SBHD: Those marketers feeling relaxed and complacent after Christmas fare (and bonuses) should heed the cautionary tale of the `most glamorous cruise offer in the world’
Each new year is a milestone in mankind’s endless discovery of the chasm that lies between his aspirations and his achievements.
Almost at its close, the year that has just passed was more forgiving than most. True, there was the cook, her lumpy lasagne and the cocksure little public servant who found it uncongenial to his taste. There was, too, David Mellor. And, as ever, there was the Citizen’s Charter, the Classless Society and the Department of National Heritage, all shadowy illusions in a Never Never Land somewhere between imagination and reality.
It was only as 1994 stumbled into the arms of the Grim Reaper that she presented us with one indelible memory. For years to come, we shall recall the Christmas cruise of the refitted QE2. Seldom in the history of seafaring, let alone marketing, has promise been so outdistanced by performance.
The pages of British maritime history are filled with tales of suffering, hardship and courage. Life at sea was, as Winston Churchill memorably observed, characterised by rum, sodomy and the lash. Pleasure cruises were thought to be an improvement on that, until the QE2 set sail on December 18.
First let us examine the promise. In a PR ploy it may now regret, Sainsbury’s Magazine offered its readers the chance to win a cruise on Cunard’s flagship, the "famous Queen Elizabeth 2". A trip aboard the most glamorous ship in the world was, promised the magazine, the trip of a lifetime.
"To step aboard the new QE2 is to experience the incomparable romance, grandeur and tradition of the most elegant liner ever to sail the seas…you can pamper yourself…you may just want to relax by taking a leisurely stroll on deck…or simply seek out one of the ship’s solitary corners to revel in the pleasure of leaving all your everyday cares far behind."
Sainsbury’s shoppers – a discerning lot – may no longer want the prize. Indeed, many might find the prospect of a trip aboard a convict lugger lashed to the mizzen mast more appealing.
For all are now aware of the reality. Life on the "most glamorous ship in the world" in the dying days of 1994 was, in the words of one passenger, "a horror story". News filtered back to the civilised world of a force nine gale in the midst of which no voyagers either pampered themselves or sought out a solitary corner. As the mighty vessel lurched and heaved at the foot of mountainous waves, teams of plumbers, retained to make last-minute adjustments to the Ãº30m refit, felt sick and downed tools.
Everywhere was chaos. Tools, rolls of carpet, wires and builders’ rubble filled the swimming pools. Gangways were blocked by similar rubbish and unwell plumbers. Ugly brown stains appeared on those carpets that had been fitted. The lavatories failed to work, obliging passengers to flush with the aid of ice buckets.
It was even said that aboard the stricken vessel sewage lapped the ankles of the unwary.
And the more the passengers complained, the more we laughed. It may be no credit to human nature, but it is nevertheless undeniable that when our fellow citizens seek to pamper themselves in sumptuous surroundings but are discomforted in squalor, we find it amusing.
There is too much genuine misery in the world to expend sorrow on the well-to-do whom fate has thrown together with sick plumbers on the high seas.
It is, however, one thing for armchair spectators to adopt an attitude of bemused detachment, and quite another when the company presiding over the cruise takes a haughty stance.
Cunard was undoubtedly at fault in allowing the QE2 to set sail in a condition that recalled the bygone era of the outdoor privy, but it was more eccentric still in appointing Michael Gallagher as its spokesman.
Told of the mounting restlessness of the muck-stained, storm-tossed pleasure-seekers, he became shirty.
Told further that there were plans to stage a sit-in (taking care, of course, what one sat in), he became indignant. "It seems ridiculous to me," he spluttered. "They have been whinging to get off and now they don’t want to leave. I really don’t know what they hope to prove."
The problem, he added, was that there were ringleaders trying to stir up trouble.
Wouldn’t you know it? There are always one or two troublemakers. While most Britons on a luxury cruise will quite happily take off their tiaras and buckle down to swilling out the loo with a champagne bucket, you can bet your boots that some snivelling whingers will kick up a fuss.
Perhaps Gallagher’s comments were felt to be too abrasive but, for whatever reason, he was supplanted as spokesman by Tom Smith, head of corporate communication at Trafalgar House, Cunard’s parent company, who took a more conventionally emollient line.
It, he said employing that innocent little pronoun to embrace everything from vomiting artisans to unspeakable sanitation, was "very unfortunate and regrettable".
"Our first thought is with those who have experienced such an unpleasant cruise."
There will be more thoughts to come if the hapless voyagers carry out their threat to sue Cunard in the US courts for millions of dollars.
As the world of marketing braces itself for the challenges that lie ahead in the next twelve months, all those who ply this honest trade should pause a moment and think of Tom Smith. For there, but for the grace of great good luck, go the rest of us. On the other hand, if you work for British Gas you’re already there.