Monday 22 May 2023



I’ve got a list of books that isn’t so much To Be Read as At-Some-Point-In-My-Life-This-Looked-Terribly-Interesting-And-I’ll-Make-A-Note-Of-It-And-Read-It-One-Day. Many of these never get read and drift to the oblivion of the depths of the list. The Savage Girl by Alex Shakar is one that I rescued just before it floated off into obscurity. I’d noted it about ten years ago, when the book was already ten years old.

Here’s the review I published. I wasn’t too savage, but it wasn’t an easy book to read:


The Savage Girl


Without giving away too much, the subject of cryogenics features in “The Savage Girl”, and I felt rather as if I’d defrosted something frozen in time, or opened a time capsule as I read this novel. It was written at the turn of the 21st century, certainly pre-social media and Web 2.0 which makes it oddly quaint in places. 


The novel is a satire on marketing, trend-forecasting and the consumer society. Not the sort of book I normally read for leisure, but I’ve worked in advertising and marketing more years than I care to mention, so thought I’d give it a go.


I found the novel quite difficult to get into. Because of its age, a lot of what may have seemed futuristic at the time of writing seems a bit - so what, or what the? - today. One character sits looking at an array of giant computer screens, pulling out patterns. Well, today we have ChatGPT and tomorrow who knows? The characters are by-and-large grotesques - not human enough for you to care about any of them, yet not outrageous enough to be amusing. Sometimes, it all seemed a bit pretentious and just too clever for its own good.


Having said that, there were some excellent ideas along the way. The story forsees lots of stuff going on today - the metaverse and virtualism, shifting truths and echo chamber bubbles. I did cringe at some of the passages evoking those ghastly bullsh*tty brainstormings and insight sessions that I’ve participated in. And the concept of “Paradessence” - paradoxical essence or “two opposing desires that a product satisfies simultaneously” (such as stimulation and relaxation) - is spot on. “The job of a marketer is to cultivate this schismatic core, this broken soul, at the center of every product.”


The question of whether we are heading for the “Light Age” - the optimistic view - or the “Lite Age” was also interesting once I finally got the distinction.


All-in-all, thought-provoking in places, but wish I’d read this novel when it (and I) were 20 years younger.  


Theres a long lecture by one of the obnoxious characters in the book, which examines Ernest Dichters The Strategy of Desire, Soviet propaganda and American marketing, and the development of irony and now - post-irony. All interesting ideas, which are commented on in this review and interview with the author. 

The “Paradessence” idea is one I’ve banged on about frequently in this blog - and I liked the examples in the book:

Coffee - stimulation and relaxation

Air travel - sanistised adventure, exoticism and familiarity

Ice cream - eroticism and innocence

And while one character refers to this as “a schismatic core/broken soul”, his less cynical colleague expresses it as the “magic” - the sneakers that enable you not just to grip the earth and stay grounded, but to soar into the air and your dreams, too.

I wonder how much money has been made over the years from touting the paradox-resolution brand essence idea around, dressed up with a clever-clogs name and a fancy model?  

Friday 12 May 2023

Find the gap?


A recent campaign from Nurofen has alerted me to a whole rich seam of Home-Grown Problem: Solution advertising that brands can dig into. An appropriate metaphor, as this is all about digging your own gap, and presenting your brand as the superhero that’s going to come along and right all wrongs and injustices.

It all started, probably, with Equal Pay Day and the Gender Pay Gap, which I remember working on with IKEA back in the 2000s. Nothing wrong whatsoever with bringing this inequality to public attention. Equal Pay Day itself was set as how far into the year women must work for nothing to be on the same standing as men. It’s cheering that the date has moved forwards from 26th March in 2010 to 7th March this year. Still work to be done, but good progress.

Now, back to Nurofen. This brand has discovered a “Gender Pain Gap” and created a campaign called “See My Pain” to help to close it. According to Campaign, “Fifty per cent of women feel ignored or dismissed by their GP when it comes to their pain compared to 36% of men.”

Aha! A villain of the piece - UK GPs. A quick search and I found that in the UK, 55% of GPs are female and 45% are male. Hmmm. If I was a  GP and had studied for years to get there, I don’t think I’d take kindly to brand and advertising people giving me a lecture about being sexist and ignoring women’s pain.

It doesn’t help that the creative execution is painful in the extreme. All the usual suspects are there in the film: plinky piano music, tearful testimonials, “victims” telling their authentic stories. And on the website, there’s a ghastly line that looks as if it has escaped from a potboiler paperback in the bargain bookshop’s sale: 5 Women. 5 Stories. 1 Painful Truth.

It’s the sort of thing that feels like a parody and makes me ashamed to be in advertising.

Unfortunately, Campaign is behind a very expensive paywall (a topic for another time) but reading the list of credits for the campaign, my jaw dropped. I won’t name the agency as you can look it up, but it’s one that has a main bit and a specialist health bit. Credits used to mention the main people who created and produced a film. But just looking at my line of work, the following were named from the main agency: Head of Planning, Planning Partner, Planning Director, Planner. Then from the health agency: Planning Director, Senior Strategist - Social Sciences, Senior Expert Strategist. 

7 Planners. 7 Excessive Salaries. 1 Crap Commercial?

Going back to those gaps. Yes, seek and ye shall find. Gaps, seams, unlevel playing fields. All humans are vulnerable to injustices of one sort or another. 

But that doesn’t make us all victims.  

Wednesday 3 May 2023

RETROWURST: Public Holidays May 2005


Here we go on another trip back in time, to my reflections on the merry month of May in Germany, with its glut of public holidays. Off I went, following the tipsy processions through the fields and woods, slurping down Maibowle on the way.

I must have got bored of that topic as the article then lurched into the subject of greeting cards in Germany. If my memory serves me correctly, I had a project on the go on this theme.


It’s May and that annoying time of year again, if you work in the UK, when every time you call your colleagues in Germany or other continental countries, they seem to be having yet another public holiday or, worse still, they had a public holiday yesterday, which was Thursday, and are having the Friday off for good measure.


Public holidays come thick and fast after Easter here in Germany; there’s the first of May, of course (although we don’t move this around if it inconveniently falls on a weekend as it did this year; it would be most un-German to call the third the first, or whatever) and then we’ve just had Father’s Day and Mother’s Day in quick succession. Mother’s Day is understandable enough; this is the same as in the UK (on a Sunday) except that it’s in May instead of March, possibly to provide a better fresh seasonal flower selection. Father’s Day is a little more difficult to understand- it is actually Himmelfahrt or Ascension Day in the Christian Calendar but has been hi-jacked somewhere along the way to celebrate all that is manly and fatherly. Typically, it is a good excuse for men to go out for a long walk through the woods and fields, pulling a little cart heavily stocked with beer and Schnapps. These expeditions start fairly early in the morning and the progressively drunken procession lurches from one beer garden to the next, occasionally topping up in-between from the little cart. Sons are often included from a relatively early age, usually as an insurance measure to pull the cart or find the way home once the fathers become incapable. All this is rather different from the genteel coffee, cake and flower arrangements that constitute the typical Mother’s Day. So much so, that, recently, in the spirit of equality, groups of women can now also be observed on Father’s Day, crashing through the foliage to enjoy the odd glass of Prosecco.


No sooner are Father’s and Mother’s Days over than is Pfingsten or Whitsun and another long weekend (elongated even further in Frankfurt with the celebration of Waldchestag, or Woods Day on the Tuesday- yes, you guessed it- more drunken lurching and frolicking in the woods!) upon us. Sometime in late May or early June is Fronleichnam (or Happy Cadaver as I once heard it charmingly referred to; actually Corpus Christi) then that’s the lot in most of Germany except a few extreme Catholic strongholds until the frightening-sounding Tag der Deutschen Einheit in October.


You would think, what with Christmas and Easter and birthdays to add to all this, that the greetings card industry in Germany would be huge, but there you’d be wrong. Whereas, in the UK, Hallmark and their ilk have capitalised on the North American willingness to celebrate or commiserate every possible event or non-event of human life’s rich tapestry in card format, the greetings card market in Germany is under-developed which may be a good or bad thing depending on your perspective. 


Starting with Christmas, the card selection is rather sparse. Maybe the Germans think that they are being damaging enough to the environment by insisting on real Christmas trees for all without then wasting the paper that’s involved in Christmas cards to every distant relative and acquaintance, including the dustmen. There are certainly no “bumper boxes” of 50 cards with the only nod to bulk-buying being packets of six postcards of snow scenes or candles. What cards there are have a very traditional flavour- you won’t find anything with “cool yule”, smutty poems about drunken reindeer or retro photos with 21st century captions here. And these cards are mostly sold singly.


When it comes to birthdays, there is a market but it’s somewhat limited. Your choice tends to be amongst “funny cards”, which resemble those “funny cards” you used to get in the UK in the 1970s- tall and thin with very thin sub-Carry-On humour, cards that even most grannies would find too twee or the pre-teen girl selection featuring either Diddl (a mouse with oversized feet who I think hails from Austria) or those grey patchwork teddies who look like baby seals waiting to be clubbed. For younger children, there is little sign of the whole character merchandising industry anyway and especially not on birthday cards. Whereas you’re confronted by Bob, Postman Pat, the Tweenies, the old Disney favourites and the latest Disney/animation heroes from the first birthday onwards in the UK, you would be very lucky to find a birthday card that even has an age on it in Germany (unless it’s an age over 60 - as I’ve said before, Germany is a very old-friendly country where seniority is a badge to be proud of!). 


For other occasions (with the notable exception of condolence cards), the choice is very narrow indeed: even those “no text all purpose” cards are rather hard to come-by. In addition, what there is tends to be very bland and generally inoffensive, verging on twee. Cards for new babies, for example, are almost never funny but show, instead, rose- or baby blue- tinted symbols and images of unrealistic infant perfection. No jokes about stinks or embarrassing noises here!


Perhaps the reason for this under-development stems back to the German dislike of superficiality. Many of the card-giving occasions themselves (those that are not traditional German celebrations) are regarded as another ugly and blatant attempt for the US capitalist machine to squeeze more money out of us. Halloween and Valentine’s Day are two examples of occasions that have been “pushed” in recent years and are treated with increasing cynicism. Furthermore, the thought process in Germany tends to go- if you really care about the person who is celebrating, then put some time, money and effort into doing something personal and relevant to them- giving flowers, picking up the phone, making a card yourself and so on, otherwise, don’t bother. Card-giving tends to send out signals here of a “halfway house”; you’re doing the simplest, cheapest thing out of duty more than anything else.


In a way, they do have a point. Anyone who has suffered a deluge of those corporate Christmas cards signed in a rush by people who neither know nor care about you or has wondered how many two-year-olds really appreciate the full cast of the Teletubbies, Tweenies and Balamory in cardboard form may well wonder if we wouldn’t all be better off forgetting the card and enjoying the celebration instead, even if it does involve trees, rain and some very dubious Schnapps.


Greetings cards are still pretty low-key in Germany, although there are loads around at the moment for Konfirmation. I wonder if the generation being confirmed at the moment (born around 2010) are a little bemused by these analogue relics. A popular alternative to cards for birthdays and the like seem to be those rather gaudy helium balloons. 

Fests are, thankfully, back on the calendar following Covid. Out here in the country, it’s not just Public Holidays, but almost any form of local produce, flora or fauna, from asparagus to apple blossom to potatoes that gets its own Fest.

I think I’ll give the Grillfest at the rabbit breeders’club a miss, though.