“Nah, yer alright”, McDonald’s

6 02 2013

I don’t have a TV in my house, or at least not one connected to any TV service, so it’s usually via twitter or some other means that I come across new ads. That does tend to mean that I only see ads that are either brilliant or terrible as these tend to be the ones people tweet about online. Last night, however, I tuned in to some live TV on TVCatchup, the UK’s live streaming service for all free-to-air channels. Between the endless re-runs of Big Bang Theory I came across this ad for McDonald’s which doesn’t really fall into either of those categories. It certainly isn’t terrible, but it did annoy me (in fairness to McDonald’s, this isn’t hard to achieve.)

Having never seen it before I didn’t know what brand it was for to begin with. I think the narrative is good, the family dynamic portrayed is familiar to many and the rainy northern setting is well observed. The family members are all portrayed well. You get a good feel for the friction. From the perspective of advertising craft  it is all very nicely put together.

Then we come to McDonald’s role in all of this. This is the point at which I get annoyed. The idea of McDonald’s bringing people together is a perfectly reasonable one, not an especially original platform for a brand, but reasonable nonetheless. But what this ad boils down to to me is, if you’re having family problems, buy your kids a Big Mac and everything will be ok. That is, of course, an over simplification but it’s certainly what’s at the nub. You don’t need to actually tackle difficult family tensions, you can just bribe your kids’ (or step-kids’) into your affections by taking them to McDonald’s. Really, McDonald’s? REALLY? That’s the best way you could come up with of demonstrating that McDonald’s is a universal bringer of happiness that we all have in common?

Am I being too harsh? It just feels wrong to me to use this kind of family tension in this way.


Some Ramblings on the Creeping Demise of Things

16 01 2013


I was quite dismissive on twitter of the demise of HMV but I stand by the fact that it was no surprise. Today’s news that Blockbuster is also to go into administration leads me to reflect more widely on things, physical, hold-in-your-hand things. I don’t really have a point to make here, these are just some various thoughts that I haven’t really organised or refined. Feel free to shout them down if they’re nonsensical.

Before I go any further, I want to make it clear that what I’m about to pontificate on is essentially of little or no importance compared to the 9,000 or so people whose jobs are at risk as a result of these two firms going into administration. This too on the back of the recent Jessops news. That’s what really matters.

That point made, I wasn’t sad to hear about HMV’s likely collapse because to me it has long been dead. It played a pretty significant role in my musical youth, I would often stop at the Pallasades store at the top of the ramp in Birmingham on my way to work at Pizza Hut and stop back in again with my tips on my way home. I used to love the ‘GREATEST EVER SALE’ that happened every year (though was dubious about how it could be greater each year than the last) with its 3 for £10 albums. If I was lucky and I’d made £20 in tips (and not spent it on beer and buckets of chicken wings in the pub) I could get six. The great thing being, after leafing through everything on the offer racks for some time, I would only ever find four or five that I really knew that I wanted. The fifth or the sixth would be a wild card or two. I certainly would have come later to records like Screamadelica and Harvest had it not been for this offer.

I also spent a lot of time in the flagship Oxford Street store when I was a student in London. They actually had a really great vinyl selection at the time. I also recall the first time I stumbled into the Jazz and Blues section on the very top floor. Cordoned off through a glass partition to keep the pop and rock lightweights at bay, it was like visiting a specialist indie shop within the country’s biggest music supermarket. The staff in there (I could probably safely say the guys in there as they were uniformly male) had genuine expertise, they could really tell you which of the myriad Son House or Howlin’ Wolf compilations was the one that you really wanted. People with knowledge should be treasured.

I went into HMV in the Bull Ring at Christmas. I left without buying anything. What music they had was shoe-horned in to the back of the store. Best-selling DVDs were stacked head-high on the floor everywhere you turned. I’m sure there was plenty of staff there whose knowledge should also be treasured, but there was nothing of interest in the store to ask them about. It was Christmas so it was busy, but it was clear that this store was already dead.

In a round about way, this brings me to the first point I want to make about things and that is their intrinsic relationship with people.


The thing about actual physical objects is that they rely on people in a large number of ways. Yes, CDs are mass-produced in largely automated factories, but they still have to be made and there are people who have to do that. There is something important about taking one thing, putting it together with something else and producing something new. With music this happens in a number of ways – there’s the actual physical production of the CD or record from the various raw materials but there’s also the combination of that physical object with the recorded sound itself. You can argue the recorded sound (or the words of a book) is what’s really important but there is something about the human role in making these into enduring objects, into things, that is important. You can also create something greater than the recorded sound alone – a record is for playing, but a gatefold sleeve or limited edition white vinyl may have greater meaning than the song alone. A chair is for sitting on, but how does it look in your room?

Once you have made a thing, you have to move it around. People have to do that too. A person has to choose how to display it, how to organise it relative other things (more on this later) and so on. There is skill and knowledge involved in all of this. Knowledge of how best to do it from a functional point of view of navigating the things, but also knowledge of what the things contain and therefore how they should logically be ordered. People interested in the things can pick them up, interact with them, feel them and, importantly, ask other people about them. People may see you picking them up and ask you about them.

Now I recognise that to produce an e-book or a new type of codec for a music file there are people involved, but it’s not the same as physically producing things. I also understand that the reason what I’m listening to on Spotify is pushed to facebook is so that people can interact with that in the same way they might if they were Keith Richards seeing Mick Jagger clutching a load of Blues LP’s on that fateful morning on Dartford station. But I do feel like there’s something missing versus a physical connection between a person and a thing bringing about a connection between someone else who relates to that thing.


When you buy a thing, let’s stick to the theme and say it’s a CD from HMV (or even from Amazon for that matter) you take it away and it’s yours to do with as you please. Being overly concerned about your ability to possess things is probably not all that healthy a trait, but it is important to note that many of the substitutes for things are far less ownable. Much has been written about this in the wake of stories like that of a Norwegian woman whose Kindle was wiped for breaching Amazon’s terms and conditions so it’s ground that may not be worth covering again, but suffice it so say that whilst my children will inherit all of my CDs and records, they may well not inherit your iTunes library.

Relationship with other things

First and foremost, physical things take up space. If the number of things we possess declines then the space we have increases. That is potentially a large positive in an increasingly cramped world but let us take an example through to its conclusion just so we can understand the other implications. If you no longer buy or own books, you will no longer need a bookcase. Many bookcases are beautifully crafted, some are just from Ikea. Either way it is likely you have chosen your bookcase(s) to fit in a specific space in your house. It is likely you have positioned them relative to other furniture. It is likely you have sought to match them to other furniture – you may have sought to match other furniture to them. There will be gaps in homes which have for hundreds of years been filled with bookcases. Some homes may even have been designed with spaces for bookcases specifically in mind. Where you place other furniture, even how we build our homes may change as we have fewer physical objects. I am not placing any value judgement on this, I am simply trying to highlight that there is cultural significance to the demise of things beyond simply the thing itself. Things exist in a system in which they are intimately related not just to us as their owners or users but to the other things around them. Culture is liquid and something will expand to fill these gaps, but for now they will exist.


I have heard it said that you should not trust someone whose TV is bigger than their bookcase. Even if you subscribe to such cultural elitism, this is no longer a particularly useful benchmark as many of the most avid readers now have all of their books, not on display but stored neatly in their Kindles. This too is significant. I’m sure I’m not alone in studying the spines of books and CDs in people’s homes and forming judgements on the basis of what I see. I’m sure I’m also not alone in knowing others do this and selecting which books or CDs I might choose to display more prominently in order that people draw the best conclusions about me that I can engineer. Our old friend Baudrillard would call this is the sign value of things – how they relate to one another with in a complex system and in so doing signify certain meanings – one record is not functionally better than an other, but it signifies something very different. But if our things are no longer on display and are no longer directly and physically related to one another then that sign value perhaps becomes harder to determine and harder to form judgements upon. That may well be a good thing, Baudrillard would certainly have thought so – but again, I like the discovery angle that is attached to other people’s things. Discovering new things, but also discovering things about the people who own them. I understand Baudrillard’s argument that this tangled system of objects is one of the things that ensares us into consumerism – but I like things, I like them in and of themselves but I like them as enduring cultural artefacts too.

I have rambled on long enough and as I warned at the outset, I’m not sure I’ve made a coherent point about anything, but I suppose that’s what blogging is all about, isn’t it?

Nike, Lance Armstrong and Moral Relativism

18 10 2012

This is a post I wrote for MB’s internal intranet thingy. Whilst I’ve edited it a bit, for that reason it may have a slightly different tone to my usual Research Geek posts and doesn’t have any swearing in it. But I thought, as I’d written it, I might as well share it in case there are any readers out there that still remember this blog exists:

So, Nike have dropped Lance Armstrong. Lance Armstrong has also resigned as head of his Livestrong Foundation.

I don’t think Nike had much choice here. Not only is Armstrong a proven cheat but it seems he was also involved in encouraging (or “bullying” according to the testimony) his team mates into doing the same. It seems he may well have been encouraging his team mates to “Just Do It” in a rather different context from that which Nike intends. Armstrong and US Postal were far from alone in their cheating though. I saw a stat recently which said that the fastest up the Alpe d’Huez (the Tour de France’s most notorious and difficult climb) this year would have been 41st fastest in 2001. [EDIT, I had read this stat but hadn’t checked, it isn’t quite right, but it’s not far off – the fastest in 2011, Pierre Rolland would have been 40th in 2001.] Doping was rife, it seems Armstrong was just much better at it than everyone else. I suppose there’s some achievement there at least.

There are also those questioning whether Nike knew more than they are letting on at the time and, indeed, whether they were even involved in covering up the doping. Whether that’s true or not, they would not want any further attention drawn to those accusations which would be unavoidable as the story continues to unravel. A continued association with him would have made the regular resurfacing of these allegations unavoidable.

What’s interesting here from a brand point of view is the decision that his reputation is beyond repair and a continued association with Nike could only be negative for the brand. Contrast that with their handling of the Tiger Woods fall from grace and the difference is palpable (they also stuck by Kobe Bryant when he was accused of rape.) Indeed, Nike trumpeted the fact they were sticking with Woods with a controversial ad.

Many commentators thought this was a mistake and was in bad taste and that Woods should be dropped. Until recently, they seemed to be taking the same approach with Armstrong. Indeed, in 2001 they had explicitly supported him in their ‘What am I on?’ ad. At that time I can’t imagine Nike knew what was going on. If they did, it was a spectacularly risky route to go down.

I think there are three important differences between Armstrong and Woods that encouraged Nike to stick with him. First of all, Woods admitted he was in the wrong and apologised. Granted he only did so after being caught out, but at least he did so. Armstrong, as far as I’m aware, has yet to explicitly admit his guilt and apologise for misleading people. Up until very recently he was still clinging to the “never had a negative test” line and pushing that over and over again. Secondly, Woods’ indiscretions were, shall we say, extracurricular – he was not accused of cheating at the sport for which he was famed. Sure, his clean cut image took a big whack, but his achievements as a sportsman, his ability to ‘Just Do It’ was unaffected. Arguably, one of Tiger’s weaknesses as a brand property was that he apparently had no weaknesses – his continued success was machine-like. The rehabilitation after the fall of which Nike was making themselves an explicit part could make the partnership stronger, the Tiger was human after all. And that brings me to the third difference, that Woods is still playing and still at the top of the game. Of course, it’s a long while since he’s won a major and he doesn’t dominate the sport as he did before, but he’s still easily its biggest name. Perhaps this, in part, motivated Armstrong’s most recent comeback?

All of this raises an issue of moral relativism for brands – when is an indiscretion sufficient to cut your ties with a celebrity? Is an indiscretion against your sport really a worse thing than one against your wife? Morally, of course not. Do I care about that one way or the other, or am I simply worried about the continuing credibility of a celebrity to endorse my brand? I suspect the latter is true, though few would admit it. There is no moral judgement, simply a brand value judgement. For many brands, their values would determine that the call may be seen from outside as having been made on moral grounds but the cynic in me suspects that, in reality, that’s not the case.

I was dubious about Nike’s strategy with Woods. I didn’t like the way is father was used in the ad above. But in the long term I think they were right to stick with him. I think brands are usually too quick to pull the trigger when their endorsers fall from grace. Celebrities are human. Providing they acknowledge their mistakes and apologise in an appropriate way, they can often come back stronger. But you do need to be brave to stick by them.

Resolutions: read more, write more, run more.

4 01 2012

Since I got back from travelling I’ve become one of those people that comes home, sits on the sofa with  a tube of Pringles and watches Come Dine With Me for hours. I don’t want to be that guy.

So, a new year, as is traditional, brings a resolve to behave differently. This time last year I was posting a summary of my top 2010 posts. WordPress recently informed me in a whizzy email summarising my 2011 blog performance that I only managed five posts in the entire year; no point summarising that. One could say that my mind was on other things being, as I was, on my travels for half of the year. Legitimate where the Research Geek is concerned, but I also failed to finish the thoughts I was jotting about our travels – I got as far as our return to India which leaves two and a half months at the end unaccounted for. There’s also the poor old Viceroy. I quite like what I started there, but there’s a good two years plus of life in India thus far neglected. I intend to put all (or more likely, some) of this right in 2012. Starting here and in my little Moleskine of travel thoughts, I will write more. Eventually I’ll get back to the Viceroy too.

I read quite a lot whilst travelling but, aside from over the Christmas break, I’ve read very little since I’ve been back. Easier to absorb the tube’s rays. That too must change. I have a stack of unread books from birthday and Christmas which should soon be read. I’m currently working my way through The Honoured Society by the wonderful Norman Lewis then I have a spoken history of grunge, a biography of Jack Johnson (the boxer, not the surfer-songwriter), an Indian story, a history of German football and, yes, even one about advertising. There’s plenty more on my Amazon list to tackle throughout the year.

All that sitting and Pringle eating has also restored much of the wobbly midriff that six months of wandering around hot places had previously put paid to. Once I have procured some running shoes, I shall be trying to do something about that as well.

Resolutions rarely last beyond February but perhaps by putting them  up here in writing I am not only starting out on the right foot where writing more is concerned, but also steeling myself in commitment to the other two. Maybe you can all help keep me in check. We shall see. Read more, write more, run more. 2012.

On the tenacity of norms and innovation

16 11 2011

Tom’s most recent post over on Blackbeard reminded me of a story I was told by an erstwhile client during my spell in India.

In his younger years, said client had been a lowly agency side man like many of us. He had gone on a field visit for a tracking study to meet with a field head whom he described quite directly as “a real crook”. I assume this was meant in a research context only and he wasn’t an arsonist or a murderer or anything. Anyway, on this field visit it was discovered that the crook was living up to his reputation and allowing his team to flout even the most basic of field controls – no right hand rule, no adherence to the assigned starting points, ignoring instructions on routing and rotating – your basic PAPI chaos. When my client intimated that this was completely unacceptable and that he needed to whip his team into shape forthwith he was met with a knowing smile. “Do you really want me to fix things?” the crook asked, “we’ve always worked this way, aside from the time and effort required to put things right which will be costly, you will also need to explain the radical step changes in your data to your client”. This was where the story ended so I don’t know for certain what call my client took but being a fine and upstanding research man, I naturally assume he did the right thing.

What’s clear from this story is that Tom has something of a point. There’s no doubt that historical trends, databases and norms are, at times, invoked as a defence against change even where the established order is spectacularly wrong. The order being established is all the validity it needs. And of course this is a very extreme example, the simple weight of inertia can easily discourage those of us with far greater scruples than our protagonist above from making changes that untether us from the warm comfort of norms.

But I’m not convinced it’s as bad as all that. In my view, norms have the potential to raise the bar for innovation and change. You cannot make change for change’s sake. You do not flit around on the short-lived breeze of fad and fashion. If you are going to make a change to a research architecture built around norms then you have to demonstrate clearly that what you are moving to provides a genuine, substantive improvement over what currently exists. More than that – better looking architecture is easy to find, checking the structural engineering is up to the job requires the real stress testing that norms help provide. What norms predicate against is incremental tweaks around the edges (the research equivalent of feature creep) and the roll-out of ill thought out, half baked ideas. Houses built on the sand.

Saying norms are ‘tenacious’ is certainly right, but that tenacity need not be allied with enmity. Norms can perform the role of Devil’s advocate always probing with the questions ‘why is that better than what we have?’ and ‘can you prove that it is?’. If you have constantly asked those questions then not only will you always have a powerful rationale for any change but you will also have reinforce the validity of what you were doing previously.

India Transcends the Jingle

4 11 2011

When I was actually in India I didn’t post much about Indian advertising. Maybe I should have done more. A significant contributory factor was our conscious decision not to have a television so that we actually experienced India rather than watching endless re-runs of Friends. This meant that, aside from the ads I was working on, I wasn’t actually exposed to a huge amount of (TV) advertising. In contrast,when we were on our six month travelling stint, most hotels had a TV. Even some of the real cheapies (INR300 a night) provided one. Our narrow channel profile coupled with the Chinese water torture approach of Indian media planning (again, again, again, again – same ad break? don’t worry, drip it again) means I’d rather gouge my eyes out than see most of ads I was (over) exposed to in that period ever again, let alone write about them. But some, including the two discussed here, were more than worthy of recollection.

These two ads stand out because of the way they use jingles. Given that when I talk about jingles in the UK you probably think of terrible local commercial radio ads from your youth (in my case, T.C. Harrison and Stechford tiles, I’m sure you can think of your own examples) or at best the sort of Go Compare! and WeBuyAnyCar.com stuff that makes it to the national TV stage, it seems almost disparaging to describe the music in these two ads as mere jingles. They’re certainly “short tunes used in advertising and for other commercial uses” and whilst they may not go so far as to include “one or more hooks and lyrics that explicitly promote the product being advertised” – there’s some pretty heavy hooks with implicit promotions going on which is probably as close as it gets for service brands.  Whilst irritating memorability has long been the raison d’etre of jingles like those in the UK ads above, these ads go way beyond that, seeking to use a jingle to for genuine brand impact – repositioning and strengthening the brand as opposed to just making people remember it.

The first is from Airtel:

Now, Airtel are India’s biggest mobile network providers. They were amongst the first movers and had long been associated with having the best network coverage and all those boring but essential type of things. They felt fairly austere to me. They seem to have been aware of this and with increased competition in the market started to push the relationship button. They did so in what I felt was a fairly gentle, wishy washy and ill defined touchy-feely family kind of way (e.g this and this) – all very nice but not especially coherent nor consistent. India’s demographic is such that there is quite a rush to target the “youth” market. It’s a sensible policy seeing as there’s so many of them and for a brand like Airtel they’re far and away the heaviest users. So in comes the beast of an ad above. All of your friends are important. They might be cheeky, gossipy fucks some of the time, but they’re still your friends and that matters. It does ‘relationships’ in an instantly more engaging and resonant way than the earlier efforts and shakes the Airtel brand back to life. It does so almost exclusively through a catchy jingle which manages to sidestep irritation which even manages to incorporate and refresh Airtel’s sonic brand mnemonic.

The second example is an altogether more epic affair from Hero Motorcorp:

Hero-Honda was India’s largest motorcycle brand. Hero took the decision to end the joint venture and fly solo and needed to relaunch.  To help them do so they convinced legendary singer-songwriter AR Rahman to take time off from helping to besmirch the reputation of one of my heroes (no, not Joss Stone, Jagger, you cheeky scamps) and pen them a tune. He did not disappoint with this number that gradually builds and suggests more before eventually resolving itself with a lovely drop around the 1:38 mark (or course, we get there much sooner in the more oft seen cut-downs). The lyrics talk about there being “a hero within us” – stirring up India’s easily inflamed patriotic fervour. Alongside the images of everyday Indians rising heroically to various personal challenges it makes for pretty powerful stuff. It’s also nice because it eschews the typical macho stuntsmanship of this category in India. Even when Hero motorcycles are featured they’re not pulling mad stunts, they’re enabling the bravery and heroism of the rider (cf. the bloke edging across the dodgy bridge) rather than themselves being the hero.  Again, the jingle here is an absolutely integral part of the story-telling – with the brand a direct and memorable reference point throughout it.

There may be more seasoned ad-watchers than I out there who can think of British work that has jingles that transcend the traditional understanding of the form in the way these two examples do (please shout if you are one) – personally I’m stumped for anything that comes close. I strongly suspect the reason for this is that the India’s film syntax beyond advertising relies so heavily on music and dance as storytelling devices. Songs in Bollywood movies are often employed to suggest (regularly without much subtlety, but still) what cannot be said explicitly due to cultural sensibilities. People are used to hearing and decoding from narrative songs in a way our audiences aren’t. There are also fewer people around who could execute songwriting for ads of this type credibly and of those that could fewer still would agree to do so.

Don’t call it a comeback

18 10 2011

Hello. I can’t help but think this won’t be the most talked about comeback announced today (see picture above).

Those of you who follow me on twitter will already be aware that I’ve been back in good old Blighty for several weeks now. You may also be aware that I’m back in the office and, therefore, back to being a Research Geek. Five and a half months worth of travelling was pretty wonderful and I’m still thinking and writing about that (currently with pen and Moleskine, but it will eventually find its way to the Viceroy, I’m sure) so I might not be too prolific on here to begin with. But as I’m back thinking about research, ads and brands there will no doubt be certain thoughts I feel like sharing.

Work-wise, I’m still with Millward Brown. My neuroscience role was specific to the region so having moved from dusty Delhi to leafy Leamington Spa I’m not doing that any more. Instead I’ve joined the Global Innovations team where I’ll be getting all kaizen on our existing tools and also working on some shiny new stuff. Should be interesting.