Saturday, 28 June 2008

Advertising, part the second.

Advertising, part two.

Hello folks. Here's the second bit, in all its slightly repetitive glory. I'm afraid there are no exciting revelations, other than that sometimes advertising is naff, and that's the most predictable ending since the last time the butler really did do it (1924, in my estimation).

Right, so, last I spoke, I was on the tube. Now I've disembarked, ready for work, and there, at the High Street Kensington underground station, are more posters than I can count (even if I use my toes as well), informing passers-by that Kuoni are opening their flagship store nearby. This message is accompanied by a picture of a magnificent expanse of dusty plain, across which gallops a lank of giraffes1. Lovely. Dramatic. Inspiring. But not a clue what it is that Kuoni are actually trying to sell.

My initial assumption was that they are a clothes shop. I mean, they're opening a flagship store on High Street Kensington, so it seemed like a reasonable guess. They could sell 'ethnic' clothes to the ra-ra residents. Clothes made by giraffes, or perhaps from giraffes, which would explain why they're all legging it in the picture. My second guess was an exotic pet shop. If the market exists at all, it's definitely in Kensington, and there's definitely a gap in it. If you asked me where to go in London to buy a large African land mammal requiring a forty-kilometre trot and at least half a tree of tasty and probably organic leaves every day, I'd never have had a clue until Kuoni appeared on the scene, serving all our absurd pet needs. Two for one on water buffalo? Buy a llama, get a capybara half-price?

Well, it turns out that they're a travel agent specialising in dusty and expensive holidays. Quite why a travel agent needs a flagship store is beyond me. It doesn't matter how big you make the shop, they'll never fit a holiday destination in it. Maybe it contains more brochures than have ever been seen in one building before? Or perhaps it has little taster rooms for different countries, where they fly in a scrap of land and install an authentic local to give you a taste of tourism before you buy a package?

Anyway, I hereby brand Kuoni 'loopy'. Why go to such trouble and expense to market yourselves without actually telling people what it is you do?

And one final oddness in this dreary double bill: my washing detergent. Blinded by the sheer range of apparently identical products, I picked one from the shelf at random and came home with Persil bio. The 'bio'/'non-bio' thing raises shedloads of questions all on its own: why do they cost the same? Is bio better or worse? What are its benefits? What are its ethical consequences? Is it alive? Is it wrong to conduct cosmetic experiments on it? Can you make it out of recycled cardboard? But that's so far from the point that it's bought a holiday from Kuoni and is at this moment riding a giraffe across the Savannah. The point is that this stuff, which does a perfectly decent job of actually washing, is cursed by a really silly label on the bottle. It says:

For that 'just washed' feeling!

Well I should bally well hope my four-hundred socks feel 'just washed' – I just washed them!

1 I'm fairly sure this is the correct collective noun for giraffes. It might just be 'a silliness', but I think this is already used for duck-billed platypussies, er, platipy, platipussati. Oh sod it. For more than one platypus.

Saturday, 21 June 2008



I don't suppose anybody will be surprised or shocked if I say that advertising is an iffy thing, but it can't hurt to add another voice to the crowd. And this ain't a happy crowd. If we were hanging about outside a castle on a stormy night, we'd definitely be carrying pitchforks and burning torches. Don't be tempted to try burning pitchforks – that's just taking good-natured running-a-warlock-out-of-town enthusiasm to a level that's both silly and dangerous, perhaps even reckless.

Anyway, advertising, and its manifold wrongs. I'm struck by one such sin at the beginning of every day, and I'm sure that in the long term it's ruining my breakfast, my digestion, and by extension, my life. You see, my very cereal packet offends me. For reasons no grander than convenience, I'm a regular at that corner shop run by the nice Mr Sainsbury1, and their cereal boxes, while thoroughly respectable as far as the contents go (if they were people, they'd probably be vicars or bakers. They'd certainly turn up in the sort of wholesome villages where they set children's stories), are disgraced by a heinous act of malpackaging. The back of every single blasted box informs me:

'If every Sainsbury's shopper recycled their cereal box, 750 tonnes of cardboard would be reused every year.'

Perfectly innocent so far, but the next line doesn't just slap you in the face, it sets your dog on fire as well.

'That's the equivalent to 101 double decker buses.'

Part one - slap in face: either 'the equivalent of', or 'equivalent to'. Mr Sainsbury and his assistant must have produced millions of these boxes since the new design went into action, and they all have this embarrassing, unpleasant, weevils-in-the-biscuits, Spice-Girls-in-the-record-collection of an error. But because somebody will no doubt point out that I'm wrong, I'll stagger swiftly on to the true horror:

Part two -'Good grief, what have you done to Rover? Put him out, you villain': You can't make a bus out of cardboard. Got that? It just doesn't work. The passengers will be too heavy (unless you make them out of cardboard as well), the wheels won't turn properly, and the engine, oh lord, the engine – there's supposed to be combustion going on in there! There'll be flaming chunks of eco-bus all over the place before you've even put it in gear.

There are hippy types about who won't wear shoes in case they hurt the syringes in the park, and even they wouldn't try to base a public transport system on cardboard. You could throw in junk mail, paper clips and rubber bands as well, and you'd still be hard-pressed to make anything fancier than a rickshaw, and, before you think 'hey, they're not so bad', let me remind you that this one won't have any tyres.

Gosh, there's more to complain about here than I had anticipated, so like a slightly frustrating television drama, I hereby declare this a two-parter, though not the kind that you have to follow to find out who the murderer is.

Having fumed at breakfast, off to work I go, and as the tube stops at Fulham Broadway, I am struck by another advert-based oddity. This one is only partly the fault of the advertiser, Adidas, but it did amuse me. Fulham Broadway has these big floor-to-ceiling spaces for posters, and just in front of each poster is a bench. Adidas have sent round some second division footballers to put up their new posters (sporting chaps standing on some dramatically lit rooftops, looking stern, holding footballs, and wondering how they're going to get down again. I think two of them are still up there), without realising that their logo is only on the very bottom of each poster. This, naturally, is completely obscured by the benches, so from the train you have no idea who the posters are actually for. Let's face it: every trainer company is essentially identical (except Hi-Tech, who have managed to carve out a curious niche by selling really cheap and spectacularly un-hip squash shoes to fencers), so without the logo, it's impossible to tell who the posters are for. I can just imagine some tracksuited youth seeing them from the window and thinking, 'hmm, yes, good point. I really must buy some new Nikes'.

Abrupt finish.

1 I was one by loyalty in the year they sent me a Toblerone for my birthday, but that policy seems to have ended. A pity. I'd have been an evangelist if they'd sent me some bread as well. I was a student at the time, you see. Nothing says 'happy birthday' like a small bar of chocolate from a faceless corporation.

Saturday, 14 June 2008


There is more to packaging than meets the eye. Actually, that's not strictly true. In general, there's just more packaging than meets the eye. The fellows who work down in the frudgetable*-wrapping factory really love their jobs. Probably the keenest worker in the world is the chap who tapes up lettuce. The plastic on one lettuce can take longer to get through than the US border, and that's including the 'plane flight. As for cucumbers, I'm just glad that somebody's found a use for condoms that didn't make it through quality control.

Sticking with foodstuffs, that Prince Charles fellow is a bit devilish. For all his rambling about how organics and environmentalism will cure cancer, mend the Middle East and stop Boris breaking London, he's managed to produce a range of comestibles that seem to be housed in more cardboard than it would take to wrap up a medium-sized Channel Island. You open a box of, say, biscuits, and you have to rattle it about for quite a while before you find anything edible amid the vast, empty acres of packaging.

But as the French found out when they were testing their over-sized cigar slicer, not everything is the fault of the royals. There's Argos as well. If Hercules were born today and had time to deal with a few super-human tasks before he was shuffled off to a documentary on Channel 4 (episode two, after the baby with a superfluity of limbs and before the man who can converse with root vegetables), two of them would probably involve shopping at Argos, then managing to unpack whatever he's sent to buy.

For the shopping part, the whole system feels like a 1960s dystopia. Everything has that bland but bright plastic look than was once touted as the incredibly depressing future by the same people who thought that concrete was sophisticated, rather than seeing it as the Duplo to the Lego of the red brick (Technics are all-glass skyscrapers - expensive, fiddly, cool and flash, but never looking quite right in the end). There is an American utopian novel from the nineteenth century called Looking Backward, in which all of humanity's woes are solved by a combination of clockwork computers and raging communism (and they say Americans don't do irony). Essentially, this describes Argos - a procession of queues that would have impressed the Soviet Union, and retro mechanics borrowed from a margin note in a Jules Verne novel. The worst bit is at the end, when like a gambling addict with his last ha'penny on Fuming Trousers in the 3.54 at Epsom, you stand before a brightly coloured monitor, your words alternating between prayer and obscenity, hoping your number will come in first. Its silliness is almost, but not quite matched by the bit when you use an over-sized pocket calculator to communicate with a gnome who lives in a tunnel, waiting to load things onto a conveyor belt. Oh, and the pens, the pens, which for all their failings are wonderful, because the entire pub quiz industry is based upon them.

In fact, the shop itself is like those pens - weird, a bit rubbish, but ultimately fab, because it's the best place to buy all those miscellaneous bits and bobs that you'd otherwise spend days wandering around looking for in dozens of different shops. Consumerism teaches us to forgive anything if it's cheap enough.

So, after Hercules has got his twin-pack of standing lamps, his remote control quad bike, or his sandwich toaster home, sweat pouring from his manly brow, he must then attend to the unpacking, which is where I get back to packaging, which was the point of this to begin with. The quantity and variety is almost thrilling. It's a bit like undressing a Victorian noblewoman, only instead of layers of lace, corsetry, bustles and frilly bits you must contend with sticky tape, cardboard, expanded polystyrene, foam, string, plastic bags, and sometimes smaller cardboard boxes, nested like Russian dolls. Even once you're unpacked, there's still plenty of work to be done, because there'll be tape stuck to the walls, tiny balls of expanded polystyrene all over the carpet and more cardboard piled up than you ever thought yourself capable of carrying home.

Once Hercules has dragged that lot down to the recycling bins, he can get back to some proper heroism, like saving Croydon from barbarians, or helping actuaries lift their wallets.


* A frudgetable is anything a bit green and a bit tasty that leaves the whole of human civilisation confused about the fruit/vegetable thing. Cucumbers, for instance, or peppers. Everybody bangs on about tomatoes, but they're only the tip of the really confusing iceberg. I don't know how an iceberg becomes confusing – maybe it has tax credits?


Saturday, 7 June 2008

Aristotle. No, wait, bear with me...

Right, so, Aristotle (if that's not too sudden an opening). A gent from back in the day when one could bash out reputable tomes on both politics and poetics without being thought an intellectual dilly-dallier, or a purveyor of tat and nonsense.

It turns out that some careless bugger, when packing the great Aristotlish (I can't spell Aristotelian) time capsule, only put in the first part of his two volume page-turner, The Poetics, and as a result, we, the semi- (possibly demi-, potentially hemi-) glorious future, only received the book on tragedy, leaving comedy as mysteriously absent as a House of Commons expenses receipt. This presumably explains why Renaissance comedies aren't always very funny.

Perchance the force of the human mind has become diluted over the years, for such great men of letters, and indeed words, sentences and entire paragraphs, are now as rare as an uninterrupted sortie on the district line. Not many folk are equipped to turn on their laptop on a long train journey and polish up an epoch-defining treatise on two wildly different subjects (such as, perhaps, Glastonbury and Sun, Etiquette and Youth, or Hip-hop and Music. Cripes, that made me sound old and grumpy). The closest I can think of is Bill Bryson, who, despite his evident splendour, doesn't strike me as a hemlock-swigging scion wearing a nightie. If he leapt out of a bath shouting 'eureka' (yes, I know that was Archimedes. At least it begins with 'A'), he'd probably stop to grab a towel.

Part of the problem with becoming wantonly polymathemical is that anybody now claiming to be an expert needs to have a name followed by more letters than you'd find on Christmas Eve in the Post Office Santa Claus room. You have to toil until you're older than Christopher Lee (who was eleventy-four at the last count) to reach a sufficiently remarkable degree of knowledge and wisdom to write something of utter, subject-redefining genius. You know, like The Very Hungry Caterpillar. By the end of all that, you might have become the world's leading expert on eighteenth century teapots, or the reactions of water voles to reality television, but you'll have emptied your mind of any extraneous gubbins, like how to tie your shoelaces, or the reason nobody seems to accept groats as currency any more. If you try to skip earning your long, dreary spurs, then the moment you open your mouth or start your column in the Observer, a panoply of doctors, professors and other irate intellectuals will charge down upon you, rather like than bit in The Lion King when the old lion gets nailed by the herd of buffalo. Frankly, I'd prefer the buffalo to a stampeding studio of Newsnight Review guests. Have you ever been struck by a copy of Das Kapital hurled in anger? Neither have I, but I'm willing to bet that even the paperback could cause some serious damage.

Of course, Aristotle's mighty endeavours may also have been made a little easier because folks back then were mostly concerned with things like wine cellars and not being murdered by barbarians, so when somebody set aside time to scrawl down their deep thoughts, then like a groundskeeper at a sporting stadium, they pretty much had the field to themselves.

Also he was a bright chap, which I am told helps greatly in such matters.

In fact, on the whole these classical types were a bit on the clever side. I mean, they could speak ancient Greek fluently, and that's no mean feat (though from what I hear, their English was a bit ropey). I studied Greek for a year, and all I can remember is that there was once a farmer called Dikaiopolis, who had a dog. While admitting their cleverness, I must admit that every so often I wish I'd been born a few thousand years earlier. Sure, I'd be writing this by scratching a wooden stick on a wax tablet, but my old laptop wasn't much better. Any mild inconveniences, like the lack of toothpaste or sliced bread*, would be made up for by the ease of coming up with a seriously good bit of knowledge that nobody else has yet thought of. I mean, don't you ever read about some chap inventing the triangle and then think, 'well, that's a bit obvious – it's just three like-minded lines getting together for a good time'?

Even more depressingly, standards are going to change so that in another thousand years, give or take a century or two, we're all going to look like buffoons. Everyone will be wooshing about on their organic jet-packs, browsing the internet through their ear and telepathically saying things like,

'What fools those twenty-first century bods were. Would you believe they didn't even know how many dimensions the universe existed in, or how to talk to cats?'

Smug devils, eh? Still, even they won't know how to cure the common cold. After many years of research, the official advice of medical science is still 'oh, buy a box of tissues, eat an orange and stop complaining.'


* What was their yardstick for 'a jolly good idea' back then? 'Best thing since old Dikaipolois tried strapping a wheel and a handle to a bucket and called it a 'wheel barrow'?' 'Best thing since those strapping Italian lads toddled over with good wine'?


Sunday, 1 June 2008


'Monsoon Man' is apparently a clothes shop, which is no doubt a great disappointment to those who were hoping for a wetter sequel to Rain Man. On the subject of the naming of such emporia, Gap must have been calling the lawyers non-stop after they first opened a branch next to a tube station, wondering why those swinish underground announcers kept telling people to mind the Gap.

It's quite reasonable advice, really, primarily because Gap only cater to people shaped after some sort of mythical average. For some time I've objected to their wholesomely-dishevelled get-up on the grounds that everything was a bit square. Now, I'm ludicrously constructed, and was once mistaken for a pipe when I walked past a building site, so I can accept not being their target customer. However, I've also

heard nothing but fury from the diminutive portions of our society, so I'm left without a clue as to who can actually shop there. Apparently their underwear is quite comfortable, but this is Britain: all underwear comes from M&S, even when it doesn't. No matter where it's bought, the spiritual home of any British sock, pant, bra,

knicker or other undergarment is Mark's and Spencer's, just between the reasonably priced suits and the respectable skirts of a sensible length. It's like crime dramas and ITV, or nutters and night buses. Some things just belong.

As a clothes shop, M&S is a horrifying place. Even once you've dragged yourself away from the heinously magnificent scents of the bakery section and found an expanse of clothing, there's still a lot of exploration to do - I have very painful memories of getting lost in there. It wasn't just the disorientating effect of being surrounded by lingerie, but also the profusion of very clear mirrors all over the place, which made it appear that the signs to the stairs pointed in every single direction,

and also suggested that the place was teeming with customers. There came a point when I was ready to give up and go to sleep in the furniture section, finding my way out at night by the light of a display microwave. Then I thought of Scott of the Antarctic, and staggered onward. Domestic appliances is no place for a man to die.

I couldn't find a jumper even once I found the right floor (men swear? I know I did). The entirety of my vast local branch caters to old majors who want to dress entirely in an uncountable number of different shades of brown. I'm hardly a sartorial revolutionary (or I wouldn't have been in there in the first place), but surely a plainish jumper wasn't too much to ask? Plus, they only do their four shabbiest shirts in extra-long sleeves. Oh, and about half of their ranges are called 'Dad something', which is just humiliating.

Actually, that makes me think of another age-specific bit of shopping oddness. Reasonably often, when I pop into Mr Sainsbury's on the corner, seeking to top up my onion supply or replace the bread stolen by pixies in the night (happens more often than you might think), I'm asked if I'm collecting books/computers/weapons for schools vouchers. Being in my mid-twenties (I think I'm what's technically known as a 'youth', but not a 'yoof', because I can spell my name in a straight line and I only break things by accident), I wonder whether they think I'm an overgrown schoolchild or an irresponsibly young parent.

Whatever the harsh truth, I can't help feeling I'm incurring their disapproval. I must assume that as the till attendant sits there, a powerful and judgemental retail Solomon, they're thinking one of three things. Either,

'You - large child, why are you not tucked away somewhere, doing some homework? Good grief, lad, there's history of the Reformation to be learnt. Stop fondling fruit, and get thee to a textbook. You must use these formative years for useful tasks such as furthering your knowledge of differentiation, singing hymns purged of the imperialist verses, and being made to play rugby until you lose one of your ears and all of your self-confidence.'


'You, sir, are doing your child a disservice by not taking these vouchers. Don't you know that schools today are chronically under-funded and struggling to keep up with the increasingly complex educational needs of the modern day? Here we are, doing our best to help you, and you throw the vouchers back in our face. When you find

your fourteen-year-old son passed out on a river-bank clutching a plastic two-litre bottle of White Lightning, don't come crying to us.'

And hopefully not,

'How dare you have a child at your age? I pay my taxes to support those in need, not so that disreputable curs such as your rakish self can roger your way around London, leaving a trail of psychologically scarred infants in your syphilitic wake. I offer you these vouchers because it's my job, but if I had my way, you'd be had up before the

court of the Daily Mail and then forcibly emasculated for the betterment of our glorious but inconveniently overcrowded isle.'

Or it might just be because they have a pretty tough and dreary job, and frankly, one customer's not much different from any other. But where's the fun in imagining that?