Sunday, 26 August 2012

America's reluctant hero

I knew back then that it was a momentous occasion. I was ten years of age and this was the first time
my parents had actually allowed me to stay up late in pyjamas and dressing gown to join them and my elder brother around the rented black and white television set. Annoyingly, this wasn't to watch 'The Avengers' or the outrageous 'Till Death Us Do Part', but something far more surreal: a fuzzy art-house type film of a cratered landscape badly choreographed to electronic bleeps and unintelligible American voices.

The moon landing of 1969 was watched on television by a staggering 500 million people worldwide. The immortal words uttered by Neil Armstrong as his boot touched the lunar landscape were his own, and have now become iconic. Though the clunky technology of 1969 was unable to transmit the phrase perfectly. The word 'a' before 'man' was lost in the ether, so 500 million heard the less than perfect: "That's a small step for... man. One giant leap for mankind." Armstrong was sure that he'd said the line in full and computer technology some years later was to prove him right.

More impressively though, Neil Armstrong managed to avert disaster moments before the lunar module touched down. Believing that the craft was heading directly for what looked like an unsafe landing area, he took over the manual controls and landed it safely further afield with no more than 45 seconds of fuel to spare.

Armstrong was originally chosen by NASA management as the commander of the mission on account of his lack of ego, and it's remarkable looking back on his extraordinary achievment that this modest and private man should have so consciously shunned the limelight for so many years following the historic touch-down. And let us not forget the incredible bravery of this three-man crew including Buz Aldrin and Michael Collins. For the risks these three faced were immense, and the chances of never returning to Earth very real.

Yesterday it was announced that Neil Armstrong, the first man to step on the moon, died at the age of 82 due to complications following heart surgery. President Obama paid tribute to his achievement by describing him as "one of the greatest American heroes of all time." It's an epithet that may have made Neil Armstrong shudder. And I suspect that it is this aversion to celebrity that will cement his place in the history books, because if history teaches us anything it's that the world's most reluctant heroes receive the biggest standing ovations, the biggest send-offs, the biggest obituaries; and in Neil Armstrong's case, deservedly so.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

Monday, 13 August 2012

Crappy packaging for fags

First we had the introduction of health warnings followed by the banning of cinema and press advertising. Now the government is looking at following the Australians and introducing standardized plain packaging for all cigarette brands.

The tobacco industry not surprisingly is up in arms. While most people seem to think that it won't make a jot of difference, the fag makers fear the worst. Packaging is, after all, the last vestige of sophistication that this industry can cling on to. If this goes, then surely cigarettes will be sunk forever. Personally, I think they do have grounds for worrying, because image for this lot has always been everything. Though health warnings are now emblazoned in large type, the packaging still looks and feels classy, desirable and expensive; that's because it is. Silk varnishes, foil blocking and embossing, along with the services of leading design agencies, don't come cheap.

Way back in the 80s when I first became interested in advertising, I remember visiting Collette Dickenson Pearce in the Euston Road and being shown the agency showreel on the agency's very own big screen. If memory serves me right there were two cinema commercials for cigarettes. One for Benson and Hedges was shot by Ridley Scott in the Arizona Desert, and featured frogmen opening a giant sardine tin-like cigarette pack in a swimming pool. It was part of the award-winning surreal campaign that never failed to silence popcorn munching audiences at the local flea-pit. The other was equally effective: an amusing spoof testimonial set amid the battle of Rorke's Drift with zulus and redcoats being speared left, right and centre. They were brilliantly effective ads because they made the brands captivating, witty and sophisticated. To young audiences, cigarettes were clearly shown to be cool. And the sales figures corroborated this.

Since the banning of cigarette advertising, the number of teen smokers in the UK has halved. It's a pretty impressive statistic. The anti-smoking lobby believes firmly that this has everything to do with the advertising ban. There are those representing the pro-smoking lobby though who will tell you otherwise. They'll argue that it has more to do with education and the fact that we're all so much better off than we used to be. I don't believe this for a moment. Tobacco companies spent millions on advertising and packaging because they knew full well that it guaranteed their future by making cigarettes look sophisticated to the young.

Interestingly, my 18-year-old daughter takes the view that placing cigarettes in plain brown packaging will give them a kind of cult status in the same way as any banned substances will appeal to those who want to stick two fingers up at the establishment. I suppose it's just possible, but I can't see this having mass appeal. 

I think if I were the minister for health I'd ban the use of the word 'cigarettes' and insist that fag makers used the term 'cancer sticks' instead.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Chicago is my kind of town

Advertising is a funny old business. I should know, I've been employed as a copywriter for more years than I'd care to remember. But one of the perks, if you happen to work for a large international agency, is the opportunity to occasionally work abroad.

Not so long ago I took a business trip at the last minute to Chicago.Our Creative Director's PA who was frighteningly efficient managed to arrange a flight for my working partner and myself to fly American Airlines the next morning, first thing. Better still, when the following morning dawned and my colleague and I shuffled, bleary-eyed, to the check-in desk at Heathrow, we were, for some unfathomable reason, upgraded from Business to First Class. So the pair of us in our tee shirts and jeans traipsed over to the First Class Departure Lounge to take our place among the dapper suited businessmen.

It was a good start to what turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable business trip. This was largely down to the fact that we hadn't been asked to the Chicago office to produce any creative work. Instead we had been invited to take part in an advertising awards scheme. Let me explain: advertising agencies are obsessed with winning industry awards to demonstrate to potential clients and the world at large how brilliantly clever they are at selling stuff in a creative and intelligent way.

Now, as it happens, this rather large global agency for whom I worked (and I won't name names) didn't have a terribly good track record in this department, so not to be outdone, some bright spark in the New York office had suggested the idea of creating an awards scheme just for the agency's own offices around the globe. This way the agency could award itself the awards it so desperately craved. Brilliant.

So there we were, locked in a room with representatives of the creative departments from New York, Paris, Milan, Barcelona and Helsinki, deliberating over a bunch of ads and direct mail pieces which had been submitted by all the offices in the network in the hope of winning one of these fabulous awards. I might add here that the awards themselves had been created at great expense and did look rather splendid.

The very good news, however, was that judging would only take place in the morning, and following lunch, we'd be free to explore the Windy City before flying back home.

As a result, we wasted little time in setting off for the Willis Tower (formerly known as the Sears Tower). From its 103rd floor you can walk around its Skydeck, 1,353 feet up, and take in the most spectacular views of this majestic city of handsome skyscrapers set against the backdrop of the vast Lake Michigan, and the surrounding areas of Illinois, Indiana and Michigan.

Back at street level we headed for the famous Marshall Fields department store (now Macy's). I'm not a keen shopper but this building is well worth a visit. The store can trace its heritage back to 1880 and this lovely building was completed in 1906. On the top floor there is an impressive and rather touching plaque proudly displaying the names of all employees who had completed 50 years of loyal service. The list is remarkably long.

As for those advertising awards, I remember very little indeed.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds