New line in sleeper services

BYLN: Iain Murray

BR’s new ‘sexy’ ad for the Brighton line may put bums on seats but, given the genuine fears of women travelling by train, it is sure to alienate potential female customers.

It has long been an axiom of advertising – as plain as the nipple on your breast – that sex sells.

You might think that all companies need to do is hitch the libidinous urge to their product and then watch the money roll in. But it’s not that easy. If it was, every campaign would be a runaway success and the economy as overheated as the consumers.

As Ogilvy & Mather’s founder David Ogilvy – once described as the Pope of modern advertising – says, the test is relevance: “The first ad I ever produced showed a naked woman. It was a mistake, not because it was sexy, but because it was irrelevant to the product – a cooking stove.”

Judged by that simple standard, British Rail’s new ad for the Brighton line is misconceived. Counselling readers to ignore the advice of a well-known sex consultant, it reads: “Dr Ruth? Pah! If you want to regain your sex life, try the 10:08 from Victoria. If you want to put some pep back into your bedroom activities perhaps you just need to get out of the bedroom.”

Passengers, advises Network SouthCentral, can be in Brighton “in less than an hour of passion-enhancing travel, leaving lots of time to see the sights. From the hotel bedroom, of course”.

There is more than a hint of desperation here, but I can sympathise with the copywriter. He or she must have felt much as Ogilvy did all those years ago when he was trying to say something new about Aga cookers and reached in rash despair for a nude. Charged with the task of enticing off-peak passengers on to the Brighton line, what brain would fail to numb?

All that can be usefully said about rail travel is already known. It’s expensive, dirty, unreliable and, as transport minister Stephen Norris helpfully pointed out, carries the risk of placing you in unpleasantly close proximity to strangers. That said, it is safer and less stressful than travelling by car.

But none of that is the stuff of which great advertising is made. So, with a dreadful inevitability, the copywriter casts around for something – anything – to say and settles for the airline escape route.

For years, the airlines have operated a cartel, carving up routes, fixing prices and making them indistinguishable from each other for all practical purposes. Yet they continue to advertise. Having nothing to say of any genuine interest to travellers, they devote hundreds of thousands of pounds to drawing attention to the width of their seats, charm of their stewardesses, excellence of their cuisine and lustre of their in-flight entertainment facilities, and, occasionally, the glamour of their destinations.

Since neither BR’s seats, staff or cuisine invite a mention, there’s nothing to fall back on save the destination. But whatever way you look at it, Brighton isn’t San Franciso, Sussex isn’t California and the English Channel isn’t the blue Pacific Ocean.

But there is one thing for which the jewel of the South Coast is renowned. San Francisco has its Golden Gate Bridge, with mists rolling in from the bay; Brighton has its dirty weekends, with fornicators rolling in on the 10:08.

Or do they? The true interest to fornicators is the fornication, not the travel. It is reasonable to assume that many arrive by car, some by bus and a few on bicycles. Fornicating ramblers arrive on foot. Some adulterers, of course, go by train. But the point is that the method of transport is irrelevant to the purpose of the journey.

What BR is selling is not rail travel but dirty weekends. (Unless you’re into sado-masochism, forget the idea that a journey by Network SouthCentral is passion enhancing.) The ad therefore fails the Ogilvy test: the sex is not relevant.

London Regional Passengers Committee secretary Rufus Barnes sees the ad as more than irrelevant. In his eyes, it’s downright dangerous: “It is especially wrong for a railway trying to reduce fear among women about travelling by train to issue such an ad.”

He has a point. We live in a superstitious, impressionable age. We have the worst educated population of any advanced Western economy. It is natural to suppose that semi-literate sex maniacs could be induced to travel to Brighton on the train in the hope of fulfilling BR’s promise. Some may even imagine their passions are being enhanced, with dire consequences for the female passengers to which Barnes alludes.

But is it right to fear for women in these egalitarian times? In 1983 Ogilvy wrote: “Advertising reflects the mores of society… The word ‘fuck’ is commonplace in contemporary literature, but has yet to appear in ads.”

Now it has. Well, almost. A new ad for Ryvita crispbread bears the slogan “Forget your F-Plan. Go for the F-it Plan.” A spokesman for the company, Karen Hornby, explains: “We are in the age of the F-it Plan. Women are taking control of their lives and are not prepared to take orders about what they eat.”

That may be true. But is it also the case that women today prefer to be addressed in the most coarse terms our language has to offer? If, as Hornby implies, these females who are taking control of their lives are also adopting the language, and therefore manners, of the poop deck on a pirate lugger, I for one would not give much for the chances of a sex-crazed half-wit who tackled a Ryvita eater on the Brighton line.

BR would certainly not come to his aid. You can do what you like in a railway carriage, including, should the train break down short of its destination and the urge prove impossible to sublimate, fornicate. But, whatever you do, don’t light up. BR takes a strong moral line on smoking.