Eureka! Boffins find Andy Murray’s secret.

Grab a stiff drink. Sit down. Take this news in slowly.

Neuroscientists have suggested that top sportspeople perceive the crucial moment – the instant before playing a stroke or making a pass – more efficiently than their competitors do. Result? They have more time to make a correct decision, and don’t get rushed into making a wrong one.

Furthermore, they get better at this the more they practise.

The researchers are a bit tentative about what’s going on here, but they surmise it’s ‘probably related to how well the brain can maximise the flow of information coming from the eyes’.

So that’s how Andy Murray did it.

Phew. You’ve got to hand it to the team from University College, London.  Just consider their achievement.

They’ve enjoyed an agreeable time unearthing the self-evident – that top players see things better, react accordingly and improve with practice. They secured a research grant to do it.  And they got a spot on the Today programme to broadcast their findings.

At a time when money’s tight everywhere, that’s a lesson to us all.  Funds are available if you’re confident that what you supply in return will turn out to be unarguably true.

Every cloud …

For instance, I have a strong belief that people tend to use umbrellas more when it’s raining than when it isn’t.  I base this finding on careful observation in Manchester over the years, and also asking between six and eight people (seven, in fact) how they utilise rain-protection mechanisms at moments of precipitation.

I can supply this research at a suitable price to umbrella retailers – and I can build in an exclusivity factor, thus guaranteeing a significant advantage over competitors in the market.

The hour of need

The food sector looks promising, too.

“What do we want?”
“When do we want it?”

I know of a bespoke sandwich-maker who is continually taken by surprise every weekday between 1 and 2 pm.  The sudden rise in traffic bewilders him. Orders pile up, queues build, tempers fray, arguments flare up over orders. For the rest of the day he and his sole assistant have little to do. He finds it inexplicable.

My extensive research – into office hours, what people do at lunchtime and whether panini is singular or plural – would be a boon to him and his business. If he’s reading, incisive data and inspired conclusions are at hand at an SME discount.

The green shoots of discovery

Admittedly, it’s a bit early for hitting the gardening market – but it’s always good to look ahead. I’ve done a bit of investigation here, and come up with some crucial findings.

Did you realise that 100% of domestic lawnmowers are bought by people who have a grassy area in their garden?  My wide research showed that the four people in the sample who possessed lawnmowers also possessed lawns, and that the one mowerless respondent didn’t have a lawn – and, significantly, he wouldn’t consider buying a mower next Spring.

Invaluable revelations for gardening equipment merchants, I’m sure you’ll agree. This research tells them exactly who their target audience is. Information like that is like gold dust, but I’m prepared to hand over a full report for the price of a can of creosote (usually bought by people who possess garden fences, incidentally –  another nugget unearthed in my enquiries).

If you’re in any of those sectors mentioned – or any others, come to that – I’d be delighted to create some great advertising for you.  But I’m giving up the research side of things for now, unless the UCL team can point me in the direction of whoever funded theirs.


Scalpel-wielding, glue sniffing pram hoodies

If you’ve just returned from holiday you’ll be finding it a bit difficult to fit back into office routine.  But for me, on a distant planet, it used to be like that every day.

I caught up with some old friends from that planet recently. The mere sight transported me back about three hundred years. And seeing me did the same for them.

Let me tell you about that faraway world. 

It was called an advertising agency.  Not a communications house or an ideas factory or a brand consultancy or a media shop or a marketing resource.  Just an advertising agency.

There, art directors and designers spent their days manipulating things rather than images on a screen. They moulded materials, manhandled objects and cranked machines in their quest to make ideas concrete.

As a copywriter, I limited my practical efforts to pecking at a manual typewriter with two fingers and xxx-ing out my mistakes as I went along. Around me, the visual people were  doing inexplicable things which took an enormous amount of time to achieve modest ends.

For instance, I’d long been aware of a pram upended against the wall. Every so often one of the chaps would go and stand with his head inside it.  But instead of oohing and aahing at an invisible baby he’d merely stay there for an age, humming a selection of current hits, head and shoulders hidden and voice muffled by the pram hood. If anyone came looking for him they were told he was On The Grant. This meant he shouldn’t be disturbed.

How I envied my colleagues this haven. We copywriters just sat there searching for the ‘Q’ key, in full view of any passing superior who fancied handing out another short-deadline job. I longed for a miniature pram hood on my desk.

Eventually, I learned that being On The Grant meant manoeuvring the complicated system of heavy lenses and cranking handles known as a Grant Enlarger. You placed a piece of paper bearing an image in the base of the enormous contraption, and cranked up or down to enlarge or reduce the view. The altered image appeared on a backlit plate of glass inside the pram hood. The operator traced this with a pencil on to a new piece of paper and – voila – emerged, years later, with an image a slightly different size to the one he went in with.

An astute art director could spend his whole career On The Grant and never be pestered by account handlers or people collecting for leaving presents.

Prints of darkness

Another mystery to me was The Dark Room. I thought it was a Portaloo reserved for artworkers. There would normally be a queue of them outside, hopping impatiently from foot to foot.  Occasionally, one would knock on the firmly closed door and yell: “How long are you going to be in there?”

An irritated voice would yell back: “This could take some time. You’ll have to wait.”

The disgruntled queuers would disperse, calling over their shoulders: “Well, don’t use all the paper.”  I much preferred the more private facilities at the end of the corridor.

After a while I gathered that whoever was behind the door would have been making a PMT, or photo mechanical transfer. Whatever that was, it would be pasted on to the patchwork quilt of type and images that formed a piece of finished artwork, which bore a passing resemblance to the art director’s original layout.

Then came my bit. I would read the pasted-down type and check it for errors. At last I was playing a part in this workmanlike process.  So, naturally, I would make as many amendments as possible, desperate to make a contribution.

Unsurprisingly, there were lots of things to correct.  Since the carefully crafted xxx-laden typescript had left my desk it would have passed through the hands of a copy typist, the client and a remote operative called a typesetter. You’d never believe how many extra commas that could generate.

Strangely, my co-workers didn’t appreciate all those artwork amendments. They’d set to, grumpily slicing away at the stuck-down type with finely honed scalpels, excising commas, slashing out apostrophes and pasting in new words cobbled together with spare bits of type from elsewhere. When the artwork came back for re-checking it would look like a blackmail note assembled by a deranged surgeon.

As for the general working environment, the atmosphere was poisonous and the air was blue.

Not that we didn’t get on with each other. It’s just that we were constantly breathing a mix of petrol, Cow Gum, Spraymount, fixative and post-lunch (sometime pre-lunch) beer fumes, reinforced by acrid cigarette smoke and the scent of Magic Marker.

So it’s no surprise that older hands rejoice in the arrival of the digital age. We’re like mediaeval serfs delighting in the luxury of central heating and electric light.

And if you’re wondering whatever happened to that chap you haven’t seen for a few decades, he’s probably still On The Grant.

Club 18-30 for insects

It’s flying ants day, when millions of the six-legged workers take to the air for their annual mating fest, swamping alfresco diners and drinkers in a swirling haze of perplexity, annoyance and distaste.

Seems appropriate, somehow, today.

For instance, this is also the first day of London’s Olympic traffic restrictions.

Stray into a Games Lane and you face a £130 fine. Or maybe you don’t – because in many cases a fixed sign says a lane is reserved for athletes and officials, while a ‘variable message’ sign says it’s not. Drivers are confused, says the BBC euphemistically.

There’s a perceptible mood of growing irritation. It’s not directed at the athletes, of course, because we’re all devoted fans (I’ve always checked the sports pages for the beach volleyball and rowing results. Surely you have, too?)

No, it’s the bureaucrats and functionaries who are in non-Olympians’ sights. So here’s a population-calming idea: how about a £130 fine for every Olympic official who wanders into a non-Olympic lane?

And what about a further penalty for any one of them who steps on to a stretch of pavement not cordoned-off for Olympian use? They’d be limited to that strip between hotel and limousine. One foot over the line means a valuable contribution to the local economy.

The games before the Games

Even more confusing, today is the first day of the games, as opposed to the Games.

Yes, I know the Opening Ceremony is still a terrifying few days away for Danny Boyle (anyone who works to deadlines will know how the available time shrinks sickeningly while the workload actually increases). But the odd fact is, the women’s football kicks off in Cardiff today.

That’s right. The London Olympics. In Cardiff. Before the Olympics even start.

Why the strange timing? Because the football tournament takes so long, the schedulers have decided to add a few days to accommodate it.

Well, really. I’ve taken part in five-a-side competitions where pot-bellied forty-year-olds play six matches in one evening, between fags, before posing with bits of the trophy on various team members’ heads. So come on, elite athletes – sink a few pints and show us what you’re made of.

And why the London Olympics in Cardiff? Well, they’re also in Coventry and Newcastle, too, so why not?  Remember – it’s flying ants day and things are a bit odd.

A day out

To compound the confusion, this is the annual Day Out of Time for followers of the 13-moon calendar.

These interesting people divide each year into 13 months of 28 days, which leaves July 25 as the day left over after the end of one year and before the start of the next.  So it’s not really a day at all. It’s a long pause in the middle of nowhere – or no-time.

Which means, I suppose, that nothing is really happening. So that football in Cardiff doesn’t count anyway.

Back to those ants. Today is their version of a sun-soaked Club 18-30 booze cruise. I’d never noticed the phenomenon until one evening in 1990-something, when I was taking a drink with some advertising sophisticates outside the White Lion in Manchester.

We were suddenly enveloped by something akin to a plague of locusts, as squadrons of winged ants descended in a city-wide low-lying cloud, settling in our hair, crawling down our collars and drowning in our beer.

We couldn’t remember seeing it happen before, but then, it was the first hot sunny day in Manchester since 1976, and the conditions have to be right.

As they are now, here in Kent – but I haven’t seen the ants yet.

We’re missing our clichés

Anyway, this is both the end of the beginning and the beginning of the end. Before long we  advertising folk will be back to using images of sprinters breasting the tape (‘leaders in the field’), boxing gloves delivering knockout blows (to prices) and weightlifters holding barbells aloft (“We’ll take the strain”) without fear of an injunction attached to a javelin flung by Lord Coe.

But still no ants on the wing here.  Maybe all airspace in the South East is now reserved for Jacques Rogge, in case he fancies flying down to Whitstable for an ice cream.  Go for the vanilla/strawberry mix, Jaques – it’s always a winner.  Whoops, sorry, Seb …

Everybody’s waving, nobody’s flagging

The double bank holiday has passed but the bunting’s still fluttering.  There’s a lasting whiff of festivity in the air.  What can it mean? Have the British developed a continental-style taste for fiesta and carnival?  If so, what further opportunities are there to satisfy this new appetite?

The answer, clearly, is to introduce more bank holidays. But we’re suspicious of any treat that comes out of the blue. We feel the occasion has to be justified in some way.  In short, we need more anniversaries to celebrate. So what events in history loom large enough to deserve bank holidays of their own?

Let’s look at next year. 2013 throws up quite a few major commemorative opportunities.  For instance, it’s the 75th anniversary of the first issue of the Beano – a notable moment in Britain’s development as a nation of scholars and thinkers. In its honour I propose a departure from the norm – a bank holiday on a Thursday, the eminent organ’s weekly publication day. Black-and-red striped pennants will fly from public buildings in honour of Dennis the Menace and Beryl the Peril, and, appropriately in a time of government by Old Etonians, all citizens will dress for the day as Lord Snooty and his pals.

Next year is also the 50th anniversary of Sir Lord Alan Sugar’s first business venture, when the 16-year-old prodigy took to the streets selling car aerials from the back of a van.  I suggest we pay tribute to that turning point in technological history by following Beano Thursday with Sralan Friday. The streets will be lined with people wearing Sid James masks and chanting the inspiring but mysterious mantra: “It’s awe about sows!”

Looking ahead to 2016, it’ll be 40 years since the appearance of the Sony Betamax – a perfect inspiration for bank-holiday revels in cardboard-based fancy dress. Watch out for local press shots of smiling japesters wearing outsize boxes vaguely resembling electronic items and accessories. Toddlers at village fetes will be puzzled by adults dressed as cuboid video recorders, hilarious fax machines, unspooling audio cassettes and TVs on pillars with outsize backsides.

2017’s place in the annual pantheon is assured. It’s the 40th birthday of the wheelie bin.   The ruby anniversary of the British patent merits a new national holiday: Bank Holiday Binday.  The celebratory cavalcade along The Mall will feature senior citizens, babies and Boris Johnson.  Casting aside mobility scooters, pushchairs and bikes, they’ll trundle majestically past cheering crowds in battery-powered bins bearing notice of next emptying day.

But back to the immediate future. There’s something familiar on the horizon. 2012 marked 60 years since the Queen took on the job. But she wasn’t crowned till 1953. So hang on to the tri-coloured top hats and union jack waistcoats and get ready for Coronation Jubilee Year, 2013.  Yes,  just six months to go and we can start celebrating again.  The plastic cup industry’s facing a boom.

Eternity’s not what it used to be

Dammit. Day Three and the Olympic Torch has died. But don’t worry – even though the Eternal Flame expired twenty miles into its nationwide tour, a handy back-up lighter came to the rescue and changed our perception of eternity for the second time in minutes.

And that’s every adman’s dream: an elastic definition. If eternity is now a stop-start process – the ultimate in re-launches – any claim can be justified. Pass on the torch!

For example, take an offer based on not-quite-eternity: the Lifetime Guarantee. So, what if a customer’s Acme Trouser Press conks out after a month?  How does the poor advertiser get out of that one? Try this: “I’m afraid it’s come to the end of its life, sir.  We guaranteed it while it was alive. Can’t do anything now.”

And how about  ‘Satisfaction or your money back’?  Here’s the flexible-definition answer: “We’re terribly sorry you’re not satisfied, Madame.  We’d love to recompense you but you didn’t send us any actual notes or coins. The only thing we can return is real, you know, money.”

Then there’s ‘Two for the price of one’.  Let’s stretch that definition.  “Yes, Madame –  two packets of fish fingers for the price of one jar of Beluga caviar.”

‘Delivery in seven to ten days’ ?  “Yes, we did promise that, sir.  But we didn’t say which seven to ten days. It’s seven to ten Thursdays, in fact.  Two to three months, I’d say.”

‘New and improved.’ “What do you mean, it’s no better? It’s more expensive, isn’t it? We think that’s better.”

‘Home made.’  “Well, our workers do practically live in the factory.”

Liberating, isn’t it? I feel a campaign coming on.

We’re building on tradition here, of course. Adland’s history is replete with early versions of the elastic definition.  ‘Sale must end tomorrow’ comes swiftly to mind. (“Oh, you mean that sale? No, this one is this sale.”) I’ll bet that’s where they got the Eternal Flame idea in the first place.

‘As seen on TV’. “What – you weren’t watching at 3 am last Tuesday?”

‘Nobody does it better.’ “OK – our competitors do exactly the same as us.”

Sometimes the definition changes though the product itself doesn’t.  I was once briefed to write an ad for a snazzy diver’s watch.  As I read through the spec I couldn’t find any mention of ‘waterproof’. I rang the client with my discovery, ready to admit defeat.  “That’s OK,” he said.  “Call it a sportsman’s watch.” Elasticity in action, Olympic gymnast-style.

Until this week I’ve never I been able to come to terms with the concept of time everlasting.  But thanks to Coe & Co I’ve got it now. Eternity is a lot of temporalities strung together. Think of a chain smoker lighting up a new fag with the embers of the previous one.  It’s a new kind of relay event.

Now hand over that torch.  I’ve got an ad to write.





Top image composed using shots  © Annfoto | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos 
and © Redbaron| Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos
Coins shot © Miszaqq| Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos
Diver shot © Fotol| Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos


Fitted carpets along Piccadilly! Thank you, Olympics!

London is preparing for the Olympics as if it’s expecting a visit from one of P.G. Wodehouse’s more intimidating aunts.

She’s on her way!

Normally, you can put up with, say, a missing lightbulb in the hall, or the cistern not working properly in the downstairs cloakroom, or a funny smell in the kitchen that’s getting worse. They become part of your life. You navigate around them with increasing familiarity.

Even when you’re due a visit from the ultimate authority the countdown seems comfortably long. But inevitably, the frightening truth dawns: it’s really going to happen – soon.  And you’ve got to do something. You have to make the place habitable to someone other than yourselves.

Thus, one morning Lord Coe, Boris and Transport for London got up and realised the sink was still blocked – or whatever the London-streets equivalent is – just as the Olympic visitors were approaching the door.

Cue frenzy. Hundreds of cleaners-up in high-vis tabards appeared out of nowhere. Orange cones colonised thoroughfares. Striped barriers took over pavements. Mini traffic lights popped up in unexpected places.

Result? Buses in London have become mainly stationary objects you might want to sit in, like a summerhouse or a beach hut, rather than a means of transport. So, recently, I was able to watch the activity for twenty minutes from my elevated position on the Number 11.

NIce and tidy

Some high-vis people were ripping up the road while, 20 yards behind them, other high-vis people were putting it back. Something may have been going on in between but I couldn’t see it. I did notice a chap wielding a stiff broom, so I guessed he was sweeping dust from the pavement into the newly-prepared hole while his colleagues covered it up.

On another occasion, walking near Victoria, I got lost in an orange-and-white striped maze of pedestrian barriers. I didn’t notice that the pavement had somehow become the road until I collided with the radiator of a revving black cab. The driver’s gestures were over-dramatic, to my mind, but I couldn’t hear what he was shouting at me because of a pneumatic drill nearby. Naturally the traffic wasn’t moving, so I survived.

The bloke with the drill, incidentally, was wearing ear protectors. The five thousand passers-by-a-minute weren’t. Is this why everyone talks so loudly in restaurants now?

The other day I set off from St Pancras to Oxford Street. It’s just over a mile. You could walk it in twenty minutes. But I was hurrying to a meeting, so, as is my habit these days, I jumped on a bus.

The trip took forty minutes. We were held up for aeons by men cutting paving stones into curves and others drawing shaky yellow lines around manhole covers.

Why didn’t I get off and walk? Because you never quite know when the lanes are about to open up and allow the driver to put his foot down. If you opt for hitting the pavement, that’ll be the moment the bus zooms off towards your destination. So I stayed in my seat, urging the driver on as if he were a horse I’d backed.

Eventually he and I were the only people aboard and it was a toss-up which of us would give in first. He took pity on me and persevered till my stop, then he got out and took the tube.

I reached my meeting tense and breathless. No-one else made it.

So, Lord Coe and Tfl, who are you trying to impress? The French? Have you seen the streets in Paris? They divert water into grids with off-cuts of coconut matting. The Germans? They keep the traffic flowing by fining pedestrians if they cross the road. The Italians?  They ride their Vespas on the pavement. The Ethiopians? The Cubans? The Greeks? Well, what about the man on the Clapham omnibus? (The 137, I think.) It’s just possible that he’s not consumed with passion at the prospect of international weightlifting or trampolining. But he’d like to get to the office.

At least when Bertie Wooster suffered the trauma of an aunt’s visit he nursed the hope of an inheritance. So what can Londoners expect when it’s all over? Using traditional journalistic skills I hacked into the mayoral emails and found the answer. And it’s wonderful!

It’s going to be great!

Pavements will be cushioned in slipper material and will move on rollers. Piccadilly and Oxford Street will have fitted carpets in tasteful designs. Every bus stop will be furnished with a chaise longue.

There will be cocktails and waitress service at pedestrian crossings. The push-button displays will show the next chapter of the Kindle book you’re reading. Kerbstones will deliver weather forecasts in popular regional accents. Road signs will have telescopic arms to lift drivers into the right lane. Traffic lights will flash subliminal jokes.

So that’s what it’s all leading to. Thank you, Olympics. It’s a fantastic legacy, and it makes it all worthwhile. All we have to do now is wait and see.

Of course you’re confused – I’m speaking English.

“If you don’t do as you’re told, we’ll punish you. How? By giving you a lot more freedom.”

What kind of a threat is that? Yet It cropped up a few times in the news this week – aimed by the US in an Easterly direction and by the EU towards its own miscreant members. It’s how countries regularly warn others about their behaviour.

Why such a contradictory message? Simple. They’re talking in English, the universal language. And in this case what they were threatening were sanctions.

"Can't make head or tail of it, myself..."

Unfortunately – or entertainingly – in this confusing tongue ‘sanction’ has two exactly opposite meanings: ‘restriction’ and ‘permission’. Put a sanction on someone and you’re stopping them doing something. Give them a sanction and you’re allowing them to do it. No wonder international relations are a minefield.

Dogged by misunderstanding

English is a mongrel of a language, a lingo that must seem like a perverse code to outsiders. For instance, to cover something means to conceal it. That’s the opposite of exposing it. But if a newspaper covers something it’s giving it exposure. So exposure is coverage. Got that?

What happens if you commit a motoring offence? You get an endorsement. It identifies you as a wrongdoer on probation. But what if someone supports you, personally or in business? That’s right – they give you an endorsement, praising your outstanding qualities and capabilities.

If you’re a boss you might oversee the work of your staff. That shows proper care. But if, while overseeing, you commit an oversight, you’ve shown a culpable lack of care.

If you were clinging to a belief against all odds, you’d be cleaving to it. You and that belief would be sticking together. But if you were splitting an apple apart you’d be – that’s right – cleaving it. Possibly with a cleaver.

You can talk …

"I'm not standing for THAT."

The code becomes less penetrable the more you look. You might have parliamentary ambitions, for example. So what do you do if you want a seat? You stand.

Let’s say you got into parliament and found yourself acting as a committee member. You might forward a resolution. But if someone wanted to support you they’d back the resolution while you forward it.

Because English is such a mongrel its derivations and constructions are peculiarly confusing. It’s also democratic. We don’t have a body like the Academie francaise, which strives to formalise the development of French, so in our case usage generally beats academic accuracy over the course of time.

"Yes, yes, I'll get around to it."

Take the word ‘presently’. Today it means ‘in a little while’, but originally it meant ‘right now’ as in ‘at this present moment’. So ‘I’ll do it presently’ once meant ‘I’ll do it now’, whereas these days it means the opposite: ‘I’m not going to do it now’.

‘Terrible’ started life as ‘inspiring terror’, which had more of a ring to it than its modern usage does. This can lead to misunderstanding. The Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a series of pieces known as the ‘Terrible Sonnets’ – but honest, they’re not that bad …

Where’s the logic? It’s usually there, but tangled in the etymological or grammatical undergrowth. Whether it’s in the words themselves or the constructions that contain them, the English language constantly lays traps for the unwary. ‘Nothing acts faster than Anadin,’ said the old slogan, which invited the irresistible reply ‘In that case I’ll take nothing. Thanks for letting me know.’  Even the experts can get caught out.

It’s cold. We’re all incognito.

I don’t recognise anybody any more. It was OK until a few days ago. I’m sure it will be fine some time soon. But right now, I’m surrounded by strangers.

Is that Auntie Maude?

When the temperature drops, collective disguise takes over. Faces which have been perfectly identifiable for the past ten months become small egg-shapes surrounded by fleecy cocoons. Bodies which were slim, not-so-slim or somewhere in between become standard Michelin-man figures.

Everybody seems to have an arctic-weather wardrobe which they bring into action for six weeks or so every year – or at least every year since global warming paradoxically brought us Christmas card winters.

So as I stroll along the street, laptop-case over shoulder, en route to a coffee shop that will accommodate me and the job in hand for the price of an espresso, I find myself ignoring friends and acquaintances every step of the way. Polar explorers loom from their thermal wrapping, but I’m unable to distinguish most of the features I depend on for identification. Eyes, nose and mouth are not enough. I need all the other clues.

What a cover-up

"Mornin', John."

It’s a reminder of how much goes into the visual identity of any individual. Yes, there’s the face, but when it’s protruding from a hood the contours are concealed and it has no unique shape. Crucial factors like the set of the ears, the haircut and the swan- or bull-like neck are absent.

The arctic disguise confuses everything. Harpo Marx said ‘Good morning’ to me the other day. Only when he’d passed did I realise it was my neighbour enveloped in an outsize white tufted helmet.

Then there’s the body. Everyone’s a bulging tube at the moment. Polar fashion is big and cylindrical. Nothing wrong with that – let’s not get biggist and cylindricalist about this – but it does tend to obscure the differences between people.

"What d'you mean, I look different?"

And not only people. A dog I know padded up to sniff my nether regions recently.  I didn’t recognise him because he was wearing a quilted gilet. We’d normally swap a quip or two but I didn’t feel we’d been properly introduced.

He seemed insulted and stalked off.  After all, he’d identified me, and like everyone else I was dressed in a zip-up eiderdown.

That caused a problem itself later. When I got to the coffee shop there wasn’t enough room in there for both me and my coat. It’s so generously stuffed with high-tog padding it sits up by itself, occupying a whole seat as if it’s an independent customer.

"I'll just have a croissant, actually."

It was a busy day.  There was competition for tables.  The staff didn’t seem too keen.  I thought about ordering a coffee for the coat but that’s about two pounds.   I decided against it and we left together.

Rugby players turn soft


As I write, an international rugby match in Paris has just been cancelled five minutes before kick-off. The camera’s tracking across 80,000 spectators. It’s a sea of fleece, fur and quilting, broken only by pink, rugby-ball-shaped sections of face.

They’re all making booing shapes with their chapped lips. Interesting linguistic point: even the French seem to be shouting “Boo” – although maybe it’s “Bou”. The Irish visitors are actually smiling while they’re booing. They’re in a rare situation for any rugby fan: they’re on a trip to Paris and they’re not going to see their team lose.

In the commentary box it’s a bewildering line-up of tubular duvets topped off with cossack hats, beanies and WW2 flying ace headwear. There’s a minimal glimpse of facial features in each combination – but no quiffs, shaven pates, cauliflower ears or tree-trunk necks emerging from mandatory Cameronian tieless suits. They’ve lost their identities.

We’re talking corporate identity, here – literally, not in the metaphorical way we normally use the term. But this does have a bearing on that much-maligned aspect of the communicator’s art.

A little goes a long way

Casual observers often criticise organisations for logo and namestyle redesigns which consist of little more than a slight change of typeface or colour. But it’s likely to be a case of sophisticated canniness on the designers’ part.

They realise that a company’s graphic image has a useful bank of familiarity that shouldn’t be dispensed with. A small refinement here, a little tilt there and you can tip the emphasis in the desired new direction. Dispose of most of the elements familiar to the public and you’ll lose the recognition you’ve spent years building up.

For instance, the recent change to the Firefox logo is probably indistinguishable to most people who click on it countless times a day. Yet the new version has a glossier planet Earth and a softer, furrier-looking fox. Its generic landmasses are even more generic and less mistakeable for specific continents. And they’ve simplified the whole thing by reducing the level of detail.

Spot the difference

So even if you never realised that it was a fox with a fiery tail that was encircling the world, even if you’ve never bothered to try and identify the landmasses, even if you find the whole thing too small on your screen to pick out anything consciously, the fact is you’ll now be seeing something that’s cleaner, simpler, more immediate and, in the concentrated time frame of digital development, more contemporary.

And that’s vital in the world of the icon. Yet you’ve not been thrown by the change.

Hang on – is that the girl from the newsagent’s? She’s got a fox on her head, and its tail’s on fire. Blimey, it must be cold.

A fond farewell to Bonkers Bonce

In a year when dictatorships have crumbled, economies imploded and social order disintegrated, we have seen the passing of the most significant example of man’s eternal optimism in the face of insurmountable odds.

I refer, of course, to Robert Robinson’s hair.

"Doesn't show, does it?"

In August we said goodbye to this, well, figurehead.  The brain was renowned, but the cranium was spectacular.  Robert Robinson’s hair was one of the wonders of the late twentieth century – a battened-down flap stretching from just above the left ear, bridging the naked scalp like a bandage on a snooker ball, and secured on the far side by an invisible safety pin.  Yet the remarkable dome received nothing like the appreciation it deserved.

Obituarists jostled to deliver their thoughts on his formidable intellect, his refusal to moderate his sesquipedalian vocabulary and his unusual straddling of the worlds of journalism, punditry and quiz shows. In my view he was one of the best broadcasters in the business.  But although it was mentioned in passing, his coiffure should really have taken centre stage.

These days we’re in thrall to abstracts like the service and finance sectors.  We’ve forgotten about basics like heavy engineering.  If Robinson‘s hairdresser had been around in the age of Brunel he’d have been ennobled for his contribution to the construction industry.  Today, he should be leading research into overcoming gravity.  Instead, this inspired prankster-genius remains anonymous, and an age of preposterous hair-teasing has passed with the demise of the last surviving public example.

Over-the-top author

"It's just something I threw on."

Until 1993 Robinson’s main challenger for complicated hair sculpture was the novelist Anthony Burgess.

Robinson tackled the daily construction seriously by employing his trusted expert to re-create the masterwork every morning.  Burgess seems to have been less businesslike.  He simply parted his assymetric locks the wrong way to cover the shiny void, and never left the house on a windy day.  While Robinson’s rug always looked shaped and glued to his head and his alone, Burgess’s looked as if he’d picked it up and tried it on in a pound shop, then walked out without checking in a mirror.  It was the equivalent of a one-size hat that fitted nobody.   He looked pleased with it.

On me ‘ead!

For years the most prominent exponent of this hair genre was a sainted figure still with us.

In a less priggish era when it came to match preparation, Bobby Charlton’s team mates would no doubt limber up in the dressing room with a last fag and, before an evening game, a quick pint.  Evidence suggests that Bobby would concentrate his efforts on cementing a long strand of hair into place across his skull so that nobody in the world would ever know that nothing grew on top of his head.

Then he’d run out of the tunnel – into the Old Trafford cross-wind.

"That's blown it!"

Immediately he’d be transformed.  In an instant he became the earthly equivalent of a comet, arcing across the pitch with a serpentine tail streaming into infinity in its dramatic wake.  Forty thousand people in the ground, and four million Match of the Day viewers, would regularly witness the exposure of the gleaming nut.  Yet for the after-match interview the lid would be fastened back into place and, inexplicably, the midfield maestro would act as if his secret was safe.

Clearly, what all three characters could have done with was crisis management PR.  If you’re uncomfortable about it, don’t just cover it up.  Either the cover will inevitably be swept aside and the exposure will be more noticeable than if you hadn’t bothered (the ‘Charlton’), or the cover-up itself will look so artificial your target audience will sense there’s something lurking underneath (the’Robinson’) or, worst of all, both effects happen simultaneously (the ‘Burgess’).

PR experts would say: “Acknowledge the situation and turn it into an advantage.”  For instance, Sir Bobby’s trailing strand could have been left unteased and marketed as an attacking benefit.  Many a defender will have felt the whiplash effect of the comet’s tail and kept a wary distance afterwards.  An opportunity there, you’d have thought, for a patented headband version for sale to ambitious players with or without a full thatch.

The Robinson creation could have been promoted as a live demonstration of the power of a strong adhesive – not so much a cover-up as a sponsored display of Araldite in action.

The Burgess?  Well, there’s only so much PR can do.

Happy New Year.

What my dog taught me about advertising

People are getting nervous.  They cross the street when they see me approaching.  They say there’s one in every neighbourhood, and it looks as if I’m the one.

It’s the dog’s fault.  She’s turned into an independent lady of a certain age who moves at her own pace, which is becoming more ruminative.  She also considers it undignified to be on a lead.

As a result she’ll often be a long way behind me, especially if there’s some old fish and chip paper or an open butcher’s shop to investigate.   I pause now and then to call her.  Naturally, she ignores me.

So I’ll frequently be seen shouting and gesticulating on street corners.  The dog will be out of sight in the butcher’s by then, so, to passers-by, I’ll be yelling at a lamp post or a floral display.  I fear I’m on CCTV somewhere remonstrating with a pillar box.  I could be on someone’s mobile phone video shouting at a Victorian bollard.  It’s not fair, but perception is everything.  Therefore, I’m mad.

It was the same a few years ago when I had a different dog.  This one used to try to attack any other hound he saw.   We got a dog psychologist on the job, and his answer was to train me, not the dog.  I had to anticipate the trouble and head it off by growling loudly and fiercely at the hapless creature.

That was bad enough, but what made it worse was that I had to growl the word “Bah!”.  It usually worked, and the dog would accept the warning and restrain himself before anything happened.  But it meant that, to an observer, nothing occurred but me going “Bah!”.

So what locals saw was a well-behaved dog attached to a disturbing bloke who would suddenly yell “Bah!” into space, for no reason at all.  Elderly ladies were terrified.  Small children became too frightened to leave the house.  We had to move.

Instant impressions

Now, there may be one in every neighbourhood but city centres are different.  There’s usually more than one.

When I lived in Manchester I often used to see a well-dressed man who would walk around town in an ordinary manner until he came to an office block or public building on a street corner.  Then, with great drama, he would drop to one knee, stare up and stretch out his arms vertically as if he were gauging the height of the building with an invisible tape measure. Then he’d get up, nod and carry on, only to fling himself into the same procedure at the next junction.  He became a familiar sight, and was inevitably known as John le Measurer.

Another fellow would turn suddenly on anybody who might be walking behind him and say, perfectly politely: “Hello, how are you?”  Most people would reply, just as politely, “Very well, thanks. How are you?”  He’d reply by blowing an earth-shaking raspberry, turn again and continue on his way.

Now I don’t know if there was a back-story to either of those characters, but without it  you’d have little difficulty in forming an opinion.

Work out the angles

A famous TV ad for the Guardian showed the importance of point of view when making a judgement.  From one angle we see a skinhead running towards an unsuspecting man with a briefcase and pushing him against a wall.   It’s a mugging!

Cut to the reverse angle and we see that the supposed mugger is, in fact, a saviour – he’s dashed to push the chap out of the way of a toppling pile of building debris.

The Guardian’s point was that the same thing seen from a different angle can look like something else.  You need to see the whole picture before you form an opinion.  But there’s an important variation on that point for advertisers.

As an advertiser you should never show the whole picture – not because you’re being deceptive but because you’re being selective.  You’ve a short time to get your point across, so you need to concentrate on the part of the picture that’s relevant to your specific message and audience.    Anything else is a diversion.

But misjudge the angle and you’re in big trouble.  You could be communicating the opposite of what you intend – as poor old Littlewoods found with their ‘My Mother’ Christmas commercial.

Festive foot in the mouth

All Littlewoods wanted to do was what countless other retailers do at this time of year: to suggest that parents will make their kids very happy by choosing the little darlings’ presents from this wonderful selection at these fantastic prices.

Imagine the strategy meeting: “Let’s show the kiddies’ delight at their gifts, and their heartwarming gratitude to Mum.  Aaaahh, lovely!” (Pity about Dad in this scenario, but let’s not go there right now.)

Then witness the audience reaction:  “How dare you encourage children to behave like cynical, opportunistic profiteers, extorting expensive tat from their parents with not one mention of Santa!”   The facts are the same, it’s the perception that’s different.  We even see the kids appreciating gifts for other people, but the audience is seeing things from a completely different angle, and nobody forecast that.

It’s just not fair.  However, fairness doesn’t exist in advertising.  Get your message and your target audience right and you’re home and dry.  Get the angle wrong and you’re in trouble, no matter how good your product or your intentions.

Littlewoods devised the ad in-house.  That might have saved some expenditure but it might well cost  more in lost revenue.

It’s certainly worth calling for some specialist input and a dispassionate, objective view long before you start shooting.  In this game, how you present yourself becomes how you’re perceived becomes what you are – even if you’re not.   So, Littlewoods, let’s hear it.  Join in with me:  Bah!