A word about our sponsors

Well, it wasn’t mean to be this way. I Tweeted this morning in reaction to seeing the great Mo Farah clowning in a new Virgin Media ad in my newspaper beside Usain Bolt in stick-on Richard Branson beards. I felt, instinctively, without thinking very hard about it, that it was a shame that an athlete so beloved and lauded for his amazing achievements on the track at the Olympics should be seen mucking about in an advert for broadband inside of a fortnight after the Games ended.

It’s not easy to convey complex feelings in under 140 characters, but I had a crack at it, and, judging by the deluge of antipathy it generated, I can now confidently conclude that I did a bad job of conveying my feelings. I’m going to try here, where it’s safe and warm, and I can ramble, which I’m better at.

The facts first: the Farah/Bolt print ad is a new campaign, launched across a number of national newspapers at the weekend. Virgin Media has signed up the Somali-born long distance runner in an open-ended deal estimated to be worth £500,000. The campaign has been created by BBH. Jeff Dodds, executive director of brand and marketing communications at Virgin Media, said: “After delivering a stellar performance in the Olympic Games, Mo has found a special place in all of our hearts and is a fully fledged national hero. We’re absolutely delighted to be working with him. Virgin Media is all about delivering brilliant entertainment, and nobody has got the nation cheering at their TVs more than Mo over the last couple of weeks.”

Nobody’s arguing with that. I have almost no interest in watching athletics, as you know, but even I found myself drawn to the living room to watch Farah win the 5000m. You’d have needed a hard heart not to be drawn into the drama. He seems like a nice chap, too. Indeed, it’s the unifying and, yes, iconic power of Farah crossing that finishing line that’s worth preserving. To me, on a visceral level, the sight of him mucking about with a stick-on beard, so soon after his magnificent victory threatens to subtract from it.

Now, in saying this, I do not deny Mo Farah £500,000. As many people were quick to point out, indignantly, he’s got a family, and twins on the way, and he can now support them in a manner that surely befits the love felt for him around GB. But I never meant to criticise him for taking money from a sponsor. All sportspeople do it, seemingly at every level. And, as others pointed out, Farah’s window of opportunity closes very quickly. I’m sure it does. Virgin were very clever to sign him up after signing Bolt. They’ve now got two runners on their books, who, together, are surely worth more than they would be individually.

Unlike, say, Premiership football, which pays out large sums for most of the year to the biggest players at its biggest clubs, athletics is not a big-earning job, even though training is continuous between the big international meets, so the athletes must struggle to keep their dream alive. With this in mind, you’d have to be quite the idealist to suggest that Farah shouldn’t do whatever his sponsors ask him to. He seems like a laugh. He does that Mo-bot thing. I’m sure he’s totally fine with putting on a daft beard.

Dignity is subjective. Some people would do anything. Others would rather die than draw attention to themselves. Athletes compete in public, but this does not make them entertainers. I always feel sorry for them when a microphone is shoved in their face moments after finishing an event or game. It’s hard enough to articulate how you feel about winning or losing at the best of times, but when you are puffed out and rushing with conflicted emotions, it must be awful. But it’s part of the game.

I am an idealist. And it gets me into deep water. I seriously do not think Mo Farah should have told Jeff Dodds at Virgin Media, “Stick the false beard up your arse, contract or no contract!” It’s just a bit of fun, and if you take Virgin’s money, especially that much, then I’m afraid you work for them. I’m assuming Farah’s got a very good agent. I hope so.

To cite a really remote personal example: in the mid-90s, when I was the editor of Q magazine, Stuart Maconie and I had our photograph taken by ITV publicity to promote our film review show The Movie Club. We arrived at the photo studio to find racks of humorous, movie-related costumes. I took umbrage and had what must be one of five tantrums I have ever had in my professional life, refusing to wear any of the stupid wigs or costumes. I explained that I was, by day, the editor of a magazine, a job with a certain amount of responsibility, and that being photographed looking a dick would work against that. We found a compromise, and used some props, and it was all fine. But what I was trying to preserve was my dignity, I guess. Typically, only one shot from the session was ever used anywhere, in black and white. This is it.

Dignity fluctuates according to circumstance. People become more protective of their dignity as they get older. Now, I think you will agree, a magazine editor having to put on a hat for a promotional photo shoot for which he will not be paid extra, and a world-class, Olympic gold-medalist having to put on a beard for a print ad for which he will be paid handsomely are worlds apart. But I was closet to being a nobody in the mid-90s; if anybody “owned” me it was Emap, who paid my salary for editing Q, and my duty was to them. Rightly or wrongly, but with the best intentions, I think the nation feels a certain “ownership” not of Mo Farah, but of the shared experience of those two unforgettable Saturday-night track victories. Jeff Dodds is right: the nation does have a special place in its collective heart for Mo Farah. My love of Mo Farah manifests itself in an idealistic wish that he could earn money, plenty more than he needs, by appearing in adverts that are in some way connected to his achievement.

Hey, I have no love for the corporate hegemony of the likes of Nike or Adidas, but at least sportspeople who appear in their adverts are selling sports equipment. Virgin Media are no more evil than any large company or brand, but the link to the “speed” of their broadband is tenuous, and as such, is not about Farah’s athletic achievement. So he has to wear a beard for a joke about Richard Branson. Just like Usain Bolt did. I just wish he’d been able to wait for – I don’t know – a couple more weeks? Maybe the public’s window of opportunity to savour the moment also closes. I’m discussing this with myself now, in many more than 140 characters.

Don’t be an idealist, kids. It makes you feel sad on a near daily basis, when things don’t go according to your insane plan. If I was in charge, I’d make sure that all sport, amateur and professional, was properly funded and rewarded, so that stars like Farah wouldn’t need to take the corporate shilling. Fortunately, I am not in charge. And the world is run by private companies, who call the shots.

I like the idea of the Olympics being a truly egalitarian contest. May the best man or woman win, and reap the applause. Mo Farah was the fastest at running 5000m. Imagine if, instead of part funding sport through the National Lottery, which remains a tax on those who can least afford it, we funded it by collecting fair taxes from everybody, including corporations and the super rich? This mad system could then be adopted by other nations and the Olympics would belong to all of us, and not to Samsung and McDonald’s and Visa. And athletes could get bonuses, from this publicly-funded pot, for each medal they win, and use that to support their families, and further their careers.

I also made a satirical remark about how we could make the rich Premiership footballers share some of their earnings with the impoverished athletes – I even mentioned my own idealism to underline the joke – and you wouldn’t believe how many people took offence and started to defend Premiership footballers against my despicable plan. It was a joke about socialism, which will never work, right?

Kill me now.

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A critic is everyone

I wrote about this insidious new trend on the Radio Times website a while back, but today’s papers have added to my evidence file. Let’s reiterate first. In March, two ads for new films appeared within a couple of pages of each other in the London Evening Standard, and together, they almost formed a trend. The first was for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, already a hit, but understandably being advertised off the back of positive reviews, to ensure continued box office. These were some of the quotes on the ad:

“British film at its best … whoever you are, go and see this film!”

“The must-see film of the year!”

“A truly wonderful experience.”

Such notices are the sort that money cannot buy. The ad, which ran over half a page, was a colourful collage of such positive, gushing quotes. It was a very effective plug. However, if you looked more closely, you discovered that the reviews were not from critics, but members of the public:

Sheena, 55, Pudsey, West Yorkshire

Richard, 52, London

Anne, 51, Glasgow

At which point, I thought: “Genius.” Just like those TV ads where satisfied customers coming out of cinemas are buttonholed for their reaction. Not only was the ad saying: Forget the critics – this is what YOU thought of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, it gave the ages of the cinemagoers polled, not just underling the film’s older demographic but also subtly expanding upon it, so as not to limit its reach. The marketing department was shrewd enough to include people in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. (I’m in my 40s and I enjoyed the film, although I would urge anyone over 50 to go, as it is squarely aimed at them.)

A few pages later, I saw an advert for Project X, a much less marketable comedy, in that it has no famous people in it (a deliberate policy, as it’s presented as a home video), but came from “the producers of The Hangover” – always a bit of a desperate connection. It, too, had some rave reviews:

“Absolutely brilliant! I didn’t stop laughing. A game-changing film.”

“One of the best movies ever, everyone should watch it.”

It also had some high star ratings from magazines like Nuts, Heat and Loaded (spotting a trend?), but the quotes quoted above were from … Twitter. The first was posted by @larawadey, who I looked up. She seems to exist – although in March her avatar was of a sunbathing woman whose head is cropped off, usually the mark of a pornbot (it’s now a picture of a lady boxing, with a head on) – she’s in London and as of the last time I looked she has 157 followers, but no other biographical information is forthcoming. Who is she? One assumes she saw Project X and was independently moved to rave about it.

The other quote was Tweeted by @TheBigQas – a London band “using music to spread the message of Islam” – who today have 135 followers, which might have risen as a result of the ad in March. Their quote is nonetheless being used to “spread the message” of Project X. Why should I care what they think? Equally, why shouldn’t I care? And why should I care what Anthony Lane in the New Yorker thinks? (I could answer that but it would take too long.)

Two questions arise.

One: are ads in which the reviews and quotes come from members of the public poised to oust the once-regal film critics from their ivory towers? The internet is, after all, an egalitarian democracy – sometimes deafeningly so – where everybody’s opinion seems as important as everybody else’s, and none carries more weight than another.

Two: why should we trust these quotes?

For legal reasons, let it be known that I’m not suggesting for a moment that the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel reactions aren’t from real people; I’m certain they are! If I’d stood outside my local cinema after seeing it and harvested quotes from my fellow patrons, I’m sure I could have filled two adverts with raves. (Some critics were a bit sniffy, some not, but it is, at the end of the day, a people’s film.) However, I find the Twitter comments more worrying. Anybody could start an account on the social networking site, give themselves a stupid name, and write a great review of Project X, which could then be passed off as genuine. Who’s to know? It’s impossible to check.

Again, I’m sure the two quotes used by Project X are 100% independent and genuine. But it’s a technique that’s wide open to abuse.

Today, there’s an ad for the film Salmon Fishing In The Yemen, a quirky, feelgood, adult-aimed comedy whose professional reviews have been fine, but so-so, but whose marketing is wall-to-wall raves. Again, as well as repeating nice notices from Woman & Home and Easy Living, they have polled real moviegoers, presumably ones who’ve been to preview screenings, which are not uncommon. Here are some:

“An incredibly funny and sweet film I have no hesitation in recommending it to everyone”

“Delightfully charming and laugh out loud funny”

“I loved it as much as Marigold Hotel.”

And here are the names of the non-critics who assessed the film:

Anthony Sharpe, Bournemouth, 34

Penny Philpott, Southampton, 54

Susan Hockey, Norwich, 61

Again, the ages. Again, the towns. Assuming these are genuine, which we must, how clever to give this much information about them. We don’t just know how old the citizen critics are, we know where they live! And one of them has had the marketing nous to compare Yemen to Marigold Hotel.

Now, you have to believe me, I am not against this new methodology because it threatens my job, as I don’t think of myself as A Critic, I just write about films and sometimes review them. (I review more films on my blog than I do for magazines, and if I’m not being paid, I say I’m not a professional critic.) It’s democratic to ask “civilians” to review films, although in the case of Yemen, they can’t have paid to see it, and must have seen it at a special screening, which suggests a freebie. I guess this makes them even more like professional critics, who do not pay either. (I pay to see films at the cinema more than I attend screenings, so once again, I am less of a critic, more of a punter.)

I still find it a bit odd. What do others think? Do you, as punters, want other punters to review films, just as customers star-rate books on Amazon, or restaurants, holidays, electrical appliances etc. on other websites? Does the seasoned film critic have any place in this democratic world? Should the Guardian pay Peter Bradshaw to review films when it could just ask members of the public to do it for free?

Perhaps – fingers crossed! – this new, democratic form of advertising will, in fact, return film critics to their ivory towers, where they can continue dispensing their opinions from positions of privilege but with verifiable credentials. You may not agree with my views on a film, but at least I’m real, and you can check my CV. How are we to contextualise Penny Philpott, Southampton, 54?

The PepsiCo Challenge

I went into a Shell garage for a paper and I saw some eye-catching signage promoting the Shell shop’s new sandwich/snack/drink range, Deli2go. Nothing unusual about this. Since the success of BP’s Wild Bean Café, petroleum giants have been falling over themselves to massage their garage shops upmarket. Deli2go is Shell’s go at this. The poster I saw was doing little more than advertise a “meal deal” promotion, where you pay a fixed price of £3.99 for a pre-packed sandwich, some kind of snack like a bag of crisps or a sausage roll, and a drink, such as a Coke, or a juice. I’m sure this will appeal to drivers looking for a quick fix of carbohydrate-based fuel, and will fool a few people into buying three items when they only want, or need, one or two. What tickled me about the promotion was this line, which appears underneath a mocked-up image of a wicker basket lined with gingham, containing the sandwich, crisps and Coke:

Inspired by farmers’ markets

Inspired by farmers’ markets? Have you ever heard anything so flimsy and pathetic? I’ve looked into it, and Deli2go use things like “farm-assured” cheese and “line and pole-caught” fish, which is to be praised and the veracity of whose ethical claims is not to be queried, but to throw in the weasel phrase “inspired by” and then link takeaway food to “farmers’ markets” is a cosmic joke. Since actual farmers’ markets are all about the producer cutting out the middle man and bringing their produce direct to consumers, which part of “farmers’ markets” is the processing of produce by a third party, packaging it up, distributing it around the country from a centralised base and selling it on at “value added” prices at garages is this “inspired by”? Oh. The idea of farmers’ markets! The notion of farmers’ markets! The general feeling of farmers’ markets! In actual fact, it’s inspired by the two words that make up the phrase “farmers’ markets”: farmers and markets. Sorry, I was being thick.

Shell is one of the largest oil companies in the world, with revenues in the hundreds of billions of dollars. I sometimes buy petrol from them. But I don’t take kindly to being treated like an idiot by their marketeers and corporate strategists. Shell and farmers’ markets are polar opposites in terms of what they do. How dare Shell claim to be inspired by markets? Inspired by the market, certainly. But not markets. I’ve been to a farmers’ market: it was some vans and trestle tables in a school playground on a Saturday morning with meat and cakes and vegetables for sale, in exchange for cash. The vans might run on Shell petrol but that’s where the connection ends.

I think we live in a deeply sad world. A world where an oil company might seriously believe that it can sell more oil by pretending its fast food is in some way taking us back to nature. Corporations run our world, not governments – corporations to which I regularly give money, so don’t get any funny ideas that I think I am above it all. But it’s as well to see the danger. Corporations care about one thing and one thing only: the bottom line. This is why they are corporations and not governments or charities. They will do and say anything in order to take more money off us, even a single penny. (I loved it on Episode 3 of The Apprentice when one of the idiots complained that a gentlemen’s outfitters wouldn’t even take “one penny” off the retail price of a top hat. “Not even a penny – I mean how greedy can you get?” This is not a woman who understands capitalism and yet capitalism is her career choice.)

I have just read a typically fascinating and rigorous article by John Seabrook in the New Yorker (which I’d provide a link for, except that you have to be a subscriber to read their articles in full – non-subscribers can read a precis here), about PepsiCo, the largest food-and-beverage producer in the United States, and the second largest in the world after Nestlé. If PepsiCo were a country, its GDP would place it 66th in the world, between Ecuador and Croatia. It is not a country, it is a company. It rules the roost thanks to Pepsi, Tropicana, Gatorade, Fritos and Lay’s (which are crisps) and other “bad for you” snack brands. Actually, they don’t class them as “bad for you” at PepsiCo, they are “fun for you.” But the big drive there, at the Mecca of Snack, is to render their famous branded products as “good for you.” How? By reducing the salt and sugar content, mainly, but also by reintroducing things like antioxidants and vitamins into products where such inconveniences have been processed out in the process of processing them into other things. Why are they doing this? Because they care about America’s obesity epidemic, and obesity epidemics further afield? No, because they care about the bottom line. And as people become increasingly aware of the link between eating snack food and drinking sweet drinks and getting fatter, they look to healthier options. In the piece, we learn that PepsiCo’s share of the useless food market is down – in 2010, sales of Pepsi cola were down 4.8%, and overall carbonated drinks were down 2.6%. One way to reverse this trend, the brains at boardroom level seem to think, is make people who eat unhealthy food think that it is healthy.

It’s a fascinating inside look at the way a massive corporation thinks, from the CEO – Indra Nooyi – down. Surprise, surprise, there’s a lot of jargon about food and drinks being “scientifically advantaged” (the Flora ProActiv revolution in action), and we discover that the PepsiCo HQ screensaver bears the phrase, “performance with purpose”, a brilliant way of rewriting the phrase, “profit with more profit.” On top of all this guff, Nooyi herself, while overseeing a taste test, says with a straight face that the next phase for PepsiCo is to “snackify” drinks, and “drinkify” snacks. It would be laughable were it not so deadly serious. Basically, the biggest food-and-beverage producer in America, whose $60 billion revenue in 2010 was largely supported by selling crisps and fizzy drinks, expects us to believe it when it tells us that it wishes to “re-educate” us. No it doesn’t. The only reason any corporation selling snacks and soda wants us to stay alive is so that we buy more snacks and soda. In an ideal world, it would keep us all on life-support systems so that we can at least still eat Fritos and drink Pepsi via tubes. It wants us alive, but only just.

This is fair enough. Why should any corporation care about obesity or health? Why should any corporation care about fair trade or farmers? It’s a corporation. It exists only to make money, and if it takes a penny off a top hat, it loses a penny that it would much prefer not to lose. Which is why it irritates me when a corporation, be it Pepsi or Shell, pretends it’s doing some good to the world. Pepsi doesn’t want its food to be “good for you,” it wants its food to appear better for you if it thinks you’re more likely to buy it if that’s the way it appears. If you, or I, fall for this, then more fool us. (And we do. We do.) Shell is not inspired by farmers’ markets; it wants to appear to be inspired by them if it thinks you’re more likely to buy their petrol if that’s the way it appears to you.

Mind you, £3.99 for a sandwich, crisps and Coke? More Coke! More Snickers! I love these products! I wish they sold them at the farmers’ market.