Nubar Gulbenkian, the Armenian millionaire who, with his huge spade beard, monocle and button-hole lily, graced the London social scene in the Fifties and Sixties, was so impressed by thecapital’s black cabs that he bought a chauffeured model of his own.
“It can turn on a sixpence,” he used to boast, adding archly, “whatever that is.”
The celebrated philanthropist would have been still more impressed by the formidable turning power of Rover, which, in the course of one revolving moon, first declared it had no intention whatever of withdrawing a controversial television advertisement, and then promptly did so.
The commercial showed a Rover 600 being driven up a rocky mountain track in some far-flung, boulder-strewn passage to India. It is met by a gang of armed tribesmen wearing grubby turbans and thickets of facial hair so dense that if razor blades ever caught on in that North-West territory, folk in Wall Street would be killed in the stampede to buy Gillette shares. A blindfolded Westerner is thrust from the pack of brigands into the back seat of the Rover and driven away. As the car speeds down the track he is seen, still blindfold, crawling over the rear seats, sniffing and caressing them with pleasure.
Scores of viewers complained to Rover and the Independent Television Commission, alleging that the advertisement was insensitive to the plight of Britons held captive abroad. When the storm broke, a spokesman for Rover UK operations stood his ground. “This was never intended to represent a hostage situation, it was a diplomatic exchange of prisoners,” he said. “We are sorry to hear the ad may have been interpreted incorrectly but there are no plans to withdraw it.”
Within 24 hours, A Spokesman was brushed aside and silenced. In his place stood a contrite Bernard Carey, corporate affairs director of Rover Group. “If we have offended anyone, we apologise,” he announced, giving a new and imaginative twist to the word “if” and a commensurately half-hearted meaning to the word “apologise”. “We are sensitive to the feelings of the public and our customers and it was never our intention to cause offence,” he added. “In the light of the personal concerns raised, we have decided to withdraw the commercial.”
Was that a good and proper decision? Commercial freedoms, like others, ought not to be discarded so readily. Though Rover undoubtedly did give offence, most notably to the close relatives of two men held captive by Kashmiri separatists and feared dead, the worst that can be said of the ad was that it was in doubtful taste, and if that were a crime this sceptred isle would be a nation of convicted felons.
And just as there are countless ways of giving offence, some intentional some not, there are a myriad ways of taking offence. There are, too, people for whom the taking of offence is a source of profound satisfaction. For them, to be disgusted is to be fulfilled, and there is no greater pleasure than to describe the thing that offends as “obscene”, surely the most overworked adjective in the language. Years ago, a commercial for Danish bacon was hastily withdrawn because, playing on the expression “saving your bacon”, it appeared to make light of the work of the nation’s fire brigades. Much was the offence given and gratefully was it received.
If Rover has learnt anything from its bruising experience at the hands of those who suck their teeth and tut their tuts, it is that humour is a weapon that often explodes in the hands of its users. Not, it must be admitted, that a released hostage appreciating the back seat of a car is much of a pleasantry. Truth to tell, it wasn’t much of an ad either.
If Rover was guilty of poor taste and thoughtlessness (and no doubt obscenity in the eyes of the offended) how much greater was its misjudgment measured purely in commercial terms? For reasons that have not been satisfactorily explained, motor advertising in the UK seems awash both with cash and extravagantly incomprehensible creativity. Enormous sums are spent on lavish commercials whose message is at best obscure and at worst totally concealed. The chances are that if an ad comes on the screen that makes you wonder what is going on and why, and answers neither question, it’s for a car. Perhaps it is a passing fashion. More likely, it is because the message is so worthless it is best buried.
If Rover’s point was that its car seats are comfortable, it’s a pitifully small point. A maker of toothbrushes might as usefully proclaim that his product comes complete with bristles. And if, as could be argued, motor ads are more concerned with brand building than product specification, how is it that one can usually recall at least part of the baffling story line but seldom the make of car that’s being promoted? There are men up ladders, women in the desert, hedgehogs in the road, Americans shouting in a deli, Ruby Wax just shouting, and if you were to swap the brands around no one would notice the difference.
Perhaps Rover was clever after all. Had it not caused such widespread and profound disgust, ie at least 60 complaints, most of us could have sworn the hostage was riding to freedom in the back of a Honda.