At STIGA, we don’t just cater for the discerning domestic gardener we have designed and built machines to meet the needs of commercial operators, from contractors and estate managers, through to groundskeepers and professional landscapers. Powerful engines, advanced functions, ergonomics and high quality construction, STIGA machines are built from the ground up.
Established in Sweden in 1934, STIGA has more than 80 years of experience in producing innovative gardening products
To discover the complete range or to find your local STIGA dealer visit: www. stiga.com/uk

The target market
Who are you talking to? Ordinary consumers are one thing; you can be all clever and creative with them. But trade ads are different. If your ad is aimed at professionals, remember these are serious-minded people who don’t appreciate wit or subtlety. They’re also busy all the time so get straight to the point. Tip: why not list all the kinds of people you’re talking to in your copy?

The headline
It should be short, compelling and original. Failing that, the first idea that comes into your head will probably do. If it’s a cliche or a play on words, you can safely ignore that bit about avoiding wit. BUT make sure the reader knows you’ve employed a witticism by adding an exclamation mark.

The image
It could be a single, striking and entirely unexpected picture, something that really leaps off the page. OR, it could be straightforward and mundane. If you opt for the safe and dull route, remember that it needn’t even be a single image. Choose as many as you like. If your pictures have some sort of relationship to your headline all the better, but don’t try too hard. Or at all – it’s completely up to you. For example, the headline here talks about Stiga’s tools cutting EVERYTHING. But a quick look at the pictures shows them cutting grass, grass, grass, grass and some more grass.

The copy
The beginning of the copy is always the hardest part. So why not try something different and start with a negative? Tell the reader what you DON’T do before going on to say what you DO do.

Bear in mind that long opening sentences can draw the reader in. They invariably don’t, I’m just saying they can. As the reader negotiates his way through your four-line, 35-word sentence, remember that punctuation is your friend. But it can also be a right bitch to master. So if you’re unsure where to put a comma or full stop, just leave it out. Even the busiest professional will willingly invest his time in figuring out what you mean.

In an ideal world, your copy should expand on the theme established by the headline. Excuse me, did someone say ideal world?! It’s anything but that right now, so your copy can say anything you like. In the example shown here, the writer hasn’t provided a single example of how the manufacturer refuses to cut corners. (Although, oddly, the only photo of any note shows a STIGA machine doing precisely that.)

Avoid using words like derivative, old-fashioned and awkward. Today’s busy professionals expect to see words like innovative, advanced and ergonomic. No trade ad is complete without them.

Make sure you tell the reader the exact year your company was founded. (Month and day optional.) Then express its age in a slightly different way, to really drill the point home. Your country of origin is important too, especially if it’s hugely relevant to the product you’re advertising. Sweden and lawns? Maybe. No matter, bung it in anyway.

For your call to action, remember to include the www bit of the URL. No one can find anything on the web without it.

The strapline

Right at the start of the copy, it was established that ordinary domestic gardeners weren’t the primary audience for this advertisement. No, it’s the big boys STIGA are talking to here. They’re listed, remember? The groundskeepers and estate managers? So choose a tagline that talks directly to this audience.

Or, forget all that and use one that talks to ordinary domestic gardeners. It’s YOUR ad. You can do what you like.

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The Dead Trees of Richmond Park

No. 64. Cause of death: Varicose Rings

No. 291. Cause of death: Multiple Bough Failure

No. 230. Cause of death: Despair

No. 616. Cause of death: Leaf Trauma

No. 928. Cause of death: Arboreal Imposter Syndrome

No. 417. Cause of death: Apathy

No. 668. Cause of death: Trunk Stunt

No. 288. Cause of death: Currently Under Investigation

No. 836. Cause of death: Sudden Bole Death

No. 440. Cause of death: Treasles

No. 106. Cause of death: Pointing Sickness

No. 602
Cause of death: Acute Foliage Envy

No. 551. Cause of death: Taproot Corpulence

Nos. 738 & 739. Cause of death: Suicide Pact

No. 399. Cause of death: Shame

No. 502. Cause of death: Limb Overreach

No. 988. Cause of death: Angler’s Arms

No. 518. Cause of death: Chronic Self-Doubt

 

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In defence of Social Distancing

Saatchi & Saatchi could have gone with ‘Labour’s Double Knockout’ for their Tory posters in the 1992 election campaign. Instead, they used the line ‘Labour’s Double Whammy’.

Nobody had heard or read the phrase before. All that stuff about speaking to your audience in their own language, use familiar words and phrases, assume at best a nodding acquaintance with the English language – all that was quietly dropped in favour of an expression that was new and alien.

Soon after the ads appeared, the newspapers were full of comment pieces about the wording. Where did ‘double whammy’ come from? What did it mean? Who dreamed it up? (Chris Patten, allegedly.) Was it an *gasp* Americanism? (I’d heard of the whammy bar, but that clearly wasn’t relevant here).

The public didn’t care about its provenance. But they could grasp exactly what it meant. And the expression is now firmly established in popular language.

This is why I don’t think we need to worry too much about the phrase ‘social distancing’. It might not be perfect. ‘Spatial distancing’ might convey the intended meaning more accurately, although it is a bit sci-fi. ‘Physical distancing’ sounds like something Gwyneth Paltrow might do. I said might. ‘Keep two metres away from each other’ sounds Ronseally straightforward until you remember that you’d have to include the imperial equivalent to appease the Daily Mail and its army of Little Englanders.

But from my observations, people are very quickly starting to learn what social distancing means to them in their daily lives. Sure, there’ll be those who choose to flout the advice, just as there are those who insist 40mph is okay in a 30mph zone or who see nothing wrong in dropping litter. 

Sometimes, an unusual phrase is what’s needed to get standout and provoke a reaction.

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Another wine about Brexit

We popped over to France and Belgium at the weekend for a little jauntette. It was all plain sailing, except that we went by Eurotunnel so it was more like plain training.

We didn’t need to buy a visa in advance or complete any paperwork, because we’re in the EU and none of that is necessary. There was no need to apply for an International Driving Permit for France and/or Belgium before we could travel, and we didn’t need to contact our insurance company a full 30 days before departure in order to obtain a Motor Insurance Green Card.

We weren’t required to buy and display a big GB sticker on the back of our car.

During the trip, we could use our phones as normal and not worry about data roaming charges, because the EU abolished roaming charges years ago.

We drove from Calais to Ypres at a steady 80mph on smooth, well-maintained roads where, if our car was fitted with one, cruise control would have been handy. Driving in mainland Europe is as close to the driving experience portrayed in car ads as I ever get. And if anything were to go wrong and we were involved in an accident, we wouldn’t be faced with life-changing bills because our European Health Insurance Cards would have entitled us to reduced-cost or even free medical care.

At Ypres, we visited the vast Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world and the last resting place of nearly 12,000 servicemen who died during the Battle of Passchendaele (total casualties there exceeded 475,000). Last year we spent a weekend in Normandy, site of the WW2 beach landings. It’s no leap of the imagination to suggest that the founding of the EU has in no small way helped prevent a repeat of those bloody battles, those unspeakable wars, those millions of deaths.

Tyne Cot Cemetery

We nosed around the town for a bit (it’s lovely, by the way) then headed for the Menin Gate to witness the playing of The Last Post, a ceremony that’s been conducted at 8pm sharp every night since 1927.

With 30 seconds to go, the crowd of several hundred suddenly hushed, then the Last Post began. It was very moving, despite us arriving too late and not being able to see the buglers. Then a man on our left started chatting to his son, which drew a few ‘shh’ noises from people standing nearby, me included. The father’s enormous friend turned to stare down us down. So instead of being wrapped up in the solemnity of the occasion, I found myself wondering how people could be so utterly self-centred to think that it was perfectly all right to chat away during it, and also whether the big guy was going to be a dick and start something. He didn’t. Phew.

This bit’s got nothing to do with the EU, by the way.

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After dinner we whiled away a few hours outside a bar situated directly opposite our little hotel, the Ambrosia. (What’s the WiFi password, we asked. ‘We will remember’ came the reply. Ah, I said. We will remember that. The manager smiled like she hadn’t heard the joke a thousand times before.)

Next morning, we set off back to Calais to conduct our main business, buying coffee, cheese and olive oil.

OK then, wine.

majestic

One of the advantages of living in the south of England, apart from not having to live in the north of England (note to self: delete this before hitting publish), is that you can access cheap wine and beer relatively easily.

In fact, outlets like Calais Wine Superstore and Majestic Wine Warehouse (above) make it even more tempting by paying for your crossing, provided you buy more than £200 worth of stuff. We were definitely going to do that because we are in the EU and so aren’t limited to the six-bottle limit that applied before we joined.

(There’s currently a rumour that the UK Treasury will maintain the status quo even after Brexit, as long as you can prove the wine you bring back is for your own consumption. To which I will produce an x-ray of my liver and say OK matey, what do you think? And anyway, the rumour might turn out to be a lie. I know! Almost inconceivable.)

Some people would say I’m depriving the UK of significant tax revenues by buying our wine and beer in France instead of in Tesco or Sainsbury’s. I try to avoid these people. But if cornered, I’d say that the French seem to manage quite well without taxing their booze to the neck. Public transport is cheap. The roads are good, even the toll-free ones. The provision of medical care seems, er, healthy. Everything works pretty well. OK, their TV is awful, but you can’t have everything.

I don’t know about you, but I grew up thinking that the USA was way ahead in terms of just about everything, then came the UK, then everyone else was way down there. This all stemmed from my post-imperial education, at a time when we thought Britain was pretty much the dog’s bollocks when it came to progress. It seems we still think that way, because the people who swung the vote in favour of Brexit are almost certainly the ones who never had the opportunity to see how the UK is, at best, on a level with our European partners. Plus loads of Leave voters are racists, but let’s not dwell on that.

Anyway. That’s that, as far as our little trips to France and Belgium go. Unless there’s a miracle, up will come the drawbridge at midnight on 31.10.19.

If only there was a next time

 

Goodbye, wine warehouse. Or is it au revoir? Nope, it’s goodbye

 

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How journalism works

flats (not in Birmingham)One of the founder members of direct response agency Evans Hunt Scott (now Havas something or other) told me this story about his brief brush with journalism in the early 1980s.

He was doing work experience at a newspaper in Birmingham and had been sent to gather details of a burglary at an apartment block in the city. He found the flat, introduced himself to the tenant, interviewed her about the break-in and headed back to base.

The editor asks him about the robbery. David – for that was his name – replies that it doesn’t really amount to much of a story. The burglar had looked through the apartment window and seen the tell-tale flashing light of a video recorder (as rare then as now, but way more desirable). He forced the door and nicked it. The tenant came home to find her door open and the VCR gone.

That’s it? asks the editor. That’s it, says David. That’s not good enough, says the ed.  So David is sent back to the tower block with a list of questions to ask the residents. The elderly female residents, preferably.

Questions like: Do you worry about being burgled and your flat turned upside down? Are you anxious about coming home late at night on your own? Does the sight of groups of youths scare you? To which the answers were inevitably yes, yes and yes.

Now there was a story. It was about far, far more than a one-off opportunistic theft.  I can’t remember if it made it to the front page or not, but I do remember David telling me the headline they came up with.

Flats of fear

Remember, variations of this happen every day, in everything from whatever’s left of local papers to the national dailies. They’re not happy unless we’re scared.

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A cyclist brings me up to date

I went on a short cycle ride just now. I’m not what you might call a keen cyclist. I don’t even look the part, having none of the kit and certainly not a flashy racing bike. I just like exploring the roads and parks near me when the weather suits. It’s also about the only exercise I get.

Today I was in Richmond Park, southwest London, which in case you didn’t know is HUGELY popular with cyclists. I was midway through my little jaunt and taking a breather on a park bench, when a proper cyclist approached and asked if she could share the bench. Of course, I said, and asked if she’d been out for long.

‘Yeah, a few hours, I’m training for the 78-mile ride next week.’
‘Wow, that’s got to be further than Brighton!’
‘Yeah, Brighton’s 55 miles, I’ve done that, no this is a loop. I’ve done the Castlebridge loop, that’s 44 miles, but this one’s longer at 78.’
I couldn’t question her grasp of arithmetic.
‘I’ve probably managed three miles this morning!’ I said.
“Yeah, I’ve been doing that hill over there a few times but it’s not long enough.’
‘That’s quite steep.’
‘No, it needs to be longer for proper training. The one at Box Hill is better, that’s a gradient of 1.3 to 6 and is over 2.4 miles, done that a few times, but need to do more for this 78-mile ride next weekend, only I didn’t train at all last weekend.’
‘Right. Well, you certai…’
‘My company organises the ride, they do it every year.’
‘It’s not compulsory I hope!’
She looks at me. ‘No, you have to sign up for it. I did the 36-mile Bridgenorth loop with them a few years ago, then the 60-mile Box Hill to Sussex ride last year. Today I’ve just been going up and down the hill for the last four hours.’

I decide I’ve rested enough. ‘Bye then. Nice hearing about you.’

Note: Box Hill exists, but I made up the other names. I couldn’t care less where her bloody loops are. 

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‘And the parting on the left, is now the parting on the right’

Socks with sandals was a definite no-no when I was growing up on the south coast. An unspoken law of the beach. You just didn’t.

Later, during travels around France, Spain, Israel and the Greek islands, I noticed with approval that it was fairly universally observed.

More recently, the law has become a lot less unspoken. People frequently comment on (typically) an old person’s socks ’n’ sandals combo and declare it the worst crime against fashion imaginable.

No, sandals on bare feet is the norm. The conventional. You could say it’s ‘mainstream’.

SFX: DISTANT ALARM BELLS

With a growing sense of horror, I started to realise that it was only a matter of time before someone, somewhere, would want to subvert the sartorial status quo. If everyone zigs, you zag, right?

So my loins have been in a perpetual state of girdedness, awaiting the day when the wearing of socks with sandals is not only acceptable but – NOOOOO!!! – cool.

I just never expected the move to come from that well-known fashion house, Google.

 

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‘Huge thanks to all the team’

‘They’re up! The new 48-sheet (count em’) poster campaign for Stihl!

HUGE thanks to the entire team who made it all happen. That late-ish night was definitely worth it in the end!

Special thanks to the copywriter, who controversially eschewed any fancy-dan wordplay or clever-clogs copy to deliver a simple, refreshingly down-to-earth message. (Love the ‘approved’ Stihl dealers bit! That’ll get all the unapproved ones worried!)

To the designer, who managed to construct an all too familiar, everyday gardening scenario around every single one of Stihl’s extensive product portfolio. To the model, whose expression conveys job-well-done satisfaction, perhaps mixed in with a hint of puzzlement as to why she’s holding a leaf blower, traditionally deployed to noisy and wasteful effect in autumn, during what is obviously the grass-cutting season. Also, female empowerment box well and truly ticked!

And an extra special thanks to our amazing client, who bought into the whole kitchen-sink concept from day one. He could have insisted on something simple, powerful and different (yawn!) but instead opted for the, ahem, down to earth, common or garden route.

Well done, team! Together, you’ve brought the old advertising maxim to life: when everyone else zigs, you zig too.’

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