Opinion: Newland on ... HM Government terror alert

By Francesca Newland, francesca.newland@haynet.com, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 13 August 2004 12:00AM

Quentin Tarantino films have a knack of showing horrendous scenes of murder and mutilation in a way that does not make the viewer shudder. It's his trademark.

In Pulp Fiction we watch a man have his brain blown out, literally, and it's funny. In Kill Bill the massacre of a troop of martial arts fighters has all the elegance of an elaborate ballet.

True Romance, which Tarantino wrote, has the same characteristic. It's a fantastic love story despite the many scenes of torture. One of the reasons that it works is its friendly and gentle music; Hans Zimmer's You're So Cool. The same tune was used in a Volkswagen commercial, I think.

Anyway, the music accompanying HM Government's current spot warning us of what to do in an emergency reminded me of it.

It's happy, busy, everyday, tangible stuff. While its notes, tapped out merrily on a xylophone, say "life is great", the voiceover effectively informs us we are subject to terrorist attack. Very Tarantino.

I smell a rat with the timing of this campaign and am cynical about what its true purpose is, but I will put my political views to one side for the moment. I think that WCRS has done a great job of fulfilling a brief. The scale of the campaign is daunting. A budget of £8.3 million will see a booklet sent to 25 million homes. You can order it in Bengali, Braille or as an audio tape.

First, the booklet, created by the WCRS branding consultancy Dave. It's got the same friendly tone as the TV ad. It uses colour icons to convey a key emergency message: go in, stay in, tune in. It adopts simple language and friendly, pre-school style images to convey the message without a sense of panic.

Of course, it's not easy to warn people what to do in a terrorist attack because it's not possible to say what kind of attack might occur. This is wonderfully illustrated in the paragraph that asks you to ignore the "go in" rule if there's a fire. But there is, of course, useful advice too.

The film's job is to tell you that the booklet will be arriving and that you should read it. It shows a host of emergency items that we see in our normal lives: fire extinguisher, hard hat, life belt, fire blanket, help point, SOS phone and so on.

The clever thing here is that they are familiar, everyday items. Using them to accompany talk of a terrorist attack is somehow soothing. The horror of terrorism is politely played down in a very British fashion.

The Government and WCRS are attempting to walk the fine line between making people sit up and take notice and causing widespread panic.

The sentiment is summarised by the voiceover that wraps up the ad with: "Look out for the booklet. Read it and keep it somewhere safe. And then get on with your everyday life."

What is also clever is that the TV ad acts as a kind of teaser. The ad was on air for more than a week before my booklet arrived. When I brought it into work for the purpose of this column, people started saying: "I haven't had mine yet." Such a reaction was helped by massive amounts of PR, and the nature of the subject matter too. However, the ad's ability to create excitement, and a sense of anticipation, about a door drop deserves credit.

It was a sneaky little trick and it will work. There are even plans for a second phase of ads, which will run in regional press, informing people who to contact if they haven't received their booklet.

Dead cert for a Pencil? The campaign is far too political for that.

File under ... D for don't panic.

What would the chairman's wife say? "Have we had our leaflet yet?"

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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