The War on the Mundane

August 27, 2014 / Features

By Alex Reeves

Johnny Hardstaff’s honourable struggle against unmemorable advertising.

It’s not hard to work out why Johnny Hardstaff got into advertising. Growing up in the midlands, he was banned from watching commercial television as a child, so there was always a mystique around it for him. “I’d find my dad late at night watching ITV and loving it,” he remembers.

Now one of RSA Films’ top class directors, he admits the company’s namesake was also a big contributor to his early fascination with commercial filmmaking. He remembers seeing Chanel’s Share the Fantasy commercials, directed by Ridley Scott. “They came on and you were just sat there looking at these amazing fantasy worlds,” he says. “You don’t know who makes it. I think you think gods make it, or some strange mythical creatures like unicorns.”

Johnny’s sense of wonder for fantasy worlds has its influence on his latest work. His recent ads for Honda, Kenco and the Royal Marines all have an air of the supernatural about them. They’re also all remarkably memorable commercials. For him, saving advertising from the mundane is a war. He’s on the front lines, but he’s been picking his battles carefully, working only on the scripts he can push in the right direction.

“For my part, my plan is always to make advertising that the viewer could not have expected but actively wants to watch,” he explains. “It’s an ad, so it has to more than pay them back for their time invested in watching it. I think it helps that I actively like the advertising forum as much as I do.”

His latest work for Honda, Hot & Cold, is a bizarre jumble of visual ideas, nothing like a stereotypical car ad. “Right now car advertising is mostly generic and sanitised,” he says, pulling no punches. But just to make sure it stands out, this one has skeletons, music played backwards and what Johnny describes as the “stupid and painstaking process” of deep freezing automobiles and burning out cameras trying to constantly record the thawing very, very, slowly.

But that’s not what makes it stands out, according to the director. “I think Hot & Cold has a tone, a feeling that is very different to everything around it. It was born out of fun and play, and a great collaboration between very strong creative directors and creatives at Wieden+Kennedy, a strong client and myself, and that comes through I hope. We all took the pursuit of lightness incredibly seriously.”

It relies heavily on a wider language that the agency have crafted for Honda over the years. “They’ve taught us to read it and speak it,” he says. “It’s playful and assured, hand made and agreeably individual. It’s very human advertising and people like that. And it renders more conventional ‘safe’ advertising wholly impotent.”

The ad he shot for Kenco’s Coffee Vs Gangs campaign is a dreamlike vision of poverty and violence in Central America, overlaid with evocative animated tattoos designed by Rebecca Strickson to add a sense of magic. It’s exactly Johnny thinks advertising should be – captivating, risky and original, and shooting it was a unique experience too.

The film’s purpose is to promote the Coffee Vs Gangs programme, which has taken young Hondurans at risk of getting involved in a life of crime and taught them how to become coffee farmers, along with some basic maths and English.

It’s a welcome initiative. Life in Honduras, where Kenco grow their coffee, can be brutal. “The mortality rate is through the roof,” says Johnny. “Everybody joins [one of] two gangs. It’s ferocious. Google ‘Honduras gangs’ or something and it’s just pictures of heads on bonnets.”

It turns out the commercial had to be shot in Costa Rica rather than Honduras. “It’s impossible to get insured to go to that country,” Johnny says. The guys at RSA tried to call the British consulate there but couldn’t get hold of them, apparently because it had closed down. “It’s a warzone,” he says. It’s too dangerous to have a British consulate or embassy there.

The slums in San Jose, where they shot, weren’t much safer though. Their location manager was robbed at gunpoint and Johnny says they were forbidden to walk down certain streets for fear of straying into dangerous gang territory.

Despite that, he was shocked by how accommodating the locals were. “The people were lovely,” he says. “Even though they’ve got corrugated iron for walls and tea towels for curtains, I swear they’re happier than we are.”

The cast were all local slum-dwellers, which no doubt adds the to the realism of the film. The main kid lives with his mother. His house burnt down around a year ago. “What’s great is the money he gets from doing this ad will probably pay his mum’s rent for like the next three years,” says Johnny.

From an advertising perspective, Kenco are pushing things forward exactly how Johnny thinks brands should be. “It’s great that Kenco are having the balls to do this,” he says. “For a coffee brand. It’s not an edgy category by any stretch of the imagination.” This is heavily tattooed gang members, guns and rap music. No pack shot. No squeaky-clean ideal family or well-heeled celebrity reclining in his plush condo sipping coffee. There’s barely even any copy to explain the concept.

“In a landscape where everything is unmemorable, they’ve created something people do remember,” says Johnny. He sees this sort of thing as an antidote to the vast majority of advertising. “The client has become overly conscious and therefore conservative about how they’re perceived, whereas they should be trusting the agencies and directors and listening more and they’ll be in a wholly more thrilling environment.” On top of all that, it’s actually helping people. “If the idea is a benevolent initiative then even better,” he says.

As part of RSA’s newly launched design roster, Johnny hopes that the jobs coming his way will get even more diverse. He originally studied graphic design at St Martins and is all for the melding of styles and mediums.  “It’s really interesting when things become a hybrid or you get sensibilities coming through,” he says.

As someone with a very strong aesthetic style, it was interesting to see Johnny’s recent film for the Royal Marines was fairly light on the animation. While not exactly naturalistic, it was an overall sense of foreboding that made it stand out from the bizarrely friendly tone the military usually takes for recruitment. “There was an even darker cut,” he reveals. We’d love to see that.

In a jaded industry of bitter veterans, Johnny has hope that advertising can still inspire the wonder he felt as a kid in the midlands, watching Ridley Scott’s creations. “People may bemoan this mundane advertising landscape,” he says, “but there are still very smart clients who will actively want to differentiate themselves from all the dross. They come with a very different set of expectations, and that’s exclusively where I like to play. Kenco, I hope, in some way attests to this. In a smaller way, hopefully Honda does too. The Royal Marines film is more traditional on paper, and military recruitment is a tricky forum within which to be progressive, but still we managed to push things a little and speak to its target audience in a language they actually understand and appreciate.”

But no director can rely on daring scripts to land on his lap. The stuff that truly stands out has to be fought for.  “Mostly you have to actively help engender these opportunities by changing the process,” he explains. “Most people and organisations are averse to changing the process, but when you do really interesting things happen. Anything to disrupt the mundanity. So you get involved early. You help develop the creative. Quite often now you help sell the idea to the client. Whatever it takes.”

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