Saturday, July 19, 2008
My Universities: Advertising
I graduated from University College Swansea (formerly the Swansea Jack public house) with a good degree in Bat Maintenance and Ruthenian Studies and have acted as if the world owed me a living ever since.
This attitude was entrenched a few years later when I found out that I could have spent a bit of cash and got myself a business masters with a guaranteed livelihood of hoovering cocaine out of geishas' navels on behalf of some spicily sinister Oriental corporation.
Among the careers I toyed with was advertising. I had been reared as a polished sociopath, so a job devoted to mocking the potato-faced British consumer in return for cupboards full of Krugerrands and posh girls seemed ideal.
The idea came to me one deep winter in Hendrefoelan, a student internment camp half a mile from the village of Killay in the clouds above Swansea.
Veteran leech piper Ward Cooper and I had marvelled at the uselessness of the TV advert for Start breakfast cereal. This consisted of Geordie athlete Steve Cram running up a glum fell somewhere, eating a bowl of Start on a drizzly ridge, then sprinting back down to Northern civilisation in his cagoule.
A heavy snowfall had led to panic buying, so by the time we'd trudged through the drifts to the local Coop for our weekly non-booze-and-fags shopping trip all that was left on the shelves was dog food, cat litter and row upon row of boxes of Start. After much soul-searching we bought two boxes of Start and some cat litter, just in case.
The checkout girl eyed us wistfully. We were good customers, and she would probably never see us alive again.
The jam-breathed locals of Killay were as surly a bunch of Morlocks as I'd ever met outside my immediate family circle, but no one could fault their almost-Martian survival instinct. Without wishing to offend the evil bastards at Kelloggs in any way*, Start was vile.
The recipe may have changed since 1984, of course. Perhaps consumer focus groups fed back some mood music about public disdain for sugar and damp cheeese lovingly infused into foam rubber. Who knows. By the time the snows had melted we were already pouring tabasco on the cat litter and pooling our ear wax.
Once the fever had passed, Ward and I retired to our chambers with two bottles of Don Darias and started work on a realistic advertising campaign for Start. Rather than avoiding the issue of its taste, as did the Cram ad, we decided to make its rankness a selling point.
The mid-80s were a puritanical time for the university left. Thatch was firmly in power, the Labour Party had taken a sabbatical from politics, the Socialist Workers were still harassing miners rather than concentrating on their natural constituency of creepy trustafarian students and suicide bombers, and women didn't have the vote.
The only outlet for the Roundhead tendency was in self-mortification. This meant listening to Paul Weller, pretending to fancy girls in leggings, and watching Newsnight. Ward and I felt that we could pitch Start to this drab demographic.
The campaign was simple. A 5-second guerrilla-style TV advert would burst onto your screen as if interrupting normal broadcasting. It consisted of a handheld camera three-quarters shot of pantomime socialist Dennis Skinner MP, The Beast of Bolsover. He would brandish an arms-length box of said cereal at the camera and bark "Eat Start, It's Shit!"
And that's it. No posters, nothing. Sociology students would be shovelling the stuff past their keffiyehs within weeks, we estimated.
At least that's the pitch we made in a letter to Kelloggs. A letter we unwisely wrote that very night and mailed to what I hope was the wrong address. Cornflake Superhero Captain Kellogg (if such he be) never deigned to reply.
I expect the letter is still whirling around in the seventh circle of the Post Office sorting room reserved for rifled birthday cards and anything with an official stamp addressed to the Kinnocks.
Disappointed by this lack of response, I slouched off into a career as a third-rate academic. Of which more anon.
(* phrase included on advice of my legal counsel, The K Man)