Brexit, Blackcurrants and Bombing French Polynesia
Let me take you back to the summer of 1996. The French are conducting nuclear tests on Muroroa Atoll, 800 miles southeast of Tahiti. The environmental damage to the region after thirty years of bombardment is enormous and Greenpeace is bringing the attention of the world to what is happening down in the South Pacific.
This isn’t an isolated incident either. Ten years earlier, French secret agents attach explosive devices to the Greenpeace flagship, Rainbow Warrior while it is berthed in Auckland Harbour, blowing it out of the water and killing an activist.
At the same time that French Polynesia is facing yet more radioactive fallout, Jim Bolton and I are briefed to create a TV spot for a minor flavour of Britvic’s fizzy drinks brand, Tango. What Tango don’t realise is that one of their creatives is an ardent supporter of Greenpeace, Amnesty International, Anti Vivisection and Compassion in World Farming. He is a vegetarian and a Christian. And he is furious at what the French are doing in the southern ocean.
On the surface, "St George" showed Tango spokesperson Ray Gardner raging at a letter from a French exchange student and challenging the world to a fight. Beneath the surface was a different matter. HHCL teams regularly inserted hidden messages into their work. Dave Buonaguidi and Naresh Ramchandani were famous for it, having subliminally embedded a speech by Che Guevara into an ad for Pot Noodle.
So while the world saw a man ranting at the French for not liking his fizzy drink, the militant twenty-something me was ranting at them for detonating atom bombs, polluting the skies and the seas and sabotaging people’s right to protest.
Recently, the ad has been enjoying more and more outings. Ben Priest and Emer Stamp chose it as one of their favourite three commercials for Campaign’s Thinkbox Series. A couple of weeks ago, Radio Four described it as “era defining” and, as Brexit looms, it is beginning to look like its theme song.
To be fair, the ad deliberately plays into the centuries-old animosity between the English and their closest neighbours, and might easily play into the hands of the kind of Brexiteer who is suspicious of “abroad” and wants Blighty to remain an island. So yes, it was a direct attack on France, but it was not a call for Britain to separate itself from the EU.
Ray’s cries of “Come on France, Europe, the World” are ludicrous. They are not the xenophobic ambitions of a middle England bigot, they are the ranting of a man whose vitriol has got the better of him. He feels invincible. He has a thousand men and women and three Harrier jets behind him. He can take on anyone and anything. In reality, he’s 46 and has to get up for work in the morning, and he has probably booked a family holiday in Tuscany.
The call to bring Europe and the world into the fight was a veiled attack on Coke who, at the time, were the only brand that could hope to put out a 90 second TV ad for a soft drink. Tango was calling time on the beautiful people and the mystique of brands selling dreams and was showing the raw guts of what it takes to get a product onto the shelves. Most of the Britvic factory were out on the cliffs with Ray Gardner and their cheers were genuine.
For me, the ad shows the power of youthful idealism – a belief that the world can and should be a better place, and a trust that in advertising, anything is possible. Jim and I were blessed with a client from heaven and a team at HHCL who also believed that a feature length ad starring an overweight middle manager ranting at the French was exactly what 1996 needed. It might not be what 2019 needs but somewhere out there, that ad is brewing, and if a little idealism is what is giving it wings, then let’s hope it flies.