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We interrupt this prose…
by Nick Asbury| Manchester, UK
Tuesday, 3 April 2012
tags: clients & brands, culture, europe, semiotics
The trend for poetry in British advertising isn’t going away. It bubbled up a couple of years ago, with the McDonald’s ‘Just passing by’ ad, and the Pete Postlethwaite-voiced script for Cathedral City cheddar. Along with ads by Waitrose, the AA and Centre Parcs, this caused extensive soul-searching at the time about whether this was debasing a great art, or a welcome way to popularise the medium.
More recently, we’ve had an Ode to an Iceland Mum:
A poem on Premier Inns:
And a particularly challenging piece from Santander:
The adverts vary in quality, but it’s interesting to reflect on why poetry, at least in the judgement of these advertisers, fits with the commercial imperative.
One of the reasons must be its disruptive effect. A working definition of poetry could be ‘disrupted prose’. Which is to say, language where the conventional prosaic flow from one clause to the next is disrupted by formal elements: rhyme, rhythm, wordplay and a heightened awareness of the sound and shape that words make. Of course, there are some writers who deliberately challenge this definition, pushing the boundaries of prose to breaking point, or writing prose poems that exhibit none of the qualities normally associated with poetry. But such forms draw their power from the expectation they’re subverting.
The disruptive nature of poetry is a useful tool for advertisers, always keen to jolt a passive audience into paying attention. I’ve noticed it myself while tapping away on the laptop with the TV on in the background. You’re aware of the usual burble of commercial messages during the ad breaks, but when that burble turns into poetry, a different part of your brain responds. Despite yourself, you start anticipating the next rhyme or subconsciously bouncing along to the rhythm.
Which isn’t to say these ads are either enjoyable or effective. The Iceland and Premier Inn ads work well enough on their own terms, albeit in a fairly conventional way. The Santander ad disrupts in an unwelcome way, like someone prodding you repeatedly with their finger.
There is a craft to writing these advertising poems, and it’s a tricky thing to pull off. A Wordsworth or Byron doesn’t have to worry about ticking off various parts of the target demographic, or covering off key selling points. But the commercial writer does, and too often it shows.
Get it right and a poem can have an unusually powerful effect. Moving a step away from advertising, UK satirist Charlie Brooker recently filmed an extended rant to camera about Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper. (The paper was complaining of being targeted by a witch hunt, apparently not realising the irony.)
The rant would be funny enough in prose, but Charlie Brooker – uncharacteristically for him – chose to cast it in poetry.
The sheer craft is something to admire, often relying on an unexpected rhyme rather than the obvious choice – a lesson the Premier Inn and Iceland writers could usefully learn. But casting the rant in poetry also elevates it into something more than a funny piece to camera. It becomes a self-contained piece of performance art, which predictably ‘went viral’ on Twitter and YouTube.
Again, this points to the power of the poem – its origins in oral tradition suggest that it has always been a ‘viral’ form, explicitly designed to make language more memorable and shareable. Advertisers have long understood the mnemonic power of rhythm and rhyme when it comes to the shorter form: slogans and jingles. Such slogans have gone out of fashion, seen as being crass and unsophisticated. But extending the practice into a full-length script is the acceptable modern-day alternative.
RKCR/Y&R, the agency behind the Premier Inn ad, explain on their website that they chose the poetic approach because of its power to make a ‘deeper emotional connection’. It appears that this is where poetry now sits in the popular imagination – a form of language to which we turn in times of emotional need: weddings, funerals and… selling mid-market hotel rooms. Like it or not, I suspect the trend will be with us for a while.
© Nick Asbury 2012
Read more from Nick on the blog of his creative partnership Asbury & Asbury.