Death in the centre break

I found myself thinking fondly of death this week.

Partly because I’ve gone down with that most deadly of illnesses, the Man-cold. So I’ve been wandering around in a blanket, muttering the famous Mark Twain quote – “All the great men are dead. And I’m not feeling too good myself”.

That’s all right at home, but it gets you funny looks in a new business presentation.

I’ve also been thinking about death because I’ve been interviewing senior clients most of the week for a programme I’m making for Current TV – including one of the most high-profile marketers in this country, Amanda Mackenzie of Aviva.

And the latest Aviva ad is a taboo-busting exercise in getting death into advertising.

Amanda must be the best client an agency could ever dream of having – and as has been said many times, clients get the work they deserve. The Aviva campaign “You’re the Big Picture” is going gang-busters – and I’m really intrigued by their last TV ad, in which Paul Whitehouse pops his clogs.

Now, I’m not a massive fan of the start of the ad, which is too cosy for my liking, but the ending is genuinely powerful.

In the spot Whitehouse plays a guy who’s dead, but who can still “provide for” his family through insurance. It’s a clever idea, but what I love is that it’s a brave idea.

You can’t get much more taboo-busting than bringing death into your ad.

And it’s worked a treat for Aviva, who are reaping lots of positive feedback on the social sites. Amanda had that glow I’ve seen on clients when their work is genuinely being talked about, and genuinely in a positive way – as opposed to just sitting in a debrief and hearing that “there’s evidence that awareness has gone up”.

Rare, brave work does that.

And I’d like to doff my hat (an appropriately funereal gesture) to AMV, for coming up with such mould-breaking stuff.

As you’d expect, HHCL used to try to crowbar death into advertising on a few occasions. We did a campaign for Bio-friendly garden products that had an old comedian called Charlie Drake playing a greenfly in the last few seconds of its life.

“Ah well, I’ve had a good innings” he said, although I don’t think greenflies usually spend too long at the crease.

There’s a joke there somewhere about creases and flies, but at the time the best joke came because the taxi company accidentally sent a parcel van to pick him up. He’d come out of retirement (grumpily) to do the ad and his famous bad temper wasn’t improved by being delivered to the studio in the back of a parcel van.

We also ran some work for Healthcrafts vitamins that had a spooky old lady suddenly appearing out of nowhere and advising people to look after themselves.

The implication was that if you didn’t take your supplements you’d soon be hanging round in limbo, scaring the bejasus out of people, and it certainly stood out.

We also did the infamous Pepe jeans ad where a bunch of kids got stoned on Tooting Common (or Tutankhamun, as we re-christened it) before cutting to the end-line “Pepe jeans. Because one day you’ll die.”

But death hasn’t played a huge part in advertising. You don’t see Kellogg’s ads interrupted with the news round the breakfast table that Grandad’s had a very bad fall. L’Oreal ads don’t have much in common with the Tibetan Book of the Dead, other than the fact that I’ve never really engaged with either of them.

Although a good pal of mine called Jason Gormley told me that his favourite opening line from an ad came from a famous Smirnoff film:

“It was only when I died that life got interesting”.

Looove that.

And I’ll never forget a CDP press ad for some insurance company, written by Tony Brignull, with the headline “Answer these 10 questions and work out the date of your own death”.

So the Aviva ad is very brave.

And moving.

And also timely. The baby boomers have set the agenda at every stage of their lives – making it all about sex and drugs when they were in their twenties, making it all about money when they were in their thirties, and now they’re facing the issues of retirement and death.

Amanda told me that part of the inspiration for the idea came from her boss saying to her “we’ll know we’re doing breakthrough work when we can mention death in our advertising”.

And brilliant marketer that she is, Amanda took that and ran with it.

To be honest, it was all slightly annoying for me. Part of the premise for the TV programme is that advertising is changing unrecognisably, and there was Amanda, clearly having a wonderful time with AMV, tackling all sorts of important issues, and then popping out a provocative, shivers-up-the-neck-in-a-good-way TV ad.

“Advertising in rude good health” shock headline ?

 

That’s about the most perverse thing I’ve ever written in this blog.

 

But I can take some little solace from the fact that, if we can’t talk about the death of advertising, we can at least talk about death in advertising.

Long live that.
 

  • TESS ALPS

    Steve praises TV ad. If I wasn’t already sitting down I would have to.

  • Julien Hunt

    nice post, but can we have some links to the ads?

  • Chris Worsley

    I think the ad works even better because we have all laughed along Whitehouse in his various Aviva guises so it makes it even more poignant. But then he is exceptionally good at protraying pathos as well as comedy which helps.

  • Christmas Clarke

    Death is simply when your cat flap settings are reduced to one.

  • Rebecca Tickle

    Julien, you can watch the Aviva ad here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TkyoCHCZlKw

  • Vic Polkinghorne

    Completely agree Steve. It’s a fantastic ad. It stopped me completely when I saw it in the ad break. Hats off to all involved.

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