LIVE ISSUE/THE ROVER DEBACLE: The expensive ad that was a lesson in bad taste - Both APL and Rover refused to see that hostages do not sell cars, Harriet Green says

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.

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,

Schindler’s List?



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

man.



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

off).



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

do that?



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

matter.



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.



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