The Renaissance of Storytelling

March 30, 2015 / Features

By Alex Reeves

The APA-hosted Advertising Week Europe panel highlighted a simple fact: storytelling will always be relevant.

Advertising conferences can be an exhausting tirade of buzzwords, prophesising and enough tech evangelism to make even the most fresh-faced millennials feel out of touch. This APA-hosted session at Advertising Week Europe came as the perfect antidote to all that. Called The Renaissance of Storytelling, it brought together a talented bunch of troubadours to evangelise for something as old as humanity itself.

APA Chief Executive Steve Davies framed the session well in his introduction. “During what we call the noughties, we were constantly hearing about new tech: in-store TV, beyond the red button, the internet (not that that was a failure) and how it all meant that it was all over for TV programmes,” he said. “We were told to adapt or die, as if we’d come into the office one Monday and find that the whole place had been populated by Martians communicating in some high-tech manner we wouldn’t understand. Without being complacent I think we can say that that hasn’t happened and we can be confident about the future because of that.”

As anyone who’s looked at a screen in the past couple of years will realise, TV drama has become a place where great storytelling can flourish. In spite of what the doomsayers predicted, long-form, master-crafted content is abundant. “It has triumphed over an era where we’re supposed to be watching skateboarding cats on YouTube,” said Steve.

The first speaker of the session was someone central to this renaissance of quality drama. As one of the writers of Danish drama The Bridge, Nikolaj Scherfig understands the importance of storytelling in today’s media landscape. He shared many lessons he’s learnt about spinning the yarn.

He started on how surprising audiences is key to a good narrative. Nobody wants events to unfold exactly as they predict, so think about how to drop a bombshell or two.

Coming from Denmark, who have always considered themselves a small, relatively insignificant country, Nikolaj made it clear that when writing The Bridge, they didn’t want to make something good on a Danish scale. They aimed for something great on a global scale. “Be ambitious about what you want to tell, how you want to tell it and who you are going to compete with,” he said. Having seen the high quality drama coming from American television such as HBO’s expensive productions, he and the team wanted to make something just as good, and with the best cinema talent involved, they weren’t just aiming to compete on the small screen.

Then he moved onto characterisation – for which The Bridge has won significant praise. Nikolaj admitted that, amazingly, their characters were based on clichés of the Swedish and Danish national traits. It’s a brave storyteller who uses such familiarity, but with enough layers added on top of these stereotypes, intrigue was woven into them. “You have to somehow deepen them and put a lot of layers into them,” he said. Thankfully a television series allows more time for such development and with each episode the people in the story become more real.

Nikolaj also noted that it’s worthwhile putting a bit of yourself into characters. He said writing can be therapeutic in this way, and the reality of your feelings and experiences also makes the fictional story more believable.

TV writing was not respected in Denmark 20 years ago, recalled Nikolaj, “it was a joke.” He remembers theatre attracted all the good writers. How the times have changed. Danish television is admired the world over now and it’s all due to the mature, deep storytelling dramas like The Bridge have adopted.

Next up was Peter Souter, Chairman and Chief Creative Officer of TBWA, but also the writer of the television series Married Single Other. His talk began with the point that almost everybody has some desire to tell stories, but hardly anyone writes.

“I believe that everybody has a story in them,” he said. “I’m not sure that there’s a renaissance of storytelling. I think it’s as human as breathing in and out to tell each other a version of what we know.”

He urged everyone to have a go, having done it and succeeding he stressed that the difference between a writer and a non-writer is “a writer writes.”

Quoting William Goldman, he reminded us that storytellers must “give the audience what they want, but not in the way they expect.” Like Nikolaj said, audiences crave surprises and with his adman hat on he paraphrased this again: “You cannot bore people into buying anything!”

All story comes from tension, he said. Nobody’s interested in the straightforward or the expected. He explained how the story of Married Single Other was inspired by the mystery of two kids at his son’s school who lived together as brother and sister, but looked completely different. He eventually discovered the mum of the boy had died and had previously arranged for her husband to move in with her best friend. A pretty unusual, intriguing dynamic, it was fertile soil in which he could sow his storytelling seeds.

Admittedly, it is an extremely personal thing to show a story you’ve written to someone, said Peter. But exposing yourself and then being complemented is one of the most rewarding feelings.

Great advertising feeds on great storytelling, and Peter showed this with two examples of ads he’s worked on – Guinness, Surfer (arguably the greatest ad of all time) and a recent campaign for adidas, Jump for D Rose. Both demonstrated tension in vastly different ways and both were effective ways of telling stories relevant to a product.

Andy Orrick next took to the stage. Chief of Stuff at Rattling Stick, he recounted his shame at messing up the story of the Trojan Horse due to having a stinking cold. His children, who he is working through the Greek myths with, were not compelled. Refusing to let down a story that’s endured for millennia, Andy had another go with some gusto. This time it inspired his kids. They were playing out the story the next day. His point: that stories need to be told well if they are to move audiences.

The remainder of his talk focused on three lessons. First, “story is vital to us”. He stressed that audiences need to make an emotional connection to a protagonist to connect us to the story, that despair is compelling – we are all narrative masochists – that the redemption of happy endings brings the catharsis we crave and that a great story teaches you about the human condition, teaches you something about the world and persuades you of something.

His second lesson was that “we gravitate to the best storytellers”. With the vast choice of media available to us, “none of us tolerate average for long,” he said. But while we hear that attention spans are shorter than ever, people will still wattle down for a 12-hour Game of Thrones marathon. If storytelling is good, we’ll listen. For that reason the best storytellers are worth their weight in gold.

Thirdly, Andy stressed that “the best storytellers respect their audience”. None of the great stories are overly simplistic or patronising, because the great storytellers “are their own cynical as hell, picky as fuck audience.” Great writers write for themselves, he argued, and added we should respect the judgement of great storytellers more rather than deferring to the focus groups and data our age seems to rely upon so heavily.

“Advertising pretends it’s not what it really is these days,” he said. But the truth is it’s not content, entertainment or editorial. “It thinks if it comes in disguise to your party you won’t notice what’s behind its mask. What you’d prefer is if it rocked up with a nice bottle, talked on your level, was honest, then told you a brilliant story that made you piss yourself laughing. Then you might give it some attention. You might even buy the thing it’s selling, because that’s still the point of all of this, isn’t it?”

Ultimately, advertisers need to act like Andy reading the ancient myths to his children. Because audiences love to be challenged and compelled, not patronised and placated.

Although short on time by this point, Chris Curtis, Editor of Broadcast summarised the lessons we’d learnt. High-end drama is in vogue in British television, he noted, and we should all be thankful for the fact that producers and broadcasters in this country have paid attention to the success of HBO and the Scandinavian noir. This means we’re finally getting the long stories about deep characters, devoid of cheap tricks, that audiences deserve.

The best storytelling in 2015 is rich, ambitious and respectful to its audience. Why shouldn’t advertising be as well?


Watch the whole session here.

Rory Sutherland Interviews Jimmy Carr: Full Transcript

March 26, 2015 / Features

By The Beak Street Bugle

Yesterday's full, unedited conversation between Rory Sutherland and Jimmy Carr from Advertising Week Europe.

Advertising clever man Rory Sutherland took to the Advertising Week Europe stage yesterday to interview Jimmy Carr. It turns out the funny man off the telly used to work in advertising and in the session, titled It's The Way You Tell 'Em, spoke a lot of disarming truth about comedy, advertising and making advertising funnier.

We thought the conversation was so good, in fact, that we've transcribed the whole session. It's a long read, but full of gems.

Annette King: Good afternoon everyone. Welcome to the very first ever event that Ogilvy & Mather has sponsored here at Advertising Week Europe. It’s called ‘The Way You Tell ‘Em’ and it’s going to be hosted by our Vice Chairman Rory Sutherland in conversation with our very special guest Jimmy Carr.

They’re going to spend the next 45 minutes – Rory, 45 minutes [stern look]. You’ve all seen him speak before so you know I had to say that. There’s a clock there and it flashes when you need to stop. They’re going to spend the next 45 minutes discussing and debating the origins of humour in comedy and the role that they do and that they should play in advertising today.

David Ogilvy was famously fond of the Claude Hopkins quote that ‘people don’t buy from clowns,’ since he saw the art of selling things through advertising as a serious business, though he did soften in later years on this front, having seen some evidence to the contrary. I wonder what his point of view would be if he were on the stage with us today. So with that question in mind, over to you Rory and Jimmy for what I’m sure will be a riveting 45 minutes.

Rory Sutherland: Just to make you even more worried I’ve just bought one of these Behavioural Economics watches, which is called a Slow Watch. It’s got one hand and it only goes round once every 24 hours. So it’s completely relaxing because you just go ‘Oh look, I’m only about three degrees late!’ Whereas actually, a minute hand spooks you. That’s going far too fast.

Jimmy Carr: Well let’s definitely focus on that. We’ve got 45 minutes and that’s got literally fuck all to do with anything. I’m interested in Annette’s opening remark there that people don’t buy from clowns. I wonder was he in a McDonald’s when he had his revelation? ‘Maybe they do. Maybe Ronald has something here.’ People do buy from clowns don’t they?

RS: What always mystifies me a bit is a lot of kids find clowns deeply spooky.

JC: There’s actually a special name for people that are afraid of clowns. They’re called ‘mummy’s little benders.’

Clowns have to register their facial design to make sure that other sex offenders don’t use it. Fact.

Come on. Advertising, comedy, quick, questions.

RS: I’ve failed on my first aim which was to make the whole session completely unamusing, rather like that guy that wanted to host Neil Armstrong on a chat show an not mention the moon landings once. So I’ve failed in that bit.

But you’ve written a book, which I’ll plug, even though there are very few copies left on Amazon – The Naked Jape, with Lucy Greeves, who’s a copywriter. You were actually an advertising man yourself, briefly, and then you went client side because you- actually you might like to tell us why!

JC: Because it was much easier. When I was working for an advertising agency people were phoning me up and asking me for shit. I thought ‘who are these people?’ ‘What do you mean you want tickets for a Grand Prix? I want to go!’

RS: Interesting that I never spotted that.

JC: It’s more fun being a client. And marketing is more sort of- I worked for Shell, briefly, in marketing. It’s an easy job working for an oil company in marketing because have you got a car?

RS: Yeah.

JC: There’s a little thing that tells you when you’re out of petrol – my job done! You’d best get some more.

RS: I suppose what fascinates me is that first of all I think there is a cultural war on comedy and that, as you quite rightly said earlier, it comes from both sides. You have a kind of Mary Whitehouse brigade who don’t want you to say things and you equally have pressure from the left. My view has always been that there’s a huge value in comedy in that creating a space or a context in which people can say what they like is just hugely important to any kind of social organisation. If you think about it the fool in King Lear is the only person who’s talking any sense, for example. That court jester role.

JC: There’s real example of that comedy adding value to society and being able to say the unsayable. The Great Wall of China was meant to be painted and it was the Emperor’s fool that made jokes about it. Because he was bankrupting the nation building a wall and he wanted to paint it and the fool went ‘well, he’s a fucking idiot.’ And the Emperor didn’t. And it saved them as a nation. It’s a weird thing where comedy can have that.

It’s interesting the idea that political correctness now- especially in advertising. Advertising’s in danger of getting a bit boring. There’s fewer funny adverts being made than there were and it feels like that’s a very – I don’t know why I should particularly feel [this] – but Britain does comedy particularly well I think. In TV and film and stand-up. I think we’re good at it. And we don’t seem to do as much in advertising. I think partly it is that thing of the right-wing Mary Whitehouse kind of brigade ‘ban this filth’, but also the left wing saying ‘well you can’t say that.’ I think it doesn’t leave the client much room to go ‘I don’t want to offend anyone.’ I don’t think they should worry about offending people.

RS: I met Jennifer Jacquet, who’s the world’s leading expert on shame at NYU, and she said one of the problems is-

JC: You met her? What was the context there? What had you done?

RS: Actually, a very good question. One of her points is that being outraged is just too cheap. 30 years ago you had to buy a stamp, you had to paint placards, organise a protest. Now you have these electronic means of communication, which just allow you to create synthetic outrage, effectively.

JC: Yeah. That’s a very interesting point actually because it’s also that thing – it’s OK to offend someone, but it’s OK to be offended. That’s fine. It’s a weird thing when people are offended on behalf of someone else, which I don’t think counts. I think it’s bullshit. I think when people go ‘well I get that that’s just a joke and that’s designed to make people laugh and release endorphins and build rapport. I get that, but I don’t think those fucking idiots will get it so I’m offended on their behalf.’ You just think that’s the most patronising thing in the world.

RS: What’s also interesting about that is that what you’re doing when you do this is you’re playing a status game, which is saying ‘I’m a high-status person who understands. These people need my protection. Which is automatically elevating yourself above the people you’re claiming to defend. And there’s something slightly kind of game-theoretical about it, which is a bit nasty I think. But it’s always done with the appearance of being fantastically well intentioned.

JC: In comedy, if you think about the intent of it, rather than if there’s offence or it’s about something that feels transgressive or taboo, the intent of all jokes is the same. My favourite quote about comedy is ‘a joke is the shortest distance between two people.’ When you think about what all jokes are saying, it’s the same thing. It’s ‘I like you and I want you to like me.’ But it’s an awkward thing.

Especially, I think men are very bad at bonding. I think the reason men tell more jokes socially is because they’re bad at going ‘I really love you, man.’

RS: That’s quite unnerving.

JC: They’re very weird about that so that’s what you’re doing when you tell someone a joke. I think lots of people have that relationship with fathers or brothers, where they’re a bit emotionally stunted and they feel like if I tell a joke then- That’s the reason comedy DVDs, I think, were such a popular present – because they were easy to wrap and guys could go ‘I like this and I like you and you’ll like that and that’s our thing.’ It’s a lovely thing to share and it builds social cohesion. And really that’s where I think it relates to advertising because it’s about trying to build a group. If you have a funny advert and people laugh at it then they feel that’s their thing.

RS: To form a group you need to have one thing in common, but that thing can be pretty arbitrary. So if you share a sense of humour or whatever you will automatically bond regardless of other differences separate you.

JC: I think that’s an odd thing with being a comedian on television. Obviously, not everyone likes you but the people that do come up to you on the street or in bars and shops or whatever and there’s a familiarity there because people assume that you’re a friend. It’s not like – people lose their shit when they meet film stars or singers. I could never do that. People come up to me and go ‘here’s one for ya’’ and tell me a joke. It makes the world a very friendly place, being a comedian, and I’m amazed advertising doesn’t use that more because you feel very well disposed to anything that makes you laugh.

RS: I read an interesting insight the other day, which was that if you want to accelerate the adoption of electric cars, the guy who’ll do it isn’t George Monbiot or Al Gore. It’s Jeremy Clarkson.

JC: Not this week. He’s got a lot on his plate!

RS: Because if you want to change people’s minds in a way that doesn’t create resentment or grievance then you can use humour in a way that is in a sense what you might call- If you take The Economist advertisement ‘”I never read The Economist” Management trainee. Aged 42.’ Which was the first Economist ad. If you write down the proposition of that it’s pretty odious. It’s ‘unless you read this magazine, you will be a loser in business.’ And no one can actually say that. But make it funny and you’re allowed to say something which no one resents, creates no offence or pushback.

JC: Is there a world if they tried to do that now as their fist advert, someone would go ‘well actually there’s a lot of very junior people who are a little bit older and actually you’re kind of offending them.’

RS: Yeah. They’re called advertising planners. They tend to be the voice of the Guardian reader within the agency. But even within an agency. I came to the conclusion after 26 years working in advertising that the only way to run advertising agencies actually is you create a corporate culture where you can say stupid things and still be promoted. If those stupid things are interesting or they lead somewhere or whatever.

JC: That certainly explains your role here.

RS: It certainly does! But it was only after 25 years in advertising I found myself in other corporate cultures. If you take the civil service, if you say one thing that’s remotely silly it’s basically career death.

JC: It’s an interesting thing though, in advertising. I don’t know what it’s like to work in an advertising agency now, but it’s got to be 15, 16 years ago now when I was last in one – you had a lot of breakout rooms. There’s a lot of ping-pong and foosball being played but no space to say interesting things. And that would be a more interesting space in an advertising agency, where we’ve got one room where we can slag off our clients. One room to go ‘there fucking idiots at Ford. Why won’t they let us make a good commercial.’

RS: There is an interesting thing. If you take quite a lot of the great advertisements produced. If you take Apple’s, for example, Think Different, it actually started as a practical joke. They had a fairly boring campaign which featured effectively living people. And it said ‘Think Different’ and you had to have Richard Branson and it’s kind of alright.

JC: I think most adverts feature living people.

RS: I think someone as a joke put up Hitler or Stalin or someone like that. And obviously you’re not going to do ‘Think Different’ with Stalin because that’s probably not very Apple, but somebody else then went and started putting up Hitchcock and Gandhi and then produced something famous. So there’s this element in a lot of mental progress that you’ve got to climb Mount Silly before you can get to the bright, sunlit uplands beyond.

JC: It’s an interesting thing with the creative process as well. That idea that you have to be able to say anything. There can’t be any bad ideas in that room. It is that Walt Disney thing of having that creative space where you can do anything and then another space where you think about ‘actually, is that a good idea?’ Maybe that’s what planners are actually for – stopping you from doing something too stupid.

RS: It’s actually a significant problem because when a solution to something is seemingly trivial, and sometimes it is – Edward De Bono thought that the solution to peace in the Middle East was Marmite. I’m not making that up. He thought it was due to a zinc deficiency.

JC: Surely a mezzanine floor is the answer to the Middle East. More space. Solved that - let’s move on.

RS: Start with the easy ones. Would you more or less take that to such an extreme then that you say ‘this is comedy. If it is funny and if it is clearly said in a comedic context anything goes. There is no line. No censorship. No restriction.’

JC: Yeah. You either believe in freedom of speech or you don’t. That strikes me as the thing. And even if you allow- and the Daily Mail, they’re very good at doing what they do. Their job in society is being outraged and they’re fucking brilliant at it. They will take any story and go ‘oh my God! I’m shocked. I’m going to sit down and have some sweet tea. My God. I think I might feint.’ But actually being offended is not that bad is it? You just go ‘ooh I don’t like that.’ It’s just a fancy way of saying ‘I don’t like it.’ I do. It’s kind of OK. I’m of the opinion that it’s not for everyone. There’s no universal comedy audience, but there’s an audience for that kind of humour. There’s an audience for Frankie Boyle saying very extreme things and there’s an audience for Mrs Brown’s Boys. And they’re absolutely valid. They scratch the same itch. They make people laugh.

RS: You’ve said in the past that in some ways it’s rather like your sexuality – your sense of humour is something you’re sort of born with. You don’t have much choice over what you find funny.

JC: I don’t think you’ve got any choice. You [the audience] work in the advertising industry, so probably you’d like to watch QI and find it brilliantly funny and witty or something on Radio 4 and think that’s brilliant and fun and witty; and some of you like Mrs Brown’s Boys and feel a secret shame that you like very broad comedy. Your sense of humour so chooses you.

The best example of it I can think of is the cognitive dissonance of a very edgy joke. And by that I mean if I tell a very edgy joke.

RS: Go ahead.

JC: No. It’s not the time or the place. But I’m back here at 11. Good luck everyone.

But if you tell a very edgy joke sometimes you’ll get a laugh first and then you’ll notice 20 people in the first three rows put a hand up to their mouth and what’s happening is the laughter is like a reflex. You laugh so quickly at something and then your conscious mind kicks in and goes ‘what the fuck are you doing?’ and you try and throw it back in. So sometimes the best reaction to a joke is a laugh and then a sharp intake of breath. But you laugh first because that sense of humour is a reflex you on a very pure level. I think it does relate to sexuality. I think it is that raw. You don’t choose what turns you on… You’re a very attractive man. I didn’t want to have to say that.

RS: It’s OK. I’m used to it.

It’s an interesting question because you have something there which is patently a tool for- there’s a very interesting book in which Daniel Dennett said that the very origin of humour is that the brain needs to have an error correction device, so that when you spot incongruity, in order for us to be encouraged to remove those errors we need to have an incentive. So you’d have an orgasm, which is an incentive for men to not spend all their time playing Call of Duty.

JC: Yeah, that was the original Darwinian theory.

RS: It kind of was like Call of Duty.

JC: That’s why we have opposable thumbs as well.

Well it’s interesting what comedy does from a Darwinian perspective. It rewards linguistic ability and building groups, ultimately. And that’s what your industry is trying to do. You’re trying to build a group that are into your thing. It’s a great way of mediating conflict in a non-violent way. Humour dissipates conflict a lot of the time. It also rewards noticing difference. So if you’re on the savannah and you spot a leopard’s tail, the ‘aha’ moment and the ‘haha’ moment are pretty similar.

A lot of comedy is about tension and that tension being released. That’s the reason why I think taboo and transgressive, edgy comedy works very well because you’ve got a lot of tension around those subjects anyway. There’s always a lot of tension around sex in most societies, so when you get that tension when someone talks about that openly you get a release and that release is a laugh. It always works in the same sort of way.

RS: Dennett does this linguistic analysis which is in a surprising number of languages the word ‘funny’ meaning humorous and the word ‘funny’ meaning strange – it’s the same word, which is quite interesting.

JC: Not to get too boring but all jokes work in the same way. So the set-up of any joke sets up an assumption. It makes you make an assumption in the set-up to the joke that you find is erroneous in the punch line. They all work in the same way. It’s very boring when you-

RS: So even that business of appearing in front of a small baby and then pretending to hide?

JC: Yeah. It’s a suddenly revealed, previously concealed fact. It’s how jokes work. They all work in the same way and they’re just endlessly pleasing to us. It’s just difference and you clock that and the endorphins are our minds rewarding us.

RS: It’s rewarding us for noticing the thing. So it’s interesting here. You’ve patently got a mechanism, which in terms of both forming groups, which is fairly essential to advertising.

JC: And humanity! To a lesser extent.

RS: Then you have also changing people’s minds, or allowing people to change their minds without creating resentment or a feeling of loss. What’s interesting about it is that no one suggests there should be – not that we’d want a Ministry of Humour, but it does occur to me that actually British humour may be a sort of competitive advantage. Having a culture like this-

JC: Well you get to that thing of where would we be without a sense of humour? Germany. I think we value humour above a lot of nations. Not being able to take a joke is almost like the worst thing you could say about someone. ‘He can’t take a joke’ or ‘he’s a bit humourless’. It just feels like ‘he’s a dick.’ Whereas there are cultures where it’s OK to not have a particularly well-developed sense of humour.

RS: Now [name garbled], who does translation of advertising into lots of different languages, he makes the point – I’m not sure he’s right entirely – but he says that it’s only in Britain or the Anglo-sphere and the Nordic countries, and also in Jewish culture, where humour is associated with being intelligent. In Germany you can be funny, but it’s basically associated with being ‘Mike Hunt’s [sic] off his trolley’, basically the office clown. The idea that it actually correlates with intelligence is an Anglo-Judaic thing. This is the problem with making advertising funny – if you had to produce an ad for, literally, not only different languages but completely different cultures, there’s a hell of a lot that doesn’t translate, simply because it depends on shared consciousness to start with, for example.

JC: Yeah. And clowning is a different area, which I’m not an expert in. But certainly linguistically, we’re very blessed with the English language. That seems to be what drives comedy.

RS: Yeah. My German friends think we’re cheating.

JC: We’ve got a noun and an adjective in the right place to be funny and there’s lots of words that have double meanings. It just seems to lend itself to comedy. But I’m always amazed when I travel, when people learn English they get English comedy. I was in Iceland the last couple of days doing shows and the standard of English there is very good and they all seem to get the comedy. There’s something inherent in English, I think, that lends itself. It’s a great thing when you’re learning the language, when you travel round Europe doing shows, people get to a level and they sort of really know when they’ve learnt a language when they get a joke in it.

RS: Henning Wehn of course is a fantastic case. Scandinavians basically share our sense of humour at least while they’re speaking in English. The Dutch do as well. Also there are some strange things in that the Pythons just wrote off the idea of going to the United States at all. They just said once you’ve created Monty Python, the idea of taking this to America was something they didn’t even contemplate. Because they just said the idea was so ridiculous. And no one is more surprised than them when the whole thing – it was probably more of a college cult thing there than it was mass, but it is surprising how humour can travel quite unexpectedly.

JC: I think advertising maybe suffers from too much analysis. Too many people going ‘they won’t get this’ [One person claps enthusiastically]. Thank you. That’s that planner that was recently fired.

RS: Also of course you have the disadvantage that you have to get the thing perfect before you fire.

JC: In my business we have writing rooms, so if we’re writing a show that’s it for the week and you can write jokes, you can reverse engineer, you can come to the joke and then think. We have to get it past like one level of a producer. We have the producer in, pitch them the jokes and then go ‘alright, we’re going to do that in front of the audience’ and that’s it. And when I do stand-up I don’t have that even. All I have is – Lenny Bruce said ‘the audience is a genius’ and what he meant by that is the audience – I’ve been a comedian about 16 years and not everyone likes it but I’m pretty good at writing jokes, but I don’t know whether it’s funny until I tell an audience. You get a musician and they can play the violin and even if they’re on their own it’s still music. I don’t know if it’s a joke until I tell an audience and they laugh. It’s weird with advertising. It’s like you have to jump through so many hoops so as an advertising agency you then have to go to pitch to the client and then the client has to go to corporate. So when you get a funny advert out, it’s such an achievement. Because you’ve got such huge feedback. And then you have to see whether it affects sales in a good way. I’m so blessed that my feedback loop is almost immediate. If I say something and it gets a laugh, great, and if it doesn’t I’ll say something else.

RS: I read Stuart Lee’s book recently and he says that he will tweak the structure and content of a joke repeatedly in front of an audience until he gets it just right. There was something about Gary Lineker being a velvet owl or something. But he would experiment.

JC: Yeah. You do that and it is that thing. Lenny Bruce was right – the audience is a genius. Not only do they decide what is and isn’t funny, but they also regulate comedy. You don’t need the Mary Whitehouse crew or the Guardian telling you what you can and can’t say. An audience will tell you. If you go too far with a joke an audience will just [stand in] stony silence. And if you get it right they’ll laugh and be teased but not offended and it works. They regulate what you can and can’t say by definition.

RS: What happens if you just have a complete disaster and bomb for a short time. What’s the best thing you can do?

JC: Listen. I think we’re doing OK. Don’t panic is the first thing. We’ll open it to questions if it goes really badly. It doesn’t really happen in that sense. If they don’t like you they’re not going to like you. They’re not going to change. There’s no way to be someone else entirely. That’s all you’ve got.

RS: And you have those occasions?

JC: No. Very rarely.

RS: So tell me how you got started. So you were at Shell, working in marketing?

JC: I just started doing gigs. I went to the Edinburgh festival, did lots of shows. I just liked it. I like the kind of circus of comedy. It’s a really fun world to be in because we’ve got nothing. We’re the lowest rung of the entertainment ladder. We’d like to be in showbusiness but we’ve got no skills. Jokes are things that dads tell to kids that are being too loud in the back of a car on a long journey to kill time. It’s just ‘alright. I’m here. Loads of people have turned up. Argh. Here’s one for ya’’

RS: So in your spare time while you were working at Shell you’d go on-

JC: Yeah. I’d go out and do gigs and I thought ‘I’ll go and do this. I’ll go and give it a go.’ It was like a quarter-life crisis. And it was before, really, the big comedy boom. There’s been a big boom recently. And I think party that’s the changing world of media the past couple of years – the idea that people don’t watch television as much anymore, or if they do watch television, they certainly watch content, but they watch it on their computer or their phone. I think people really crave going out and having an experience in a room. Being part of a collective is a really fun thing so that kind of event driven.

RS: So like music? Recorded music sales fall; live events grow.

I’m intrigued also. There used to be a great thing in comedy that one of the problems was you wanted to go on television to do stand-up because obviously it made your name. The problem was you’d burn through material very rapidly. Does that problem still exist?

JC: Not really. Generating material is quite easy for me. You go and see some people’s comedy shows and there’s a narrative arc across a 40-minute routine, which is great. They’re building a statue from marble. I’m making something from Lego. It’s like 300 jokes in a row, so it’s just brick by brick, building up some gags. It’s a piece of piss. It’s easy.

RS: Someone said they wanted to know about your early childhood. I know you said your mother was the funniest person you ever knew.

JC: Yeah she was very funny. Very sort of – she would say the unsayable a lot. Yes she was really funny.

RS: Did you have an inkling of this in early life?

JC: No I’m always very suspicious of people who know what they want to do when they’re 12. I doubt many people when they’re 12 go ‘I want to be an advertising planner. It’s the best thing ever. I really want to drill down into these demographics. Basically, ABC1s, I think, are the market.’

It’s a weird thing. I sort of fell into it, I think, arse backwards and it’s been really fun. And TV, people think that’s the aim – that’s where we want to be. Actually live stand-up is what you do for a living and everything else is gravy. That’s the job and most people I know that are comedians think of themselves as journeymen. So you’re not trying to get anywhere or do anything. You always get asked in interviews ‘what next?’ and you think actually this is fine.

RS: So it’s a kind of craft thing and you practice the craft.

JC: Yeah. Like being a musician. It’s just a fun life.

RS: You described yourself as a ‘plastic Paddy’, which is your Irish background.

JC: I always say I look like this because my dad’s Irish and my mum’s Roger Federer. I suppose ‘plastic Paddy’ is a fair term.

RS: Coming from Wales, you actually defended this very reasonably-

JC: You’re Welsh are you?

RS: Yeah.

JC: I like that joke-

RS: Go on then.

JC: One of my best friends is a Welsh guy and I asked him how many sexual partners he’d had in his life and started to count, then he fell asleep.

RS: But that refers to the North Welsh. Let me make that very clear.

JC: Yeah, sure. In Cardiff you’re too busy fucking your sister.

There you are. Those jokes. I’m not really sure at what stage that becomes an offensive thing.

I think one of my favourite jokes just in terms of the form of it. And it’s not that funny but I really love the format. It’s an Irishman walks into a library and says ‘fish and chips, please’ and the librarian goes ‘this is a library.’ He goes I’m sorry [whispering] ‘fish and chips, please.’ It’s a brilliant, crazy logic. And as much as you can reverse engineer comedy and you can analyse it and go ‘how that was written was they started off with the punchline and worked back’, sort of like the same way you’d write a murder mystery – you start knowing who did it an then you take away enough elements so that it creates a story. You can reverse engineer a joke but you never come up with something brilliant like that. You come up with something that’s very serviceable and fun, but really funny jokes have to be a little moment of inspiration.

RS: There is a kind of formula thing, which is knock-knock jokes or light bulb jokes, probably started fairly feeble and they’ve just become a thing on which people riff. So you get the occasional thing where there’s a formula. This is the great thing about dissecting a joke – you make a horrible mess and the frog dies. That actually there’s some element that- the peculiar thing about humour is it’s entirely about the reaction it creates.

JC: It’s interesting when it relates to advertising though, because the kind of comedy that I’m talking about – mainly one-liners – that is the kind of thing that I do. There is a premise that you can’t hear a one-liner more than once because the surprise is such an important part of it. And I don’t think that is true. Actually the funniest ad on TV at the moment I think is the P&O advert that Rob Brydon does. I think it’s brilliantly done. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny, it’s just funny and it’s charming and actually if you see it three times in a day it’s not annoying. It’s a weird level. They just pitched the level absolutely right.

I think often the reason advertising shies away from comedy is they go ‘we could spend all this money on an ad and want it to run for a year. People are going to get bored of the joke.’

RS: But they don’t get bored of the joke.

JC: But I get it. The John Smith’s or whatever – if you do a series of ads that have got the same sort of theme and they rotate, it’s really nice.

RS: It’s hard to do, actually. The comedy of something that makes it rewatchable, it’s not exactly the same as greatness, is it? So I’ve never had the urge to watch Citizen Kane again, but I can watch Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – I’ve probably watched that 15 times. The same quality applies to jokes. I don’t know if anyone’s read P. G. Wodehouse, The Clicking of Cuthbert.

JC: I think I speak on behalf of everyone when I say no, I haven’t. Have you met people? I mean I’ve read The Huffington Post.

RS: Well it’s a short story that is so good that I can read that several times a year and probably still do. There was this thing that Douglas Adams used to do. He would dissect Wodehouse’s style, take a paragraph and just spend ages working out what makes it so funny and try and work that out.

You made a point about obviously there’s the brevity thing. There’s the thing about, what is it? I’m not gay, unless from Newcastle and by gay means ‘owns a coat’.

[The audience don’t react]

JC: That’s a very good example. I can make that funny, whereas you just fucking slaughtered that. Jesus fucking wept!

RS: But the peculiar thing is the extent to which the repeat of an ad is – show the Kronenbourg ad if you’ve got it up there. 

JC: It would be funnier if he didn’t look like a farmer. He looks too much like a farmer now.

RS: The interesting thing about that though is that little facial expression at the end that more or less says ‘you and I, the audience, will engage in a conspiracy in this mild act of deception’. The first thing is the extent to which humour is so executionally dependent that two people can tell an identical joke and it’s hysterical in one set of hands and dire in the other.

JC: Yeah. I think that’s the reason that someone like John Lloyd, who is a brilliant commercials director, did all the Barclaycard stuff with Rowan Atkinson. Especially if you’ve only got 30 seconds to get your message across, every frame counts. And if you get a brilliant comedic director you can get it and if you get someone who’s kind of only OK or an editor that’s not brilliant. You’re absolutely right. The execution is everything when you’ve only got that amount of time. Also, it’s amazing how much you can do in an advert. It’s amazing how much you can do in 30 seconds.

RS: That tough brevity thing. One of the problems, I think, with global advertising is that you could do a hell of a lot in 30 seconds and have a lot of common cultural reference, which people would immediately understand. So an awful lot of the content effectively doesn’t need to be said. What gets more difficult is if you assume you have this completely diverse audience so more or less everything needs to be explained. That makes the whole thing more difficult.

JC: You talk about the global thing. Another thing is that humour’s hardly used at all really with global branding. When you talk about your IBMs and Apples and things. It seems really anodyne and – I realise they’re trying to create brands and have been tremendously successful, but there’s no personality there. When you talk about personality brands, I think humour’s a key part of that. Adverts can be funny but brands tend to be very serious and stuck up and cold.

RS: I think a little bit of it is a financial thing, which is the proportion of money spent in advertising on categories like beer or cigars, or whatever, which were historically the funniest. The assumption was people buy this product out of what you might call the discretionary part of their wallet, which is ‘this is money I’m spending to have a laugh’ and therefore the advertising should do the same. And those are a smaller and smaller part of overall advertising on TV, dwarfed by things like insurance comparison websites, mobile phone networks – a whole bunch of categories that didn’t exist when I was a kid. That doesn’t help, I think. Some of those categories manage to be fairly funny. The meerkats are a pretty good example of taking a category which was not comedy gold to begin with.

JC: I’m amazed mobile phones haven’t gone down that road more. It seems like mobile phone adverts are always about ‘yoot culture’. Really?

RS: [O2’s] ‘Be more dog’ is probably an example of something a little bit British.

JC: I think they could make more of an effort. I’ll be honest.

RS: There is something that’s becoming a bit earnest and worthy about the whole commercial world and it’s hard to challenge it. I find it just a little bit upsetting the extent to which there’s very little wit in press advertising. I used to buy magazines largely to read the ads because the agency CDP at the time had probably produced most of the best ones.

JC: It’s an odd thing because it’s happened just recently with the online commercials or the ones that you guys make for your showreels. The famous VW ad that they made which wasn’t sanctioned by VW. Show that.

JC: That is a brilliant ad.

RS: And yet that’s not an advert. It was made by an aspiring creative team, I think. Certainly not sanctioned by Volkswagen. The interesting thing about that is I suspect in the 1970s they would have run that ad. There is an element of corporate cowardice that’s come about which is that more or less anything interesting you say will offend somebody. That somebody will now have the means to complain, make a fuss-

JC: I think maybe let’s not suggest ‘let’s get ISIS in more ads’. But it seems there’s another thing which is going on now which is online media – the idea of people watching clips and the fact that you can talk direct to people in that. Broadcasting’s gone. It’s that narrowcasting where you go ‘where that audience for VW are young people that will take the joke.’ But it gets the message across brilliantly.

RS: You can’t argue with it being on brief.

JC: Often another thing that’s quite annoying about funny adverts is when they’re just funny and you go ‘what’s it for?’ There’s nothing that ties it in.

RS: There’s another convention. I don’t know what the reason for this is but no brand, virtually, in the UK will ever produce advertising slagging off a competitor brand. It’s just a kind of unwritten law.

JC: Supermarkets, I think, started doing it, but it’d be good if they started going ‘Aldi? You’re having a laugh. They’re only there to keep the scum out of Lidl.’

RS: A large part of humour depends on mild challenge or rudeness. It’s difficult to be humorous and be nice. It’s one of the funny things, that eventually these people believe that humour, to an extent, is kind of what you might call harmless aggression. It’s almost a contradiction of terms – a means to challenge someone while not actually starting a fight. But there is a degree of- all humans to an extent – there are exceptions – but a hell of a lot of funny humour is actually nasty to somebody.

JC: Ultimately, if you start trying to please everyone in comedy you’ll end up going ‘well someone’s father probably died crossing a road, looking for a chicken.’ It’s going to happen at some point.

RS: Like one of the old Benny Hill comedy gags of all time. There was an advertisement Barclays ran about four years ago, which shows someone effectively getting a bee trapped in their clothing and having to divest themselves of clothes and jump in a lake. And it was taken off the air because it was deemed to be offensive to people who have bee sting allergies.

JC: I think bee sting allergies is very much a thinning of the herd. It’s like being allergic to peanuts – fuck ‘em.

It’s a weird thing when you say that and people thing ‘well this child, ah.’ You can’t take that as a joke. That seems crazy to me. It’s sort of an insane thing. I don’t think advertising helps itself. Also, how many complaints do you need to have to have an ad taken off television?

RS: It’s a pretty small number. A large percentage of them come from competitor companies.

[An audience member says it could be one]

JC: It could be one complaint to get that taken off? That’s got to change hasn’t it? That just seems insane that someone could come and say ‘I didn’t like it’. I’m amazed more competitors aren’t making those calls.

RS: Emphatically, they do. I know that. Quite a few complaints are written from the Marketing Director of an opposing company’s lover’s address or something like that. It happens quite a bit. It’s pure mischief making.

JC: Oh. Good!

RS: This is something that needs to be discussed more widely because the right to offend people in some way and also the right engage in conversation with your friends which can’t be deemed offensive by some third party who isn’t engaged in the conversation is another thing.

JC: People are trying to mediate that at the moment. It’s a weird thing where I could say something on Twitter that you couldn’t. I could make a joke about a bomb on an airplane because there’s a delay. I could be annoyed about that and make a joke and that would be fine because of what I do for a living. If any of you did that I think you’d probably do jail time. That’s the slightly mad thing. But people are only getting used to that now – the idea that their online profile is in the public domain. The private world’s getting smaller and smaller.

RS: Yes. And there’s an argument that Twitter should be judged by the light of private conversation even though it’s public. One of the things you notice – I’ve got a very interesting metric, which is if you tweet something slightly controversial on Twitter that’s funny, you get a hell of a lot of favourites and no retweets, which is the quantitative demonstration of cowardice. ‘I can favourite this and that’s fine. If I retweet it I might get HR on my back.’

JC: I think getting back to advertising, it seems we haven’t questioned whether humour is a very good way to sell things. The premise of this conversation is should you be allowed to joke in advertising or say more edgy things in adverts or take a brand to another place and make it more sort of a well-rounded character with a sense of humour, but the premise is that’s always going to be a sort of good idea. I don’t know if people buy into that or not – if humour is a good way of selling. Because that’s ultimately what you’re doing. You’re trying to sell stuff, right?

Some people are goin ‘eeeh. It’s a bit more than that. We’re building rapport with 3rd party advocacy.’ Fuck him up.

RS: Actually you probably need to say ‘engagement’ and ‘branded content’ as well.

JC: It seems to work even better. If you’re trying to get someone to buy bread from Aldi, it strikes me that comedy’s not the best way to do it. Just ‘20p. Bread. You like toast don’t you? Fucking use this. Toast it.’ You don’t need comedy there. So much of marketing and advertising is about brand building and trying to create a person and if you can’t use humour there I think you’re really up against it.

RS: I think people undoubtedly personalise brands. We don’t like people without a sense of humour but somehow we’re OK with brands that don’t have one. Which seems odd. I suppose it leads to the diminishing of personality at some level.

JC: I always wondered why they never bring people into it- I’m not touting for work here, but I’m always amazed they never bring comics in. That advertising agencies never go ‘we’ll get a comedian to write the line on that.’

RS: Brilliant point.

JC: I did some work about ten years ago. We went in and did a day with an advertising agency, a workshop or whatever, and it was really fun, but there’s a huge pool of talent out there. I’m always amazed when they do that on films as well. They make an action movie and they have one funny line in it and it’ll be shit. You go ‘well you should have just got some comics in. We could have nailed that.’

Yeah. Employ me. Come on.

RS: Interesting question. We employ musical talent to write music. It doesn’t seem ridiculous to outsource that as well.

JC: It doesn’t really happen the same. John Cleese used to be in every ad. That was the law, wasn’t it? There was a point around 1989 when he was in literally every advert and people felt very well disposed to him. But that doesn’t seem to happen that much now. I wonder why that is. I suppose ads are made pan-European.

RS: I think that’s the reason. The number of uniquely British ads as a proportion is probably smaller. That’s interesting. But you’ve raised an interesting point. There are quite a few changes happening. They happen at a speed that we don’t really notice them, but the proportion of comedians is probably a lot lower.

Finally, how do you do it? How do you produce them? Do you have any mechanism, a lucky rabbit’s foot.

JC: No. In terms of joke writing, in terms of the creative process of jokes, I think it is about being in that mindset. It’s a lovely way to see the world. If you’re trying to write jokes for the day you’re sort of looking at the world through rose-tinted glasses, so even when something horrific happens in the news, you’re trying to think of the funny angle and it actually puts you in quite a good mood. It’s a really lovely thing to be doing. So you’re constantly thinking in that two-line structure and often it is that thing of trying to go way past where you’re going to go with the joke. Say the unsayable to someone and see what response that elicits. So often you’re chatting to someone and trying to say something edgy.

RS: So you’ll take something like a disaster and then you have to flip that by trying to look at it from this positive or humorous frame of mind.

JC: Yeah. Then you find out where too far is and edge back. That’s not a bad way.

RS: This is my point, that actually you have to go too far before you can get it right.

JC: Interestingly, I think Derren Brown’s gone too far with these Malaysian air disasters.

RS: We have obviously said enough for today. So thank you very much.

History Repeating Itself

March 23, 2015 / Features

By Jacqueline Holmes

How much have military recruitment campaigns changed in 100 years?

A unique and invaluable record of the life and work of the Government’s chief adviser on Army recruitment advertising and publicity during World War 1 has recently been given into the care of the History of Advertising Trust (HAT).

The adviser was Sir Hedley Le Bas (1868-1926), director of The Caxton Publishing Company. His grandson David Ryder Richardson has generously presented Le Bas’s personal and historic archive to HAT. This gift has arrived at HAT as national centenary commemorations of World War 1 are taking place across Britain.

J. Walter Thompson has also just launched a new TV recruitment campaign for the British army regular forces and reserves so there is also an opportunity to compare today’s approach whilst reflecting on the methods used a century ago. Then it took the form of wordy advertisements in newspapers and it is thought that Le Bas was the first to place a full page ad in the Daily Mail.

The gift comprises three large bound volumes containing a complete collection of press cuttings, telegrams, typed and handwritten letters dating from 1906 to 1919

relating to Le Bas’s life and work. It is not just a record of Government’s war time messages but an important reflection of social and political history.

“Page-by-page, the press cuttings alone show a day-to-day account of the nation’s war effort at the time. It would take months of research through the British Library newspaper collections to bring it all together now” said Alistair Moir, HAT’s Archive Collections Manager.

The first Army recruitment advertisement produced by Le Bas boldly stated:
‘Your King and Country Needs You’ and ended, as so many did, with the words ‘God Save the King’.

Men, and it was men these press advertisements were mainly aimed at, were put under emotional pressure. One headed ‘The Man to be Pitied’ stated: ‘He knows what his country thinks of the men who have answered the call. He envies them the great opportunity which he has missed...’ and ended ‘Are you going to be pitied or praised?’

This theme is taken up in a happy family scene where a boy asks: ‘Daddy, why weren’t you a soldier during the war?’

Le Bas set up a committee of men from the worlds of advertising and publishing to advise on the War Office’s drive for more ‘volunteers’. Le Bas, who thrived on controversy, played on the guilt and fear of men reluctant to go to war, and on the patriotism of employers who did not release or persuade their staff to enlist.

One advertisement addressed to ‘The Young Women of London’ began:
‘Is your Best Boy wearing Khaki?’ It went on to ask, if not, ‘do you think he is worthy of you?’ and then: ‘If your young man neglects his duty to his King and Country, the time may come when he will neglect you.’

These advertisements were not universally applauded, particularly in the professional advertising community. In The Advertising World journal of November 1914, under the heading ‘More Bad Advertising’, it described them as ‘official advertising of the most undesirable description’. The article went on to take issue with a number of the statements within them.
And just to prove there is nothing new under the sun, Le Bas refers back to ‘a quaint specimen of early publicity’ – a Government poster for Army recruits to fight Napoleon.

Although these rare contemporary WW1 volumes will require some conservation work on their bindings, they can still be studied with care as an important research resource by future historians, academics and documentary makers.

The documents detail Le Bas’s political career as an MP from 1913 until he stood down at the outbreak of war, his opposition to conscription, through to his appointment as adviser on army recruitment advertising to becoming joint secretary of the Prince of Wales’ Relief Fund and his eventual knighthood.

To set the record straight there is no evidence the ‘famous’ poster showing Kitchener pointing at the onlooker was an official government advertisement at the time. It appears to have originated as a front cover produced by the London Opinion magazine in September 1914 and it caught the mood of the moment. Many new findings await discovery in the Le Bas volumes and HAT’s extensive specialist archive collections. Both will undoubtedly help future researchers to further understand the inner workings of the government’s publicity machine during the Great War.

“Although it would take many years for propaganda to become the accepted voice of government, it was between 1913 and 1917 that professional advertisers such as Le Bas finally revealed the significant part it could play in 20th century politics.”

Ref: Nicholas Hiley, Sir Hedley Le Bas and the Origins of Domestic Propaganda in Britain 1914-1917 (HAT Journal of Advertising History, Volume 10, No 2, 1987)

For more infomation about HAT see

Signed: Josh Appignanesi

March 21, 2015 / Signed/Unsigned

By The Beak Street Bugle

Independent's latest signing seems like a pretty odd guy, but if his reel is anything to go by, he could make a big impact.

Comedy director and writer Josh Appignanesi has signed to Independent Films and Indy8 for commercial and content representation.

He started out working with the Oppenheimer team on Project Manhattan before a brief stint writing the constitution of the newly formed UN. Embittered by both nuclear physics and global politics, he sought refuge in a cave in Hounslow, mortifying the flesh with Chocolate Oreos and learning to levitate a full centimetre.

Engorged with wisdom he returned to capitalism in the early 80s, brokering a little-known deal between Steve Jobs and Bill Gates that in fact defines the way you currently experience all technology.

A pioneer in electronic music and keen collector of archival materials on early hotel-building in Australia, Appignanesi is also a film writer and director. It was he who directed feature Song of Songs, an obscure but intense psychodrama about an incestuous relationship in an ultra-orthodox community. He then confounded expectations with follow-up The Infidel, a comedy about an overweight Muslim who repeatedly falls over.  A film that puts the fun back in to fundamentalism, the critics (nearly) said. 

More recently he wrote the new rom-com for renowned shoe-fetishist Sarah Jessica Parker, the upcoming All Roads Lead To Rome, and wisely placed himself at the centre of his new film,  a creative documentary about becoming a parent, The Creative Life. After making some advertising for a while, he hopes to found a small start-up nation in the Balkans founded on principles of ethno-political freedom and shared, harmonious biscuit consumption.

Watch some of his work here:

The Word On The Street? Advertisers Should Mind Their Language If They Want To Connect

March 17, 2015 / Features

By Tony Thorne

Slang specialist Tony Thorne looks at how brands can succeed in talking like actual people.

Aiming at the widest possible audience means, logically enough, that advertising usually goes for the most accessible kind of language. It’s when it doesn’t do this, and heads off-piste towards the wilder realms of slang, text-speak or dialect that especially interests a linguist like me.

Some recent examples show how a focus on language can work when it’s done judiciously and targeted properly. Honda’s speed-reading captions (‘Keep pushing and get to better faster.’) that go with the slogan ‘Keep Up’ have drawn admiring comments from its target audience. The ad uses highly conversational catchphrases rather than street slang and challenges viewers to keep pace with its high-speed delivery.

The Royal Navy’s latest recruitment ads feature a voiceover in strong Geordie accent, colloquial phrases like ‘up my game’, but work since their fictional speaker looks and sounds authentic, not condescending or trying too hard. Adidas, too, gets it right with its ‘haters’ ad: hiphop beats and street catchphrases like ‘take you out’, ‘score all the girls’ delivered in a multi-ethnic accent go with a message – haters will envy you, but you don’t care - that a youngish demographic is sure to embrace. Using both slang and hashtag Money Supermarket’s #epic strut car insurance campaign works because the visuals  - hapless Dave struts his stuff in hotpants and heels - are so silly you fall for it. Soundtrack is once again hiphop, but street-speak is kept to the bare minimum ‘Dave feels epic.’

Other recent attempts to combine funky speech and street style have prompted mixed reactions. Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign, aimed at empowering women to exercise, featured phrases like ‘feelin like a fox,’ ‘damned right I look hot’ and ‘knackered’ to a soundtrack of Missy Elliott’s Get Ur Freak On. Judging by online comments it impressed many of its target group but was blasted by Guardian feminists for calling women ‘girls’ and focusing on close-ups of flesh.

Perceived ‘bad language’ is still an issue for UK consumers, as witness’s 2015 TV and cinema ad, scrutinised by the ASA after it received 2345 complaints that ‘booking’ had been substituted for ‘f***ing’ in its voiceover, ‘…you got it booking right…it doesn’t get any booking better…exactly what you booking needed…’ The ASA ruling cleared the brand of wrongdoing: ‘Although we acknowledged that the placement of the word was redolent of the use of expletives, we noted that the ad did not expressly use any explicit language and therefore concluded that, although some viewers might find the connotation and word-play distasteful, it was unlikely that the ad would cause serious or widespread offence.’ Burger King’s 2010 ‘King Great’ slogan was allowed too, but furniture outlet Sofa King’s ‘Sofa King Low (prices)’ was banned. Lloyds Pharmacy wasn’t sanctioned but upset more than a few London underground commuters in 2013 with its poster campaign picturing a defensive line of uncomfortable-looking footballers above the double-entendre ‘Hard Tackle’. The ads were promoting erectile dysfunction treatment with pills ‘for better keepy-uppie.’

Another travel brand, Expedia this time, tried imitating rhyming slang and regional dialect in a 2012 campaign, provoking derision from professional linguists and not a few consumers, too. A trip to London was described in cringe-making ‘cockney’ as follows; ‘I booked in a Bob Murray so I saved maw bees an oney’ (supposedly translating as ‘I booked in a hurry so I saved more money’). Another ad reported on visiting Dublin in a bizarre attempt at Irish pronunciation; ‘It cast nex ter nuttin an we ad a tap noight oyt.’ What were they thinking?

There have been other campaigns over the years in which using unorthodox language has had mixed results. Tourism Australia’s ‘Where the bloody hell are you?’ slogan bombed in the conservative US. Jaguar, in its New Zealand billboard campaign, mystifyingly used the line ‘WTXF?’ to advertise its XF model. The abbreviation was highlighted in city centres across New Zealand and on online banners, presumably to the mystification of the brand’s mainly middle-aged and elderly targets. Jaguar nonetheless insists that the tactic did help to raise its profile in a new market. Back in the UK the official Twitter feed for London’s Victoria Line managed to offend many customers when it used texting slang to apologise for serious delays. Their tweet: ‘Hi all, just a quick chirp to let you know Victoria Line is all good this morning. Soz about yesterday! Hope you’re commute/journey goes well.’ Prompted one customer to tweet back: ‘Soz??? Are you kidding? Soz isn’t an appropriate word when your screwup causes thousands of people to get home from work late.’

In the US, where advertisers pioneered casual speech as in Budweiser’s ‘Whassup?’, McDonald’s ‘I’m Lovin’ It,’ Apple’s ‘Think Creative’ and the Dairy industry’s ‘Got Milk?’, it’s commonplace now to reach out to the youth market by using teen-talk and text-speak in campaigns. Brandwatch this year recorded 17000 recent mentions by brands of the key teen slang terms ‘bae’ (sweetheart) and ‘fleek’ (cool, successful), among them Taco Bell, Burger King, Pizza Hut and AT&T. It’s interesting to track reactions from young consumers, who, surprisingly to this Brit cynic, seem largely to accept their elders getting down with the kids, judging the brands on their merits rather than the lingo used.

O2 did the same thing successfully in the UK, surprising many when it started to talk to its social media consumers in their own language. When @Tunde24_7 tweeted ‘@O2 b*****d big man ting I swear direct me to your owner what happened to my internet connection fam – mans having to use wifi and dat', O2 replied: “@Tunde24_7 Have you tried to reset the router ting fam, so mans can use the wifi and dat?’ The exchanges went viral, with 90% of comments positive.

While using slang or internet abbreviations on traditional platforms can be fraught with danger for advertisers, it seems that digital slang in narratives and conversations can pay off if used on the right social channels in the right way. But there are other ways to exploit the public’s fascination with exotic language, and here the noble Brit tradition of spoof and parody comes into play again. I was involved with three separate media campaigns last year which used slang and quirky lingo in original ways to engage a range of audiences.

Spitfire Ale, whose ads had previously featured Armstrong and Millers’ slang-speaking RAF pilots, took over the posh Horse and Groom pub in London’s Belgravia and refitted it with graffiti, street slang signage and menus translated into the latest argot: the pilots made personal appearances and broadcasts and takeaway consisted of a free e-dictionary of street slang, published to coincide with the event. In the same way, Lucozade published a ‘Festival Dictionary’ for the summer season containing youth language, musicians’ slang and technical terminology, packaged either as a wearable camping accessory or online e-book. Authenticity was guaranteed not by me, an ancient babyboomer, but with co-curating by DJs, street stylists and kids. Captain Morgan Rum, meanwhile, used International Talk Like a Pirate Day, which falls in October, to translate a range of the latest tech terms into pirate–speak in a manual (electronic and free to access) resembling a ship’s log.

Street slang, local dialect, yoofspeak or teen-talk, initials and hashtags are what linguists call ‘nonstandard varieties’ of English: by definition not part of the mainstream, they must be deployed with care and skill, if at all. My own research suggest that sweary ads amuse momentarily but don’t leave a lasting positive impression of a brand. My respondents confirm that the odd example of bad grammar (‘Eat Fresh’) will be excused as long as it’s not too flagrant, and pop culture catchphrases (‘Go For The Burn,’ ‘Make It Real’) do confer impact and authenticity, but only when used sparingly. The UK teens I have worked with are more suspicious than their US counterparts, wary of an older generation trying to replicate their private, intimate slang (so shun any use of #YOLO –type abbreviations, Xtreme-type re-spellings). Against this there is evidence that Generation Y and Z members actually view brands online as the equivalent of people they can trust, so it’s the sincerity of the message they value above all else – hence O2’s success. Proliferating blogs, vlogs and print articles highlight the fact that, in a hyper-self-aware market, language itself is a hot topic across all segments right now.

There is vast potential for advertisers to move beyond slogans and straplines, to key into the debates about good and bad grammar, fascination with accents, curiosity about dialects and slang, exploiting the digital ecosystem of new platforms and channels as well as traditional media and established push/pull techniques.


Tony Thorne is a specialist in slang, buzzwords and branding communications. He is Language Consultant at King’s College London where he curates the Archive of Slang and New Language. Send him samples of interesting lingo at

The Future of Advertising… In 1600 Words

March 11, 2015 / Features

By Don Grant

Cultural critic Don Grant attempts to digest what was said at The Future of Advertising... In One Afternoon.

Every industry, trade or profession has its own jargon, and the advertising world has its own shifting sands of words and phrases that are constantly being updated. Out go blue skies, ducks, envelopes, boxes, game changers, ball parks and helicopters, as being so yesterday, although there are few stragglers who insist on playing catch-up. My own world of Art, of course, has its own jargon, and uses words to try and mystify outsiders with a string of arcane -isms, such as Constructionism, Divisionism, Stridentism, Indigenism, Luminism, Neo-plasticism and Post-painterly Abstractionism, but also utilises such terminology as ‘subverting traditional hierarchies’, the over-used ‘zeitgeist’ and ‘iconic’, and the elusive ‘otherness’. I adopted the brace position and waited for the car-crash of media jargon that I was about to hit me head-on.

The first thing I learnt was that ads aren’t called ads any more - they are called Content, and that the Future of Content turned out to be more about the current state of advertising in relation to technological nougat and digital bells and whistles, than what lay ahead. I was brought up in a world when apples, blackberries and raspberries were still fruit.

This year, there was a completely new cast of speakers from the world of advertising, marketing, media and technology, with Steve Davies the head honcho of the APA giving his customary introduction. We were treated to another John Hackney ProFile film featuring James Bradley from 750mph, (presumably so-called after the speed of sound), with moody B+W photographs by Lewis More O’Ferrall and even moodier Ry Cooder-style bottleneck slide guitar, at half the speed of sound. This was followed by Tim Lefroy, le grand fromage of the Advertising Association, talking about Challenges and Opportunities, and railing against any form of government interference or regulation. He admitted that of the £16bn spent on advertising in the UK, remarkably little hit the spot, and consumers were pissed off with being bombarded with intrusive and patronising crap.

Call me a sceptic, but, when I was a nipper, scientists would peer into the future and tell us what the world would look like in, say, fifty years time. We were to be whizzing about on little hover-scooters, or in flying cars, railplanes and maglev monorails and, back in the home, the kitchen was packed with gadgets and run by robots. Anyone can predict what we will all be doing in 2050 with impunity, as many of those who do give a hoot will be dead, and those that aren’t, will have forgotten. Amy Kean Head of Futures, Havas purported to follow the brief with her talk ,’Advertising & Chemicals - studying consumer psychology to get a glimpse of the future’, but ended up telling us how things are and not what they are going to be, with reference to millennials with nomophobia suffering from physical pain, levels of oxytocin, a neurohypophysial hormone and the increase of dopamine in the brain. They are not unaverse to using electroencephalography, or ‘brain-hats’, to determine what stimulates our minds when shown various ‘content’. Scary stuff.

Luke Ritchie from Nexus Interactive Arts was ‘super-excited’ about interactives and how an ad, sorry, content, feels and not looks, and, if personal to the consumer, he or she will buy in, as it embraces addictions, because ‘Emotion is Everything’. He talked about open source codes, no downtime, mashable tech, Raspberry Pi PiFace Digital plugs, combining the physical and digital worlds, storytelling in different spaces, and insisted that the mobile is the ‘glue’ and also the ventura through which everything in our lives will originate or flow. He added that “web VR is coming!’ and that really was ‘super-exciting’.

Next up were three Virtual Reality evangelists looking for all the world like three contestants from Blind Date, being interviewed by Alex Reeves from The Beak Street Bugle standing in for Cilla. Henry Cowling from UNIT9 VR, Karl Woolley from Framestore and Daniel Cheetham from Happy Finish, all agreed that VR used to be rubbish, but, in the past year, enormous technological advances have been made, and that the latest Oculus equipment really put people ‘in a place’ or, to use the buzzword, ‘presence’. They all agreed that it was still regarded as a gimmick and the big draw would be that it was ‘new’. I seem to remember that a year ago, the new kids on the block were Wearables. Have I missed something? There were other teething problems to iron out, like motion sickness and disorientation, but the Big One was still that only one viewer at a time can experience the ‘shock and awe’ content.

I mis-speed-read a talk by Matt Scheckner as being about Miss Adweek Europe, which I thought might be some form of beauty parade, but it was about him telling us why we shouldn’t miss Advertising Week Europe. Well, he would, wouldn’t he?

Next up was Kieren O’Brien, the Chief Executive of Film Locker, not Kieran O’Brien, the actor, who appeared in the stage version of the Full Monty as the ‘absurdly over-endowed’ Guy. Here was a man who spoke at full tilt for a quarter of an hour without notes, and was well-endowed with facts, figures, mostly, it has to be said, about his company and how we needed it. This really was another, longer, commercial break, or colloquially known as a plug for his company, extolling the virtue, nay, necessity, of looking after one’s data, making two copies of everything, whilst hanging onto the original, and that sticking a hard-drive in a box is not archiving. Data, he observed, is getting HUGE-ER.

Mark Eaves from Gravity Road talked about Creating Scrollstoppers - the Psychology of Sharing and showed a couple of short films they co-produced, one for Bombay Sapphire Gin, Room 8, which was a clever piece of BAFTA-winning film-making about parallel worlds with a twist of lemon at the end, and the other, a camped-up Dads Dancing meets the Full Monty, for Sainsbury’s novelty Christmas jumpers, which had two million viral views in just two days, and 28 million in three weeks, and 50,000 shares - it was good, but not that good. One piece of useless information was that the length of the Mail Online home page was over 8 foot of scrolling, and if there was one word to sum up the act of scrolling, it was Arthritis.

David Trott, or Trotty, was introduced as ‘a legend and a guru’, but he ambled onto the stage and was more stand-up, knock-down, no-nonsense, no-bullshit, straight-talking-from-the-shoulder and passionate critic of the current batch of ‘creatives’, who he described as mere ‘stylists’. He even rolled his sleeves up at one point, to emphasise that ‘you don’t mess with me’. Distrustful of technology, he side-swiped most of his fellow speakers, with his hate of media jargon and acronyms - SRM, KPI, GNOC, cross-functional socialization, deep dives, deliverables, emotional intelligence, gamechangers, bandwidth and granular. His main thrust was a simple process for creatives, which comprised Impact, Communication and Persuasion, and dropped names from Einstein to Freud and from the Bauhaus to the Gestalt Theory like confetti, and, as Rudyard Kipling observed, ‘He wrapped himself in quotations - as a beggar would enfold himself in the purple of Emperors’. He also quoted Bill Bernbach - ‘It may well be that creativity is the last unfair advantage we’re legally allowed to take over our competitors’, and David Abbot; ‘Shit that travels at the speed of light is still shit when it arrives.’ He must have read somewhere David Ogilv’s adage, ‘The best ideas come as jokes. Make your thinking as funny as possible’, and he peppered his talk with profanities and some well-chosen, well-told, but warmed-up, old chestnuts.

Each speaker started to over-run, so the delivery became more animated, and Caitlin Ryan from Karmarama with her talk, ‘We’ve come a long way baby . . . or have we?’, had to step up from a fast walk to a jog. She was frustrated by the lack of women as creative directors - about 3%, she reckoned - and illustrated her talk with an early Virginia Slims ‘feminist’ ad, and compared it to a deeply patronising VIP e-cigs commercial, which gave credence to the question in the title, ‘or have we?’ She reckons Nike got it right with their tongue-in-cheek commercial of pretty Maria Sharapova going to a tennis match to the accompaniment of ‘I feel pretty’ from West Side Story - when did they change the lyrics from ‘I feel pretty and witty and gay’ to ‘I feel pretty and witty and bright’? Ms Ryan decried ‘one-tonal’ advertising, although conceded that things were changing - but not fast enough.

Paul Kemp-Robertson from Contagious was like a man on speed as he rattled through his ‘Ten Contagious Commandments’ at Mach 2, distilled from 10 years experience, and promoted such useful tenets as to ‘be useful, relevant and entertaining’ and ‘have a purpose’. He cited Nike FuelBands (new to me), colour-synced Heineken bottles at a rock concert (even newer) and digital coins and point systems that reward customers of certain brands (there he had me). ‘Bid your sweat’ is a campaign in Mexico, whereby participants’ movements, energy, and calorie consumption are tracked and can be exchanged for Nike goods. Much more worthwhile is the Coca-Cola-sponsored Coke Ekocenter, which is basically a container-based kiosk that delivers safe drinking water to remote parts of Africa, Asia, Latin America and North America, aiming to provide 500 million litres through 1,500 to 2,000 outlets in 2015. Now, that is what I would call the future, not of advertising, but of content.

The Future of Advertising… In A Few Videos

March 11, 2015 / Features

By The Beak Street Bugle

The speakers from last week's APA event summarise their sessions on video.

Tim Lefroy
Chief Executive, Advertising Association


Amy Kean
Head of Futures, Havas Media


Luke Ritchie
Executive Producer, Nexus Interactive Arts


Henry Cowling
Creative Director, UNIT9 VR


Daniel Cheetham
Head of Interactive, Happy Finish


Keiran O'Brien
Chief Executive Officer, Film Locker


Mark Eaves
Creative Partner, Gravity Road


Dave Trott
Founder, GGT

Caitlin Ryan
Group Executive Creative Director, Karmarama

High Five: March

March 9, 2015 / High Five

By Alex Reeves

The best ads of the month, hammering home the lessons we all need reminding of.

Advertising is full of truisms. A new technique is not a new idea. A good idea is nothing without good execution. Simplicity is smarter than complexity. We won’t go on. We’ve heard it all before. But looking at the best stuff the industry turns out is a great way to remind ourselves of these things. This month’s cream of the crop contains quite a few lessons. Get ready to be schooled.


Brand: BMW
Title: The Road to Twickenham
Production Company: Stink
Director: CD Morrish
Production Company Producer: Tom Knight
Ad Agency: FCB Inferno
Creative Director: Owen Lee
Art Director: Neil Durber
Copywriter: Nick O’Bryan-Tear
Agency Producer: Tom Collbeck
Editor: Vid Price
Music Company: Felt Music
Sound Company: Angell Sound
Sound Designer: Dave Robinson
Post Production Company: MPC

BMW – The Road to Twickenham

Arguably the biggest battle in advertising is to stand out from other advertising. This ad is certainly different from the others. While other brands shout at you with bright colours and folksy covers of second-rate power ballads, this film carries itself with a quiet dignity and simplicity. Just a series of roadside vistas accompanied by the surging roar of rugby fans. BMW deserve applause for signing off an ad without a single shot of one of their cars in it – that takes some courage. It’s more of an ad for rugby than cars, but BMW have clearly paid for that right and they’ve made the most of it here.


Brand: Fairtrade
Title: Fairtrade Matters
Production Company: HLA
Director: Will Robson-Scott
Production Company Producer: Tim Daukes
Executive Producer: Mike Wells
Ad Agency: Good Agency
Editor: Adam Biskupski
Music Companies: Elsham Music, Fox Music
Post Production Company: The Mill

Fairtrade – Fairtrade Matters

This 90-second film demonstrates the power Fairtrade has to change the lives of those it protects, as well as to enrich the communities those people live in. It’s a simple, honest approach reminding us of an initiative we should all support but many forget about. It doesn’t take much to check for a logo on your box of tea bags, but it has a profound effect on the lives of farmers and workers who bring us that produce. HLA also produced a 12-minute documentary available to view online.


Brand: Honda
Title: Keep Up
Production Company: FRIEND
Director: ManvsMachine
Production Company Producer: Luke Jacobs
Ad Agency: Wieden+Kennedy London
Creative Directors: Scott Dungate, Graeme Douglas
Creatives: Bertie Scrase, Christen Brestrup, Caleb Al-Jorani
Agency Producer: Jo Charlesworth
Music Company: Wah Wah
Sound Company: Factory
Sound Designer: Anthony Moore
Post Production Company: Analog

Honda – Keep Up

This ad is firing on all cylinders. A sharp brand insight translated into an idea that cleverly illustrates it, envisioned and shot beautifully, accompanied by sound design and music that only amplifies its potency. We’d be more surprised if Honda and Wieden+Kennedy came up with a dud than this – their usual high standard – but that doesn’t diminish its power. Certainly the sort of commercial advertising people like. But will the public talk about it too?


Brand: Department of Transport
Title: Lights
Production Company: Academy Films
Director: Frederic Planchon
Production Company Producer: Medb Riordan
Ad Agency: AMV BBDO
Creative Directors: Steve Jones and Martin Loraine
Art Director: Rob Messeter
Copywriter: Mike Crowe
Agency Producer: Nick Godden
Editing Company: The Assembly Rooms
Editor: Sam Rice-Edwards
Sound Company: 750mph
Sound Desginer: Sam Ashwell
Post Production Company: MPC

Department of Transport - Lights

If the government are trying to scare drug users off the roads then this film might serve its purpose well. Frederic Planchon knows how to create an atmosphere, and there’s certainly a powerful sense of dread here (maybe they got Super Hans from Peep Show to compose the music). It’s a sinister-feeling piece and whether or not this tactic makes the roads safer, it’s undeniably thought provoking.


Brand: Volkswagen
Title: Boss
Production Company: Rattling Stick
Director: Pete Riski
Production Company Producer: James Hatcher
Ad Agency: adam&eveDDB
Creative Directors: Steve Wioland, Matt Woolner
Creatives: James Gillham, Graham Cappi
Agency Producer: Catherine Cullen
Editing Company: Cut+Run
Editor: Eve Ashwell
Sound Company: Clearcut Sound
Post Production Company: Framestore

Volkswagen – Boss

We think this bloke might be one of those rare “ordinary working people” the likes of David Cameron always bang on about. A successful small business owner, working hard to feed his family and those of the people he employs, doing stuff for charity in his spare time. He seems like a stand-up guy – the acceptable face of Capitalism. Pete Riski has done a fine job of getting us to like this model citizen and of course his friends at VW treat him with the respect he deserves. A reassuring little film, showing a surprisingly human side to a multinational motor corporation.