Wednesday, 21 November 2018

It's arguably one of the most exciting and emotive products for advertisers to sell. But when was the last time you saw a great ad about money?

I've been an advertising copywriter for more years than I'd comfortably own up to, and a good proportion of that time - perhaps 25% - has been devoted to the area of financial services. It's an arena known, not for its creativity, so much as its lack of it. It's one of those few sectors that for some curious reason, makes many copywriters go all weak at the knees at the prospect of taking a brief. Yet, we copywriters are always looking for angles on products and services that will enhance the customer’s life in some small way. And money, unlike so many other things in life, really can change our lives. Products like pensions and life assurance, for instance, offer the creative team incredibly powerful and emotive propositions to play with. After all, a yoghurt or chocolate bar can only do so much to make us feel good. A pension, on the other hand, will quite literally affect the quality of our lives for a good 20 years or more. And a life policy will pay for our wives, partners and kids to have a comfortable life, even if we’re not around to enjoy it with them. These are powerful, deeply profound and wholly tangible product benefits that should, one would have thought, lead to powerful and creative advertising campaigns. And yet there are so few memorable financial campaigns one can think of.

Banks have traditionally had sizeable marketing budgets with which to flog their wares, but the commercial that seems to be gracing our screens more than ever at the moment is a banal beach scene in which we see horses galloping through the waves choreographed to equally bland musak. The only attempt at any messaging is conveyed at the end with the words ‘By your side.’ This form of advertising is so devoid of any idea or meaning that you have to wonder what it is that Lloyds Bank is trying to achieve here, other than bringing their logo to life, and having hordes of mindless people adulating it for no apparent reason.

Barclays admittedly has been known to knock out the occasional good commercial. Their current online security commercial isn’t a bad effort. But you have to go back 18 years to see the famous ‘Big’ commercial featuring Anthony Hopkins, which delivered a simple chest-beating message with a certain panache and entirely excusable chutzpah.

The only other decent bank advertising I can recall was HSBC’s ‘The world’s local bank’campaign, which demonstrated the bank’s understanding of global markets with cleverly scripted vignettes of Western businessmen failing to understand the customs of foreign clients when abroad.

In the area of insurance and investment, one struggles even harder to think of good work. Back in the 80s a couple of good friends created a nice TV commercial for Legal & General about the very few investments that hadn't worked out for the company. One involved an oil rig in Mukluk, Alaska that drilled water, and carried the immortal line 'not much luck in Mukluk.' The end line was 'Only 99% certain of getting it right.' It was a brave commercial that gave L&G a human face and arguably made the company stand out from the dross.

Then, of course, there’s the Albany Life press campaign; easily the best press advertising campaign for a life company ever created. The irony is that Albany Life wasn’t a brilliant life assurance company despite its beautifully written and art directed press ads, and the company no longer exists.

Other notable financial advertising campaigns have included Egg, Commercial Union, More Than’s car driving dog, an intelligent press campaign for M&G and a series of well written press ads for Nationwide Building Society back in the ‘80s.

It represents such a tiny drop in a vast ocean of bland communications. So why is this? Personally, I think it’s almost certainly down to the inherent character of these organisations’ marketing departments that tend to err on the side of caution; and let's face it, most ads that do that are infinitely forgettable. From my own experience, most companies in the area of financial services take themselves far too seriously; refuse to let their advertising agencies convey messages that are in any way negative; and view humour as being wholly flippant and something that will denigrate the company’s brand values. There has also been a trend since the late 90s for financial services to pay heed to their design agencies more attentively than their advertsing agencies, which I have never really understood. But I suppose if I were to invest vast sums in a comprehensive set of design guidelines, I'd feel compelled to adhere to these guidelines rigidly and at all costs. The problem is, of course, that such guidelines are so compehensive that they tread on the toes of the advertising agencies by stipulating the brand's tone of voice.

At the end of the day, humour and negativity are, in my view, two of the most valuable weapons in the creative team’s armoury. Take them away and it’s possible to see how we end up with asinine commercials featuring galloping horses and straplines that say absolutely nothing.

Alex Pearl is the owner of Alex Pearl Ltd

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

'First Man'​ - one man's journey into his own personal space

I went to our wonderful local fleapit The Phoenix at the weekend with the scientist in the family, our son, to view 'First Man' directed by Damien Chazelle who gave us 'Whiplash' and 'La La land.'

This is a far more ambitious movie in that it attempts to recreate the late 1960s - a challenging period of American history in which the US struggled with its foreign policy over Vietnam while also desperately trying to win the war with Russia over conquering space.

Against this backdrop, which Chazelle portrays with much authenticity, this film focuses not on the extraordinary human achievement and the triumph of a nation, so much as the rather solitary and moving journey of the narrative's chief achitect, Neil Armstrong.

Armstrong, by all accounts, was a fairly solitary and modest figure who, following his colossal achievement, shrugged off all publicity for a quiet life of academia. His own family described him as 'a reluctant hero.' And it's this side of the moon landing story that Chazelle chooses to show us. Unlike the brazen Buzz Aldrin (how could you not be brazen with a name like that?), Armstrong was a quiet, contemplative man who found it difficult to share his emotions - particularly following the tragic death of his young daughter from a brain tumour. He was the quiet kind of hero that we all like to gun for. But for him, going to the moon wasn't just a way for mankind to gain knowledge, it was a deeply personal and profound journey he felt compelled to make in order to make sense of his life.

Ryan Gosling plays a very credible and restrained Neil Armstrong while Claire Foy produces a very good performance as his wife who is desperately trying to hold the family together and smiling for the cameras, while her husband risks life and limb in the name of science.

This is an intelligent, well crafted film that attempts to throw light on America's 'reluctant hero.' And to a large degree, it succeeds in pulling it off.

Alex Pearl is a freelance writer and author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Chasing the Northern Lights with Tim Peake, Pete Lawrence, Jon Culshaw, Brian Cox, Donald Trump and the late Patrick Moore

The last time I attempted to have a close encounter with the Northern Lights was back in 1990 when my brother and I decided to take a holiday together aboard a Norwegian cargo boat (the cargo being several tons of sardines). Setting sail from Bergen in our thermal underwear (it was March and pretty cold, after all), we were looking forward to the distinct possibility of viewing the Aurora from the ship's deck. What we hadn't quite realised was the fact that majestic fjords are not necessarily plain sailing - particularly at this time of year. This became patently clear on our first day at lunch when on taking our seats in the dining room, we couldn't help noticing that the tables and chairs had been ominously chained to the floor. The rubber place mats on which cutlery and glasses seemed to stick rigidly, were another pretty obvious clue. As our trip along the Norwegian coastline progressed, the motion of the boat slowly but surely began to imitate that of another vessel I had once boarded: the Pirate Ship at Alton Towers. One could just about handle the up and down motion, but once the side to side motion kicked in at the same time, I'm afraid most passengers headed swiftly (or at least as swiftly as one can go with all that movement going on) to the bathrooms located appropriately enough in the bowels of the ship. So when inevitably, the Northern Lights finally appeared to dance frenetically across the night sky, my brother and I had other more pressing engagements to attend to below deck.

It took another 30 years before I'd attempt to catch this elusive natural phenomenon for a second time. And on this occasion it was my wife who had noticed the ad for a trip aboard an Airbus to view the Aurora in the company of none other than Tim Peake, Pete Lawrence The Sky At Night presenter and Jon Culshaw the impressionist and keen astronomer. This special event was being organised as a fundraiser by Aerobility, a charity dedicated to giving those with terminal illnesses and disabilities of any kind, the opportunity to experience the liberating and exhilarating feeling of flying for themselves. It's a charity we know all too well, as Jennifer my wife is a wheelchair user and has taken to the skies several times with Aerobility. We applied there and then for seats for ourselves and our son. (Our daughter would have joined us but was flying to India that same day.) And within days our places had been confirmed, and the trip sold out. We were lucky.

On the day, we set off from home in NW London and arrived at Gatwick's plush Sofitel Hotel in time for a coffee and tea reception followed by introductions in the dining room. Mike Miller-Smith the CEO of Aerobility who is himself a wheelchair user, gave an emotional address about Aerobility's incredible work and played us a short film. We were then treated to a full explanation of the science behind the Aurora by Pete Lawrence, one of the TV presenters associated with The Sky at Night. Lawrence is not only a brilliantly informative speaker, but also witty. Getting your audience to laugh as well as learn is a gift; one Mr Lawrence possesses in spades. Having thoroughly whetted our appetite for this natural spectacle, we were then treated to another visual feast of impressive proportions: lunch. First course was a stunning representation of our solar system laid out in the form of miniature cheeses, an egg yolk and a selection of miniature pickled vegetables. I'm afraid to say I polished off the entire solar system with relish. It was quite delicious; as was the main course: roast beef and Yorkshire pudding alongside an assortment of artistically arranged vegetables. Following petit fours, we were given a swift telescope demonstration and camera workshop by Neil Parker, the former Deputy Director of the Royal Greenwich Observatory. Having digested these useful tips, the main treat of the day was served up with aplomb by Squadron Leader Mike Ling. Being a Red Arrow squadron leader, Ling explained, was something most people found pretty awe-inspiring. But on this occaion he was about to be trumped big time by this afternoon's very special guest. Mr Tim Peake took to the podium like a duck to water. He is a natural speaker and his enthusiasm for his subject is pretty contagious. The atmosphere in that room for the next hour was virtually palpable. His account of his six months on the International Space Station was insightful and totally absorbing. He explained that what little spare time he had to himself, he spent taking photographs of earth from a viewing platform that constantly faced towards our planet. And then he proceeded to show us these remarkable high definition images, which were breathtakingly beautiful. The following 20 minutes was opened up to the floor as Mr Jon Culshaw took a microphone around the room and introduced questions from the floor in the voice of David Dimbleby. Everyone seemed to have questions, but thankfully the children were given priority. One child asked what the food was like on the ISS. Another asked him how he overcame his fears. And another wanted to know what scared him the most. To all these questions, Peake gave thoughtful and detailed answers. The food was rehydratable and could be heated up. And no, it wasn't particularly brilliant. But you just had to get used to it. As for his fears, he acknowledged that this was a very good question. His way of coping with his, was to focus wholeheartedly on his training. It was the only way he could really overcome them. His most scary experience was without any doubt his space walk outside the space station when no more than a single cable separated him from the security of the station and the all-embracing black infinity of outer space. Someone else beat me to a question I was itching to to ask; how long it would take in his view for a manned mission to Mars. He was fairly convinced that such a trip would realistically take place by 2030, but then added that it was also very feasible that the momentum now being created by Elon Musk and Spacex would bring that launch date forward.

The questions could have easily carried on for the entire afternoon, but we were under a tight schedule and it was now time to grab our boarding passes and passports and take the monorail to the exit gate for departure. I can honestly say that this is the first time I have ever heard the following announcement while boarding a plane: "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to your British Airways flight to nowhere."

There were 140 passengers in total - around 20 or so of whom were wheelchair users and needed to be transferred onto a special narrow wheelchair to wheel down the aisle of the Airbus to then be carefully lifted and seated in their seat. This tricky operation was carried out with military precision and grace, and before we knew it, all 140 passengers were comfortably seated and being plied with refreshments. The cabin crew, by the way, were all volunteering their services free to the charity.

Once we were in the air, all the cabin lights were turned off and all the illuminated seat belt signs were blacked out with black tape. It took around 15 minutes for your eyes to acclimatise to the dark. But of course, by doing so, you could enjoy a remarkable view of the stars. The only light was being given out by the moon, which was apparently particularly bright that night. And as we cruised at 30,000 feet above the clouds, we were treated to a commentary by Pete Lawrence who pointed out the stars and their constellations on both sides of the aircraft.

As we approached the coast of the Shetland Isles, the mysterious and very clear Aurora suddenly appeared above the horizon line as a very distinct band of light. According to Pete Lawrence who has wintnessed the phenomenon no fewer than 240 times, this wasn't a spectacular display, but it was certainly very visible. The chance of seeing the Northern Lights from an aircraft are 50:50, so we certainly felt very priviledged to have done so.

So what exactly are the northern lights or aurora? The scientific definition is fairly technical and complex, so without wanting to speak another language, we can define these dancing and swirling lights as countless collisions of electrically charged particles spewed out by the sun into the earth's atmosphere. The lights can be best viewed above the magnetic poles of the northern and southern hemispheres. They are known as the Aurora borealis in the north and Aurora australis in the south.

As the aircraft turned for home, we were served our second meal of the day, courtesy of British Airways. This was followed by after dinner speeches by Mr Donald Trump, Professor Brian Cox, Carl Sagan and Patrick Moore - in the form of the exceptionally talented Mr Jon Culshaw whose extraordinary ability to replicate the precise tone and inflexion of his subjects is breathtaking. It was, I have to say, the perfect ending to a long but very memorable day.

Our thanks go to Aerobility and British Airways for making such a remarkable trip possible, and, of course the fabulous cabin crew and our wonderful speakers. Finally our special thanks must go to Mr Tim Peake whose contribution and presence made this particular trip so very special for everyone.

Alex Pearl is a freelance writer and author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds  Alex Pearl Ltd

Further newspaper links covering this event:
The Sun
The Daily Express
The Daily Mail