A shaggy dog story

Churchill’s latest television commercial, starring Dawn French
Pater used to sell insurance. Actually, that does him very little justice at all. He was something of a nob at a rather large financial services company – not that anyone referred to it as such back then. And briefly, the marketing director having let everyone down, as marketing directors are prone to do, father was drafted in to have a look at what those dreadful little people down at the advertising agents had been up to.

He didn’t like what he found. No. Not one bit of it. At some point, way back in the mists of marketing time, someone somewhere had been visited by a vision of a golden egg – and the company’s (the one father worked for, that is) advertising tended to feature endless variations on this theme. A naturalistic picture of a bird’s nest, in situ, say – but featuring a clutch of golden eggs instead of the speckled variety. And, over the years, the campaign had actually become rather stripped back, minimalist and abstract. Ads in the colour supplements would show a huge, beautifully photographed golden egg, just the one, just that and nothing else, against a pure white background. The merest hint of soft focus shadow. Plus a pun in three or four beautifully typeset words. Plus the company logo.

Anyway. Pater conducted a focus group exercise (in the back bar of the clubhouse at Muirfield) and, having had his fears and suspicions confirmed, he sought further advice from the most reliable sources he could think of – his former chums in the RAF and top flight rugby. (Not as stupid as it sounds, as it happens – one of the former was Tony O’Reilly.)

They told him in no uncertain terms that people (and, by this, they meant the man or woman in the street and on the smoking deck of the omnibus) never paid any attention whatsoever to advertising unless it featured babies or puppies.

He took this intelligence, instanter, round to the offices of the advertising agents, of course he did; and they told him, in the nicest way possible, to naff off.

The story doesn’t end there, naturally; but you have enough of it to see where I’m going with this. We’re not trying to pull some sort of archly cute stunt here. We’re not going to argue that Churchill, in evoking Britain’s legendary wartime leader, manages to conjure up both babies (all babies are said to resemble Winston) and puppies (although the Churchill dog is an old dog, he exhibits a winsomely youthful twinkle).

No. The Churchill dog’s gravelly voice is the sound made by that rarest of beasts, the time-ravaged yet cheerfully optimistic Yorkshireman. He is, unmistakeably, an old bulldog.

Which brings us rather neatly (and not before time) to Dawn French – a performer whose magic act is (we might humbly suggest) admirably impervious to the absorption of novel elements.

The new commercial in which she stars is, we are attempting to argue, in a very real sense, a puppy free zone. And actually, this production, courtesy of WCRS, could be up there with the most incestuous commercials ever made.

This isn’t half as exciting as it sounds… unless, that is, you’re a fan of ad industry in-jokes. Because, of course, it references not just any old ad, but an ad made by the television advertising marketing board, aka Thinkbox. You know the one. It shows Harvey, incarcerated in a cell in a Battersea-style dogs’ home, using the power of television advertising to tempt prospective new owners.

So perhaps, if we’re pushed to it, what we might be arguing here is that this Churchill ad is, once again, a missed opportunity.

But, as father tended to say: If you are going to lay an egg, do try to make sure it’s a golden one.

And in passing, we’d be failing in our duties if we didn’t alert Ms French to the curse of the Churchill ad. And yes, it might be argued that, in talking glibly of “the curse of the Churchill ad,” we are being slightly disingenuous.

Only two of the celebrities associated with this campaign – Vic Reeves and Martin Clunes – have been dropped following driving disqualifications. We are not implying that any of the other celebrities who have graced the Churchill ads (which have been running since 1996 and have given welcome financial succour to a string of sort-of familiar faces like Rolf Harris) have ever attempted to drive while intoxicated or, indeed, driven too quickly when sober.

We don’t even know if Dawn drives. All we are suggesting is that you can never be too careful.

There. Done. We’re conscious, now, that when we embarked on this essay, we had been in half a mind to work cats in there too somewhere. Because cats are, it has to be acknowledged, just as potent as dogs in the advertising bestiary. And in that spirit we were toying with the idea of sharing our little homily about Sir Martin Sorrell and Mrs Slocombe’s pussy. But we’ll now have to save that for another day. Perhaps next week, in anticipation of the great man’s birthday.
With all permissions. Additional reporting by Sebastian Bell.

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