When Yo-Yos Were The Thing

May 24, 2019

Do you remember a year or two back when it was impossible to escape the marketing web for fidget spinners. They were everywhere, everyone gave them away.  Looking back, at just about the time I got interested in girls, the hula hoop was king.  Well, even before that there was a time when the fad was yo-yos:

Image: Vancouver Sun, 1933/4/19, p.12

Good to see our local shops were keeping up with the trends!


Bravo to Gillette!

January 16, 2019


This is a very brave corporate statement in support of #MeToo, noting that a large number of men need to change their actions and their thinking if we are ever to rid ourselves of a domineering patriarchy.

I’m not dumb enough to think they put this out without massive research in focus groups and elsewhere where they learned that it would not be a fatal mistake to launch such an “attack” on its own target market.  However, I am intelligent enough to recognise that Gillette didn’t need to do this, didn’t need to take the risk but did it away because it was the right thing to do.

The risk, of course, comes from the response to the ad by the large number of unreconstructed males, the very same group who perpetuate the problems highlighted in the ad.  A wide variety of these responses can be found most easily in the 1,650 comments on the YouTube video.

Some are simply sticking their head in the sand and hoping it will go away:  “RIP Gillette”, “Goodbye Gillette”, “buy anything but this product”, “you just lost a customer for life”, “what a bunch of fools”, etc.

Others were more expressive: “it feels like Gillette is calling me a rapist”, “the entire country is sick of feminism,” and the ad is “dripping with contempt for men.”

But the antediluvian rednecks were loudest: “Men get treated like they’re bad just for being a man,” for example. (Compare and contrast: “Nazis get treated like they’re bad just for being Nazis.”) Those responsible for the ad should be “put in camps to be worked to death”. They say the ad is “misogynistic and racist” but is “still not quite gay enough.” “Now we can’t even shave without radical feminist ideology.”

It is “left wing propaganda” paid for by “your liberal masters,” and is “a garbage political narrative.” One even suggested that “big corporation sides with communists in the culture war.”

How can the idea of treating people as people rather than as sexual or dominatable objects be considered “radical”?

Unfortunately, the number and extent of these comments proves that there is a genuine need for more public service messages of this kind.

Sex, Ads, and #MeToo

December 5, 2018

For decades now, the annual Pirelli calendar has been the most haut of the showing-off-of-bare-breasts-to-sell style of merchandising. New editions were eagerly awaited, fathers passed collections down to their sons, and classic calendars from years past decorated the walls of many garages’ inner sanctums. Now, as we work our way through and beyond the #MeToo issues, Pirelli has decided to change focus — to the photographs rather than the bosoms.

The photographer for this year’s edition is Albert Watson.

Image: Albert Watson

As reported in the Guardian:

Eight years on from Terry Richardson’s 2010 nude blow-out,and a year into the #MeToo era, the 2019 edition of “the cal” features successful women Watson depicts as “pursing her own dreams and passions” in a portfolio titled “dreaming”. The original idea was apparently to tell a story of four sisters living on a ranch in New Mexico and their different paths through life.

Image: Albert Watson

It will be interesting to see if the Pirelli calendar can stand on its own as an art piece.


September 16, 2018

One of the joys of a full English breakfast are Heinz baked beans. At college, beans on toast were the staple supper whenever money was tight (like always). I doubt there is a larder in England that doesn’t have a can or two on a shelf.

I always assumed that the “Beanz Means Heinz” slogan pre-dated me but that is not so; I was in my late teens when Maurice Drake came up with one of the most durable of advertising lines in 1967. I know this now because of an article in the incomparable Creative Review.  From the same place I learn that Selfridge’s department store has made the bean can a feature of its displays this spring.


When I first arrived in Canada, it was a grave disappointment to me to find that cans of Heinz beans in North America were not the same as the English beans I grew up with.  However, I am glad to say that the original English flavour is now available here, if you know where to look — SuperValu on Commercial, for example.

They are one of life’s simple pleasures.


Lowering The Standard of British Journalism

May 30, 2018

For the few years a long time ago in the 1960s when I was a Tube-riding office worker, enduring the forty-minute commute each way, I read a lot of newspapers; my evening solace was the London Evening Standard . It was the right size for a cramped transit car, a tabloid, but with 60 or 70 pages of solid material. I read a ton of theatre, movie, and book reviews, nearly always completed the cryptic crossword, and kept in touch with sports and business. I was very fond of it, and it was one of the things I missed when I came to Canada in the 1970s.

These days, I read online a couple of British papers every day, but I haven’t looked at an online edition of the Standard for a long time. I vaguely remember being disconcerted by the appointment as the Evening Standard’s editor of George Osborne who had been Finance Minister throughout the socialism for the rich, austerity for the poor years of David Cameron’s bitter regime.  But then I forgot about it.

Until this morning that  is, when I found this incredibly detailed article confirming that Osborne’s business model for the Standard is selling PR as news for a price.  The Standard

“has agreed a £3 million deal with six leading commercial companies, including Google and Uber, promising them “money-can’t-buy” positive news and “favourable” comment coverage … The project, called London 2020, is being directed by Osborne. It effectively sweeps away the conventional ethical divide between news and advertising inside the Standard…

As part of the sales pitch at the Evening Standard’s West London offices, would-be partners were told to expect campaigns that will “generate numerous news stories, comment pieces and high-profile backers”.

London 2020 involves six “themed projects” running for two years. These include politicised initiatives on clean air, plastic pollution, schools and workplace tech and a project designed to address London’s housing crisis. The six 2020 “partners” have each paid half a million pounds to head projects that will be sold to Standard readers as “improving London for the benefit of all.”

According to one insider: “What was being offered was clear – theatrically constructed news, showing everything good being done. “

Not everyone was buying into this scheme. “Some companies, including Starbucks, walked away from the Evening Standard’s pitch, rejecting the offer of paying to boost their reputations through tailored news and comment.” Starbuck’s executive was very clear in his rejection: ”

“Buying positive news coverage is PR death…something you might do in Saudi Arabia, but not here. This wasn’t right for us. We do engage in advertorial [a hybrid mix of advertising and editorial] but that’s just marketing. We don’t need to buy our reputation.”

This is a long read, but well worthwhile.

Grabbing Our Attention

May 6, 2018

I am usually a very fast reader, but it has taken me a few weeks to get through Tim Wu’s “The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble To Get Inside Out Heads“.  The time it took had nothing to do with lack of quality; far from it: it takes time to digest the immense amount of fascinating information that Wu packs into every illuminating page of this history of advertising and other attention-grabbing industries for the last 200 years.

To begin, Wu walks us through the invention of posters in Paris, the introduction of the New York Sun, the wily ways of Clark Stanley — the original “snake oil” medical miracle salesman — and the hugely successful World World One conscription propaganda — “Uncle Sam Needs YOU.”  He then engagingly introduces us to the inventors of modern advertising — Claude Hopkins, George Creel, and Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays.

The story of attention grabbing moves onto the modern era with the invention of radio.  Wu reminds us that in those idealistic days, it was believed that advertising should stop at the household door. “The family circle,” opined Printers Ink magazine, “is not a public place and advertising has no business intruding there unless invited.” Herbert Hoover, talking about the wonder of radio, wrote in 1922 that it “is inconceivable that that we should allow so great a possibility for service, for news, for entertainment .. to be drowned in advertising chatter.”  But those high  principles were quickly overridden when NBC agreed to take $1 million from Pepsodent to sponsor the Amos ‘n’ Andy show.

Not only did Amos ‘m’ Andy brings us radio advertising, it was also the precursor of all future soap operas, sitcoms, and invented prime time. The show broadcast at 7:00pm each evening, and was so popular other businesses — hotels, restaurants, and movie houses — changed their schedules to match the radio show.

Wu tells a riveting story about the development of radio and how it became a personal battle between “General” David Sarnoff of NBC (who wanted to use radio content to sell radio sets) and William S. Paley of the upstart CBS who countered with “quality” content.  But as Wu shows persuasively it was the Third Reich that developed radio into a medium so powerful that “80 million people were deprived of independent thought” and made them “subject to the will of one man.”

After the war, television became the prime attention grabber:

“… the lights were usually turned off for viewing, and there was little or no conversation. One only got us to change the channel. ‘We are our suppers in silence, spilling our food, gaping in awe’ said one woman in 1950.”

Wu covers the first ratings systems (the inventor of which bemoaned their misuse), the invention of the remote control (originally designed to mute commercials), the age of advertising’s Motivational Research, the game show frenzy, and the scandals that ended them).  We may have gotten some classic entertainment, but in return, as Vance Packard’s 1957 masterpiece “The Hidden Persuaders” noted “manufacturers, fund-raisers, and politicians are attempting to turn the American mind into a kind of catatonic dough that will buy, give, or vote at their command.”

With the coming of cable, Fox and others chased audiences they they believed had fallen through the cracks of mainstream network broadcasting. Diversity was the war cry, attention was both more scattered and more available, and advertisers loved it.

Part three of the book deals with “the third screen” — computers and online services.  Wu covers this in depth and tells a good story about how some of the early visionaries hated advertising but, in a myriad different ways, were sucked into showing it everywhere.  Attention became even more ubiquitous:

“by 2000, change had come … Millions of people — soon to be hundreds of millions and then billions — were now spending leisure time logging in, catching up on email, attending to other business, or chatting to strangers.”

Online check-in had become a constant ritual. And each check-in allowed advertisers to reach us, and for the tech giants to know us more intimately than even our lovers.

The book closes by remarking on the “fourth screen”, the mobile phone without which it seems most cannot live. Check-ins are now essentially constant. The mobile phone

“would become the undisputed new frontier of attention harvesting in the twenty-first century, the attention merchant’s manifest destiny. From now on, whither thou goest, your smartphone goes too, and of course the ads.”

Wu quotes Mark Manson:

“This is life now: one constant never-ending stream of non sequiturs and self-referential garbage that passes in through our eyes and out of our brains at the speed of a touchscreen.”

But does any of this matter?  Clearly it does. Wu ends his book with a chapter on the election of Donald Trump as US President.  Trump, he says, is “determined to be a president who rarely, if ever, disappears from the public view.” He cares “maybe most of all about being the centre of national attention and about his ratings.”

One hundred years ago, Edward Bernays wrote that without political advertising, the public “could very easily vote for the wrong man or want the wrong thing, so they had to be guided from above.”  The election of Donald Trump may well prove that quite the opposite is true.

I know I haven’t done justice to what is a marvellously observed, erudite, funny and thorough history of a subject that has come to dominate our lives.  It is well worth the read.

Compton Cowboys: Guinness

September 20, 2017

For a long time now, Guinness has been just as good at producing commercial ads as it has been at brewing beer. Here is their latest effort that exemplifies that.