Poster medium has the power to survive in tomorrow’s world

T he 48-sheet poster that hits you as you enter the exhibition is not for those of a sensitive disposition.

“French connection uk someone” it blares (though that may not be the ideal verb, given the dubious nature of the message and the highly respectable sponsor of the display, namely the Government).

For this exhibition is not the much-hyped “The Power of the Poster” at the Victoria & Albert, but the even more hyped “Powerhouse:UK” in Horseguards Parade – a celebration of British design and creativity, coolly laid out in four shiny inflatable space capsules by the Department of Trade & Industry.

Given that the Advertising Standards Authority gave a firm thumbs down to the previous fcuk poster – “fcuk advertising” – on the grounds that it brought the industry into disrepute, one might have thought the DTI would have thought twice before promoting this poster as the best of British.

But this, of course, is a Cool Britannia exhibition, designed to embrace such anti-establishment icons as Liam Gallagher and Trainspotting. Unfortunately, the outdoor contractor on whose “street-furniture” the fcuk poster is rotating, the all-British More Group, is about to be taken over by a French or American company (depending on how the JC Decaux-Clear battle is viewed by those two DTI offshoots, the Office of Fair Trading and the Monopolies & Mergers Commission).

As the exhibition hints, without quite spelling it out, British designers do much of their best work for our European competitors, who have a greater appreciation of the importance of design.

And at least the outdoor industry is there, in this cutting-edge display of the best of British. Not so long ago, it might have been overlooked – or positively rejected, as an environmentally-unfriendly business that encouraged the public to smoke or drink itself to death.

Indeed, OFT inquiries apart, the outdoor industry must still be pinching itself at finding a Labour Government that is positively enthusiastic about advertising and posters. The last one – for those with long memories – had ministers like Shirley Williams and Roy Hattersley sternly warning the ad industry that unless it pulled its socks up and stopped conning consumers it would find itself curbed by tough new laws. Oh yes, and tobacco advertising – then one of the mainstays of outdoor – would be banned forthwith (that young Dr Owen – then the health minister – was particularly scathing about the ad-person’s role in cutting short smokers’ lives.)

But that was then and this is now. Interviewing the consumer affairs minister Nigel Griffiths for this week’s StreetTalk conference in Madrid, I had to keep reminding myself that this was a Labour minister. He radiated good will towards the creative community, stressed the vital importance of good communication and made it clear he didn’t share the concern of those who complained about posters for bras and Benetton.

Yes, tobacco advertising will be banned (as Labour was saying before it was so rudely interrupted by 18 years of Conservative rule) but he dismissed fears that this would start a domino run of other advertising bans, on products like alcohol and “unhealthy” foodstuffs.

Of course, two weeks ago, Griffiths was to be seen on TV in a hard hat at the top of a ladder, launching his own ad campaign, warning us to take care when tackling those tricky DIY jobs. He was on a ladder to illustrate the dangers of falling off – not to paste up a poster – but no doubt outdoor will reap the rewards of the Government’s advertising largesse in due course.

It certainly has in the past, as the Power of the Poster exhibition at the V&A reminds us. In the age before television, the Government and its agencies were constantly putting up posters warning the populace of the dangers of careless talk, careless sex and careless living generally. “Where there’s dirt there’s danger” warned the Council for Health & Cleanliness, 40 years before the Pregnant Man made such “nanny state-ments” fashionable. Both posters are there in all their glory, along with a whole wall devoted to variations on a recruiting theme by Lord Kitchener and Uncle Sam. They include two powerful anti-Vietnam images – one showing Uncle Sam as a skeleton, the other saying “Uncle Sam Wants Out”.

There are many fascinating juxtapositions – an anti-Aids poster next to Club 18-30’s “Beaver España” or the Marlboro Man next to its anti-smoking variants (such as the cowboy in an iron lung) would have been both entertaining and instructive, even if embarrassing to the exhibition’s sponsors, Maiden, Decaux, More and Mills & Allen.

As it is, the outdoor contractors have got their moneysworth, for the exhibition is a fascinating demonstration of the power of the poster – except in one respect.

After acre upon acre of classic posters, the past 20 years of commercial posters are hidden away, almost as an afterthought, in a wall-and-a-half of anticlimax. Though the modern classic, “Hello Boys”, is there in all its 48-sheet splendour – though so high up one might easily miss it – the rest of the modern work is so meanly displayed they don’t feel like posters at all, but double-page spreads from a colour supplement.

In fact, some of the ads selected – such as the Häagen-Dazs and Smirnoff vodka work – surely were conceived as double-page spreads and only made it into outdoor as an afterthought. And genuinely large-scale posters, such as Nike’s “Eric”, “I never read The Economist” and the Benetton series (which may also have had an outing in magazines) are so small their power is diminished.

The V&A may be a museum, but surely it’s wrong to portray posters as yesterday’s medium.

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