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)


Gadjo Dilo said...

I was never desperate enough to resort to Start – we blended our own muesli in Sheffield University in the early 80s. But it reminds me of being told that “there's more nutrition in the cardbox box than in the cornflakes inside it”. One of those possibly apocryphal schoolboy factoids like “ABBA make more money for Sweden than Volvo”, or “all the characters’ names in Captain Pugwash are sexual euphemisms”.

Kevin Musgrove said...

"we blended our own museli in Sheffield University in the early 80s" --?!?

We made toast of the bread stolen from the geese in the park (all the really desperate and violent characters were vegetarians, otherwise we'd have had a crack at the geese).

I thought the Start advert was spot on: "you thought running through a feel in the rain was a miserable inhuman experience? Just wait till you try Start."

I live a mile downwind from the world's biggest Coco Pops foundry and it's no fun at all on cold, still days.

Kevin Musgrove said...


Running through a fell in the rain.

I was distracted by the thought of all those student field trips in the rain where the only consolation was young women in wet jeans.

Gorilla Bananas said...

Those were strange times. I recall thuggish-looking men, whose names I never learned, singing pop songs in cockney accents. Vile-tasting breakfast cereals should obviously be marketed as health foods, as noted by Woody Allen in Sleeper.

No Good Boyo said...

Gadjo, those factoids are training modules for boys who grow up into the men you find in pubs who assure you that a swan can break your arm with its wing, there are many similarities between the assassinations of Lincoln and Kennedy, and that they have "had" several of the less shopworn women cackling around a table of port and lemons to your left.

You pretty much walked into Kevin's muesli salvo. It was the "blended" that did it. With "mixed" or the more accurate "grouted" you might have got away with it.

Kevin, I imagined the subtext to Cramm: The Movie was "How, ah shoovel doon this beurl o Stort and have ti belt doon tha hill ti meck it ti thor netty in time, like", but your more Schopenhauerian reading has much merit.

Can a goose break your arm with its wing, by the way?

GB, the 80s were a bad time for music. The synthesizer did not live up to its early promise, ELO came to an end, and I got no further than Grade 5 in the piano.

As for marketing Start as a health food, the Satanic hordes at Kelloggs have read your mind:

I'm hoping you may comment on this intriguing story, by the way:

Gyppo Byard said...

Within my first week at university in 1983 (is it just me or is there a 40-something bloke theme emerging here?) I had been subjected to whitebait, pink gin and decent wine for the first time in my life. That's the joy of going from a West Midlands comprehensive to Oxbridge in one move for you.

On the downside, there was this burger van outside my college, advertised by the pools of multicoloured vomit that appeared on the ancient flagstones as the evening wore on.

The general ineffectiveness and insecurity of the fridges provided by my ancient seat of learning precluded major reliance on breaskfast cereal. but I did have a toaster. Many's the intense young woman who failed to be seduced by the invitation to come back to my oak-panelled rooms for "a bit of toast". Happy days, eh?

No Good Boyo said...

Poverty = cereal + toast at uni. I recall large amounts of peanut butter too, but that might have been for non-nutritional purposes.

Still, we were young and dumb enough to survive on this. And Brains SA.

Gadjo Dilo said...

You're right, I walked into that! Blending one's own muesli is not a druggie or swingers euphemism but, rather prosaically, involved purchasing sultanas, brazil nuts and jumbo oat flakes from a gentle, bearded man in the Students Union refectory.

I don't think Steve Cramm and Schopenhauer are necessarily mutually exclusive; maybe all philosophy should by lawbe written as Geordie dialect poetry.

Ouch, your polished sociopath comment has just hit me. I'm very glad that you've transcended this..... as Malcolm X once said "by any means necessary".

Kevin Musgrove said...

Oh the music...

The idiot next door who played the same Police record endlessly for two whole nights and who only stopped after one of my sociopath friends offered to remove a selection of vital organs with a teacup.

And the other sociopathic friend who got so fed up of his next-door-neighbours antics that he set up a repeat-loop of Jim Reeves songs, set the player to full blast and went away for the weekend.

And finally, the fist-fight arising from the argument as to whether or not Georges Martin├╣'s sojourn in Hollywood influenced his later music.

Those were the days...

No Good Boyo said...

At Swansea the main entertainment was watching the rival Iraqi student unions slug it out. The walls of the docks were plastered with elegant, cursive allusions to the involvement of goats in their rivals' parentage. If I'd taken notes I could have become a Pentagon aide.

My neighbour, Mark "The Ferret" Ritchings, had his alarm clock wired up to his hi-fi, so that "Up On The Catwalk" by Caledonian sell-outs Simple Minds shifted foundations to a 500-yard radius at 0730 every morning. Until the climbing club gained access via his bedroom window and wedged his door closed. He slept in the bath and just sang a lot in stead.

Gadjo, how far do you think Immanuel "Fookin" Kant would have got on Tyneside?

Gadjo Dilo said...

Kevin, I think I was that idiot next door, except I was constantly trying to play the same 3 Beatles' songs on an acoustic guitar - more autism than music, really.

Aye, my father always found that German gadgie's name highly amusing, but he was too coy to say it in the proper German accent, like, so I never got the fookin' joke until 20 bastard years later man!

M C Ward said...

To me you're a first-rate academic. Everything I know about Dogellau, most of what I understand about Eastern Europe and the ex-Soviet Union, as well as the intellectual health of Welsh lefties, is all your work.

I hope you're satisfied.

No Good Boyo said...

You're too kind, MC. Perhaps I ought to have done Celtic Hellholes & Slavonic Bigots Joint Honours. I could certainly teach the course.

Gadjo, reminds me of the story about linguistic philosopher Prof Sidney Morgenbesser from Vanity Fair, via the righteous site of Prof Norman Geras:

He put his pipe in his mouth as he was ascending the [New York] subway steps. A policeman approached and told him that there was no smoking on the subway. Morgenbesser explained - pointed out might be a better term - that he was leaving the subway, not entering it, and had not yet lit up. The cop repeated his injunction. Morgenbesser repeated his observation. After a few such exchanges, the cop saw he was beaten and fell back on the oldest standby of enfeebled authority: "If I let you do it, I'd have to let everyone do it." To this the old philosopher replied, "Who do you think you are - Kant?" His last word was misconstrued, and the whole question of the categorical imperative had to be hashed out down at the precinct house. Morgenbesser walked.

Mrs Pouncer said...

Both Mr Pouncer and I went to Art School (not the same one) and we were all far too bohemian to bother with breakfast! The very idea! Strong black coffee and the spongy inside of a benzedrine inhaler cut into tiny chunks did for us. (I had a thirst for knowledge; I studied sculpture at St Martin's College).

No Good Boyo said...

Mrs Pouncer, you share your contempt for breakfast with the Grecians. The Turk, however, eats heartily before rising from his cushions. Compare the size of their domains and ponder thereon.

Ian Plenderleith said...

I used to eat milk-drowned Start every morning while still living at home. I must have liked it, or I wouldn't have eaten so much of it, and my mum, the only other person in our house, certainly didn't eat it. Maybe on a miserable adolescent morning, imbibed to a soundtrack of Kajagoogoo, Paul Young and Matt Bianco on Radio 1, it was the appropriate thing to eat.

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Thanks for sharing your life journey.

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