The world is full of provocative and often crass ads, but this one
topped the lot. When Campaign staff watched Ammirati Puris Lintas’s
Rover 600 film for the first time two weeks ago, we couldn’t believe it.
The ad, which shows the rescue of a blindfolded British hostage, was
deemed to be in such poor taste that it was only a matter of time before
it was banned.
And sure enough, Rover and APL were obliged last week to pull their film
- which is believed to have cost around pounds 500,000 to produce -
after protests from the wife of a Briton kidnapped in Kashmir two years
ago, and almost 100 complaints to the Independent Television Commission
(Campaign, last week).
What exactly was so bad about the ad? Was it worse than WCRS’s
’dambusters’ film for Carling Black Label, which attracted complaints
from war widows but was not pulled? Or Euro RSCG’s film for Peugeot 406
featuring the image of a forlorn little girl similar to one in the film,
As it has been taken off air, you may never know. So, here’s a summary
of what you may have missed. The film shows the diplomatic exchange of
hostages between the British and a group of tribal freedom-fighters. The
locals roll up in a rough-and-ready open-top truck to collect their
The Brits wait in their Rover 600 with their well-scrubbed,
neatly-dressed prisoner sitting watching in the back - while the captive
Brit has been blindfolded, and is bundled about like a bag of laundry.
Once inside the Rover, inexplicably, he does not remove his blindfold.
Instead, he strokes the car’s leather interior. Only when he recognises
- from the familiar feel of the Rover seats - that he is somewhere safe,
does he remove the blindfold. ’Welcome home, sir,’ the diplomat in the
front seat intones, who might have done better by offering a word of
reassurance while the blindfold was on (or even helping to take it
It’s easy to see the strategy. Working on the theme of ’relax’, APL
wanted to demonstrate how smooth a drive in a Rover 600 could be. How
better to do this than to rob a Rover passenger of his sight? How do you
Use a blind person? No, that’s tasteless. So blindfold them. And so the
whole sorry process began.
What is surprising is that the highly experienced team at APL, including
the chairman, Andrew Cracknell, and veteran art director, Peter Harold,
failed to see the warning signs. In an increasingly competitive car
market (APL is under pressure on the Rover account following WCRS’s win
of Land Rover) the following question arises: was it desperation that
drove the agency to such folly?
Others in the industry sympathise with APL, muttering that, but for the
grace of God, go they. But they also express surprise that the Broadcast
Advertising Clearance Centre, notorious for posing petty questions,
somehow contrived to pass this ad (so there’s another group with some
explaining to do).
Privately, senior executives at APL insist the commercial has been taken
hostage by a vocal moral minority. That’s not a new idea. In 1995,
senior creatives lashed out at fringe complaints about their ads,
particularly a Sun Alliance commercial by Leagas Shafron. The then
creative director, Steve Grime, said complaints about his ad came from
’less than 0.00001 per cent of the 20 million people who saw it’. John
Hegarty, Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s executive creative director, said:
’There’s an element of intolerance growing in people and it’s encouraged
by pressure groups. We have to fight back.’
It is possible that groups occasionally orchestrate complaints; it would
seem naive to assume that virtually 100 angry calls came from
individuals acting alone. But Rover and APL ought to bear in mind that
this row was not stirred up by crackpots with nothing better to do:
dismay was expressed by a hostage’s wife, and Terry Waite sympathised
with her. If Amnesty International had made a similar film, it might
have been possible to write off complaints. But this was not about human
rights, it was about a luxury car. In the end there was no choice but to
pull the ad.
There’s more. The greater problem with this ad is not the subject
It’s the execution. It’s shot in a clunking style with no ironic wink to
the viewer to acknowledge the absurdity of the link between car and
hostage. Carling Black Label might get away with, say, a James
Bond-style romp, because Carling ads laugh at themselves.
Again, the underlying xenophobia in Rover’s film - swarthy, turbaned
terrorists versus the civilised chaps from the Foreign Office - was not,
apparently, meant to be absurd, exaggerated or ironic. Compare it with
’St George’, the excellent Blackcurrent Tango film from HHCL and
Partners, which was accused of jingoism but deflected that flak because
it was absurd, tongue in cheek and very funny.
Nobody relishes the idea that a few complaints about bad taste could
signal the demise of expensive commercials. But this episode does hold
out one positive consideration - agencies will have learned to make ads
that ring true with viewers. As Rover and APL have found to their cost,
the seat-stroker execution did not.