14 October 2011
Remember that "keep calm and carry on" poster that used to be witty before it became ubiquitous? I think they must be sticking it up in creative departments. Or maybe there's some kind of state-controlled conspiracy to keep consumers sedated while the economy goes to hell in a shopping trolley. Keep shopping is, of course, the real message and all our major retailers are passing it on in soothing, measured tones. As ever, the British cure for recession is nostalgia.
I think it was the legendary columnist Katharine Whitehorn who first suggested that branches of John Lewis be used as muster stations in case of national emergency "because nothing bad could ever happen there". The department store's latest spot invites us to take a long inventory of every piece of electrical equipment we've ever owned. I even spotted my Roberts R200! It's lovely but a little lazy, and not without risk. It took the BBC several years of challenging programming to lose the soubriquet "Auntie", and if John Lewis isn't careful, it will inherit that name.
Sainsbury's agency has also written a script for Prozac as the supermarket contemplates life without Jamie. Its new line, "Live well for less", is a hark back to "Good food costs less at Sainsbury's", which sustained the brand in happier times when it really was Britain's grocer. There's something familiar, too, about this tale of father and son enjoying a day out at the seaside followed by a sausage supper. Good performances, nicely shot. All the TV tropes are here: kid falling asleep on Dad's shoulder and then Dad falling asleep as Mum tiptoes in for the inevitable approbation shot at the end. The single father in me bridles at the need for that - it would have been a slightly more interesting and more contemporary film without.
It's chocks away at British Airways as Biggles and co reach for the skies on one last mission To Fly, To Serve. I understand there must be an internal audience agenda at work here, but "lack of heritage" probably isn't one of the complaints we customers have against BA. "Living in the past" is more like it. Anyway, the heroes of modern civil aviation are the boys and girls with the duty-free and the orange tans, not the mustachioed men in the cockpit. The current Virgin Atlantic spot makes this look like a part-work series sponsored by the Sunday Express. I look forward to assembling my own replica Concorde week by week.
MasterCard has got the All Blacks legend Buck Shelford answering questions on its website. Buck sidesteps the tricky ones about rampant consumerism and lives blighted by debt and keeps the ball in hand. Strictly for rugger buffs.
There's more than a whiff of Burger King's "Whopper freakout" in T-Mobile's latest stunt. Punters are served with ridiculous parking tickets. But just watch their howls of protest turn to howls of mirth as the "tickets" turn into wads of cash. "No-one likes nasty surprises," the voiceover soothes at precisely the time when the "victims" are getting their nasty surprises. No matter, T-Mobile is to be commended for continuing to take it to the streets.
Nationwide is on one of its "breaks" from Leagas Delaney, but I fear it can't be long before it is dropping its suitcase at that agency's reception and bursting into tears. Against the fantasy backdrop of a ghostly swirling carousel, we hear this former champion of plain speaking offering us "mortgages that make coming home special". Surely this is the kind of bollocks the Advertising Standards Authority should be stamping out, rather than banning innocuous sex-toy ads?
Apologies for the lack of depraved innuendo and pointless profanity this week, but I'm worried. I used to think there was a limit to the amount of patronising bromide consumers are prepared to swallow before rising up and harvesting our organs. But it's worse than that, isn't it? They're not even listening.
I've always put an emphasis on work that does something a bit different - that's bold and brave, has a bit of brand edge or makes you smile. With consumers searching out extraordinary value and marketing budgets under scrutiny, it is now more important than ever to express these qualities, along with the brand difference. And so, with this in mind, we look to our six ads, which attempt bravery and edge to various degrees of success.
First up we have John Lewis, creating a bright and optimistic brand world to demonstrate its role, neatly summed up by the line: "We've always been there for the latest thing." It shows its understanding of the love we have for the gadgets that entertain by taking us on a journey through the decades - supported, might I add, by a great soundtrack of iconic music-makers that really brings this ad to life. The piece cleverly reconciles the enduring role of John Lewis into the present without feeling contrived and artificial, and neatly slips in the value message. Simple, clever, enjoyable.
Continuing along the theme of nostalgia is British Airways, with its new execution "aviators" from the "To fly. To serve" campaign. It's fantastic to see a brand such as BA embracing big brand communication again, but I can't help feeling a little disappointed with the new spot. This creative - charting BA through the ages - left me focusing perhaps too much on past glories, when I wanted to be looking for the benefit story for today. I found a hint of that in the passion of the staff talking about the "to serve" part of the equation on the related Facebook channel, but not enough in the ad, I'm afraid.
MasterCard's new social network campaign also plays on the past with the help of Wayne "Buck" Shelford, a former All Blacks captain from the 80s. The campaign is clearly linked to MasterCard's sponsorship of the Rugby World Cup and centres on a fan Q&A, interspersed with nostalgic footage and interviews with friends, family and former acquaintances. Though likely to work for ardent rugby fans (aren't we all at the moment?), I do worry about the length of it (four minutes dwell time) and the branding, which is understated even for online.
Next, we move to Nationwide, whose latest spot, "carousel", marks a definite change in direction from the previous "tongue-in-cheek" executions. It was brave, but I did worry about what impression the brand left in the viewers' minds; did they get the joke? I have to say, I prefer the new work, which uses a carousel as a metaphor for life - I find it more inviting and inclusive. The thought of a finance brand "on your side" can never be bad. If I had one gripe, it would be that the brand's defining feature of mutuality - which sets it apart from the banks - is simply not brought out enough in the spot as a proof point for the products featured. Hopefully, Nationwide will push this further in the next outing.
Thinking of unloved categories brings me to traffic wardens and clampers. The T-Mobile work brings a little moment of joy to us as people across the UK realise that parking tickets for frankly ridiculous infringements are, in fact, a spoof. The ad is based on the proposition "no nasty surprises", like being able to cap your children's phone contracts. That link is, perhaps, a little tenuous in the TV spot, but is made far clearer in the press and outdoor channels. The work feels authentic and unashamedly populist, which I like. Plus the outtakes from this filming must be fantastic.
Coming full circle, I want to end on Sainsbury's new campaign, "live well for less". This first outing since Jamie Oliver is a beautifully filmed set of snapshots of life's simple pleasures, performed and shot elegantly. The work feels warmly nostalgic, yet up to date. It has managed to marry family values with good value, without shouting about price - which is no mean feat.
It's a good set of work, but I still feel they all need a little bit more edge to make you sit up and take notice. UK Creative PLC feels like it needs to lift its game to up the haul in Cannes next year.