The Longest Kiss: Turning Constraints to Your Advantage


Screen Shot 2019-02-13 at 14.31.29.png


Cary Grant enters a Rio hotel room with Ingrid Bergman. Bag down, gloves off, hat discarded on the chair. In silence. They walk out to the balcony, embrace and kiss. She sighs and they look into each other’s eyes.

‘It’s nice out here. Let’s not go out for dinner. Let’s stay in.’

Between tender kisses, they discuss the chicken she’s planning to cook for him. They’ll keep the washing-up to a minimum.

Bergman leans on Grant’s shoulder as he takes her back inside to make a phone call. They kiss again, and hold each other tight as he picks up a message from his hotel. He has to leave.

Bergman: ‘This is a very strange love affair.’
Grant: ‘Why?’
Bergman: ‘Maybe the fact that you don't love me.’

They make their way to the door, arm in arm, kiss goodbye and agree to meet later.
He slips away.

This scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1942 movie ‘Notorious’ was celebrated as ‘the longest kiss in the history of the movies’. It lasts just under three minutes, but is not in fact a single kiss. Rather it is a series of kisses interrupted by conversation, movement and action.

It’s a memorable scene because it seems so intimate, natural, real. We believe that Bergman and Grant are genuinely in love. When Hitchcock carefully choreographed the actors, he may well have been seeking to communicate unaffected romantic truth. But he was also keen not to fall foul of the Hays Production Code, which prohibited ‘scenes of passion’, and restricted any screen kiss to no more than three seconds.

Constraints focus the mind, demand our attention. They lay down the gauntlet; prompt our rebellious instincts; challenge us to think laterally, to circumvent the regulations, to sidestep the rules. And sometimes they produce truly memorable responses.

When one reflects on historic cigarette and alcohol advertising, it sometimes seems that they hit the creative heights because of, rather than despite, legal restrictions. Ads for the likes of Silk Cut and Benson & Hedges verged on the surreal. And I well recall a poster for the Winston brand:

We’re not allowed to tell you anything about Winston cigarettes, so here’s a stuffed aardvark.’

Screen Shot 2019-02-13 at 15.03.29.png

Necessity has been the mother of invention in many great communication campaigns. Sometimes the constraint is legislative. Levi’s ‘Swimmer’ (1992) featured a number of property owners signalling consent because the advertising authorities didn’t want to celebrate trespassing. Sometimes the constraint is practical – you simply don’t have much time or money. Consider most Madness videos. And sometimes the constraint can even be self-imposed. When Justin Moore was creating a six-minute film for Johnnie Walker, ‘The Man Who Walked Around the World’ (2009), he insisted that it should be one continuous shot - no cuts, no editing.

When you see rules, restrictions and regulations, don’t skulk off complaining and feeling sorry for yourself. Embrace the constraints. Take up the challenge. See where the limitations take you. Even consider setting a restriction yourself. You may find that a boring guideline is more inspiring than a blank piece of paper.

As Orson Welles once observed:
'The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.’

Happy Valentine’s Day

No. 216

The Hall of Mirrors: Should Advertising Offer Consumers Reflections of Themselves?

rita-hayworth-lady-from-shanghai.png

‘When I start out to make a fool of myself, there's very little can stop me. If I'd known where it would end, I'd never let anything start.’

Orson Welles, ’The Lady from Shanghai’

The 1947 movie classic ‘The Lady from Shanghai’ features an Irish Orson Welles caught up in a web of deceit woven by wealthy lawyer Everett Sloane and his wife, a curiously blonde Rita Hayworth.

The climax of the film takes place in a deserted amusement park, The Crazy House. ‘Stand up or give up,’ the arcade posters proclaim. In the Hall of Mirrors the three lead characters confront each other and a multiplicity of their own images and impressions. Neither they nor the audience can discern the real people from their reflections. Truth and falsehood are intertwined. It’s a cinematic tour de force.

When I first joined BBH in the early 1990s I was warned against ‘holding a mirror up to consumers.’ It was suggested that this is a lazy approach for any advertiser to take. ‘Holding a mirror up’ assumes that people enjoy seeing their own behaviours, attitudes, tastes and styles reflected back at them in brand communication; that they like to look at approximations of themselves in advertising; that brands are rewarded for acute observation of people’s musical preferences, fashion choices and figures of speech.

But who wants to encounter counterfeit copies of themselves? Who wants to be regarded as a type or category; to see their private codes and language broadcast for all to share?

So we took a different path. We preferred to shine a light on the brand; to let it present its best self to the world. We liked to let the brand speak.

Looking back on this position in the midst of the social media age, I can’t help wondering whether we were wrong all along. As is widely observed, nowadays we all inhabit echo chambers of our opinions, prejudices and world-views. We live in a Hall of Mirrors of our own making, endlessly self-publishing; craving affirmation and approval; seeking endorsement of how we look, what we do, what we feel, what we think; freely surrendering our personal data in our relentless quest for recognition and validation.

And consequently much of modern advertising pursues the ‘hold the mirror up to consumers’ approach. Our screens are filled with elegantly aspirational metropolitan executives, charmingly chaotic suburban families, fun-loving bobble-hatted youths.

I nonetheless find it difficult to recant. I remain convinced that brands have a responsibility to stand for something; that there is more integrity in selling than there is in pretending to share values, hopes and dreams; that rather than just reflecting consumers’ attitudes, we should seek to change them.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, I doubt people will be seduced by this Hall of Mirrors for too long. Ultimately Narcissus’s infatuation with his own image destroyed him.

Back in the Crazy House, Sloane wearily directs his pistol at Hayward.

‘Of course, killing you is killing myself. But, you know, I'm pretty tired of both of us.’

In the shootout that follows, chaos and confusion reign. The mirrors shatter. The glass cascades in crystals all around.

No. 173

A Marriage In Six Breakfasts: Orson Welles and The Art of Compression

Emily: ‘What do you do at a newspaper until the middle of the night?’
Kane: ‘Emily, my dear, your only co-respondent is the Inquirer.’
Emily: ‘Sometimes I think I’d prefer a rival of flesh and blood.’
Citizen Kane

In Orson Welles’ 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane we see the decline of Charles Foster Kane’s marriage to Emily Norton over six breakfasts. In the first breakfast Charles and Emily are amorous and warm. They sit close to each other and their faces are all smiles and suggestion. With each subsequent breakfast the couple are progressively more formal and cold, more distant in tone and space. Their conversation turns to squabbling about their family and Kane’s work. In the final scene the couple don’t speak at all and bury their heads in their newspapers. She is reading the Chronicle, the rival title to Kane’s Inquirer.

In six breakfasts and just over two minutes Welles conveys everything we need to know about this unhappy relationship. It’s so elegantly succinct. It’s an exercise in economy, distillation, compression.

Charles Kane was a newspaperman, but I imagine he’d have made a fine adman too. And he certainly could teach us a few lessons.

Kane (to his Editor): ‘Mr Carter, here’s a three column headline in the Chronicle. Why hasn’t The Inquirer a three column headline?’

Carter: ‘The news wasn’t big enough.’
Kane: ‘Mr Carter, if the headline is big enough, it makes the news big enough.’
Citizen Kane

In the communication world we all recognise the art of compression. Advertising‘s necessary brevity has made distillation a critical skill. At its best commercial communication can reduce a hugely complex brand to a minute-long film, a single image, a compelling headline. Advertising can be understood as condensed thought.

In my time at BBH I often witnessed John Hegarty encouraging his teams to focus on the essence of the story, the ‘decisive moment’; to edit out unnecessary complexity, executional detail and verbiage. Sometimes he made press ads that looked like posters. Sometimes he would strip away the copy from TV scripts entirely and replace it with music.

Fred and Farid’s 2002 Xbox commercial is perhaps the ultimate example of advertising as condensed thought. It takes us from birth to burial in just one minute. It’s a flight of fantasy that resonates with truth. It finishes with the compelling invitation to ‘Play More.’

Mr Bernstein: ‘Old age. It’s the only disease that you don’t look forward to being cured of.’
Citizen Kane

Compression has many virtues. It forces focus and prioritisation; it enhances understanding; it is economical with people’s time and attention.

As Welles himself states when discussing the theatre, communication that is pared back can also leave room for the audience to fill in the gaps. It is cooperative, suggestive.

‘I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that. Give them too much and they won't contribute anything themselves. Give them just a suggestion and you get them working with you. That's what gives the theatre meaning: when it becomes a social act.’
Orson Welles

The art of compression is of course also critical in the sphere of strategy. Some strategists hide behind the protective cloak of the intricate and arcane. But the best strategists can reduce, refine, distil. They bring simplicity to the sophisticated; comprehension to the complex.

‘We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.’
Orson Welles

However, the art of compression may be under threat in the world of modern marketing. This era is more long-form and content-driven; more conversational and cross platform; more networked and nuanced.

We should beware: of presuming too much on consumers’ time and attention; of compromising our ability to suggest and co-create; of drowning in our own complexity.

Over recent years it’s become fashionable to predict that advertising may become a redundant form altogether (though ironically the digital economy seems unhealthily dependent on ads). I have always contended that, even if advertising disappeared from the planet, we’d still want to sustain its discipline: the distillation, reduction, compression. We might even produce ads and throw them away, just for the learning we derive from the process…

‘If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.’
Orson Welles

Finally, there’s a more fundamental lesson that brands could learn from Citizen Kane. And it’s not about compression at all. Despite all his professional and material success, Charles Foster Kane was an unhappy man. He was unloved. He didn’t understand that you should not expect people to love you if you can’t love them back.

Jedediah Leland: ‘That’s all he ever wanted out of life…was love. That’s the tragedy of Charles Foster Kane. You see, he just didn’t have any to give.’
Citizen Kane

No. 78

NOTES FROM THE HINTERLAND 7

Girlhood: What’s Your Youth Policy?

Girlhood is a tale of young female street gangs from the Parisian banlieue. It examines the drugs, deprivation, delinquency and diminished choices in the modern city environment. It features streetfights, shoplifting, bullying and prostitution.

Girlhood is certainly a challenging film. But the abiding impression one takes from it is the incandescent beauty of youth. Girlhood’s young stars are funny, graceful, resourceful and strong. Their charisma creates the poignancy that is at the heart of the movie. What a waste…

Many say that ours is a culture that loves youth too much. I don’t think we love it enough.

Of course there’s endless historic evidence of the potential of young people to remake the world around them. Alexander the Great conquered most of the known universe before he was 30; Descartes wrote ‘I think, therefore I am’ when he was 23; Orson Welles co-wrote, produced, directed and starred in Citizen Kane when he was 26. Youth properly directed can be the engine of change and innovation in any field of activity, within any community or business.

In the communications industry we tend to hire young people en masse. We train them as best we can. We give them bike racks, breakfast and Bacchic revels. And then we set them to work on long hours and short deadlines.

But do we properly appreciate our young colleagues’ empathy with other young consumers, with the challenges of urban living, with the changing landscape of technology?

Do we sufficiently value their particular ability to think anew about old problems? Do we trust them with the creative and strategic decisions that matter?

Can we afford to continue losing talent to technology businesses and entrepreneurial enterprises that don’t put an age limit on responsibility?

Does the communications industry need a strategy for youth?

(I should just say, by the way, that, while I am in awe of youth, my generation did have better music…)

 

Photograph 51: Do We Need More Proof-Obsessed Loners?

https://askabiologist.asu.edu

Photograph 51 by Anna Ziegler opened in the West End last week. It stars Nicole Kidman as Rosalind Franklin, the British x-ray crystallographer whose 1952 image of a DNA molecule led to the revelation that DNA, ‘the building block of life’, has a double helix structure.

The credit for this breakthrough has largely gone to the Cambridge scientists, Francis Crick and James Watson, who built a model of DNA inspired by Franklin’s photo, and to Maurice Wilkins, who worked with Franklin at King’s College, London. These three were awarded a Nobel Prize in 1962. Franklin, who died from cancer in 1958 at the age of 37 and therefore did not qualify for the Prize, was written out of the story, in no small part because of sexism within the science community. (Thank goodness things have changed since then…)

The play considers the different working methods of the scientists involved. Franklin operated in isolation and was obsessed with original data and experimental proof. By contrast Crick and Watson were team players who dealt in intuition, hypothesis and models.

Photograph 51 implies that science progresses at pace when these two approaches interact: rigorous, data-driven research and bold, imaginative supposition. There’s a suggestion that science could do with a little more of Crick and Watson’s creativity and flair.

I suspect we in the communications industry would also do well to follow this hybrid approach, but that we suffer the opposite dilemma: we have a wealth of intuitive team players; however, we’re not over-supplied with proof-obsessed loners. Perhaps we could do with a few more Rosalind Franklins.

 

World Ballet Day: Where Athleticism Meets Art

1 October is World Ballet Day. Five of the world’s leading ballet companies will unite for a day of live-streamed rehearsals, interviews and insights. If you think ballet is just tutus, tiaras, Nutcrackers and nursery stories, I urge you to reconsider and log-on.

What fascinates me about ballet is that it brings together sporting precision and performance with creative innovation and style. The dancers are exceptional athletes, demonstrating discipline, teamwork and sheer hard graft. They train hard and learn fast, together. But they are also thoughtful, artistic people who co-create, interpret and inspire. They have their own individual aesthetic, personality and flair. It’s an intoxicating cocktail.

Business could learn a lot from ballet.

 

If Only Life and Business Had a Prompter

I attended a play in preview last week. An unfortunate actor had a number of long, elaborate speeches to deliver and, as it was so early in the run, on a handful of occasions he forgot his lines. He looked up severely at the prompter sitting with a text in the front row and said rather forcefully, ‘Yes, please’. Thus prompted, the prompter gave him the next line and the actor was back on track.

It struck me as something of a shame that we don’t have prompters on hand in life and business. I have often been in the middle of what I thought was a compelling exposition, only for words to fail me at the crucial moment. If only I could just look up there and then, turn to one side and intone ,‘Yes, please'…

No. 49