Virgin Trains go all Wild West
THE ADVERTISER: Virgin Trains
THE BRIEF: Show that going by train gives you
THE SCHTICK: Apaches on horseback race down a
British hillside chasing a Virgin Pendolino train. In hot pursuit, they
fire arrows at it, to no avail. One manages to hang on to a window,
where he wields a tomahawk and gestures to a passenger that they want
his notebook. The passenger clutches the book to his chest, and the
Apache is knocked off by an approaching tunnel. The caption is:
"Man who go on big train have big idea."
THE BREAKDOWN: Seen one way, this advert is
refreshingly escapist. It's big, it's dramatic, it's got great scenery
and music, and is a stylish successor to last year's classic which
stitched together Hollywood moments (such as Eva Marie Saint canoodling
with Cary Grant) on board a modern Virgin train.
But seen another way, despite the excellence of the
production, it can be rather confusing, it buries its message, and it
can leave you feeling a little uncomfortable.
First the positive.
Apaches set pulses racing
For too long, the thinking goes, train travel has been
seen as the nightmare option, crippled with delays and overcrowding. So
Virgin's tactic has been to emphasise the romance of the train -
literally in the Cary Grant ad, and by extension here.
Going by train gives you time to ponder, space to look
at the scenery, and opportunity to daydream. Crucially, here, it's the
sort of place you might have a really good idea.
In staging the Apaches attack in the English countryside
(filming was done in County Durham and Cumbria), director Fredrik Bond -
who gave the world the dancing jellyfish for mobile phone network 3 -
has authentically brought a feel of the Wild West.
In a delightfully random way, the Apaches knock over a
cyclist but ignore a couple of shepherds, who only seem faintly amused.
Their whoops and arrows and their horses' pounding hooves almost get the
viewer's pulse racing. The passenger, who has just been pictured having
a smart thought and jotting it down, is puzzled and vaguely threatened
until it becomes clear that, yes, the Apaches are after him.
Brand consultant Keith Lovegrove, author of Railway:
Identity, Design and Culture, who was a fan of the Cary Grant advert and
is impressed with this one too, says he particularly enjoyed the notion
of the Apache chief attempting to steal the passenger's intellectual
copyright. "Perhaps that's the 21st Century equivalent of
lever-action Winchester Carbines," he says.
Big ideas brigade
But for him the masterstroke is that the passenger is
not typing on a laptop, or thumbing something into a Blackberry, he's
using a pencil and notebook. The advert knows its market - people who
like to think of themselves as having big ideas and writing them down.
"It's an advertising creative director's concept for the creative
market," he says. "It's indulgent and that's probably why it
It's only a First Class
"I think an advertisement should firstly entertain
and then inform. This does both, although I notice that a quick
fade-in/fade-out subtitle tells us from the outset that this exciting
interlude may be experienced in 'First Class only'. Train travel does
give one time to think, possibly more so in first class where there are
fewer fellow passengers and even fewer children."
There is a downside, however. One Native American living
in the UK - part of a community reported to be just 25-strong - has
complained that the advert is "trying to show us as savages or
dumb-ass Indians who are going to be wiped off the face of the
Earth". He is not alone - there have been 49 complaints to the
Advertising Standards Authority about racism and stereotypes in the
advert, and the ASA is now investigating the matter.
Virgin's position is that the advert "spoofs the
cowboy and Indian genre and is quite tongue-in-cheek", which is
undoubtedly true. With the use of language, a spokesman said, it's clear
that the advert is based on the film genre rather than showing
disrespect to Native Americans today.
Often in these kinds of cases you would find stereotypes
being subverted, and it might be one of the watchdog's considerations
that this advert does not go far enough in that direction. It simply
replicates the relationships of power seen in a hundred cowboy films -
white man has the privilege, the wealth and the technology while the
Indian (now in itself not a term used in the US) is racing to catch up
and only has bows, arrows and tomahawk. The sting in the tale, in which
one of the Apaches is shown having got on board and is serving coffee in
a steward's uniform, goes some way to addressing the point; the ASA may
well decide to consider if it's enough.
But is it subversive enough?
Another drawback with the advert, it might be suggested,
is that it's not immediately clear what it's saying. On first viewing
one might even think it was advertising Ernest Hemingway-style Moleskine
notebooks. If it's the idea the Apaches are after, how exactly
are they supposed to know the passenger has just had it? Until the
viewer has seen and understood the "Man who go on big train"
tagline, their chances of understanding the message are slim. Good job,
in that case, that the advert repays repeated viewing.
Ad Breakdown is compiled by Giles Wilson