The pimp, the product and the joy of PR

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The Independent Culture
IT'S ALL a bit blurred now (I think I may have blocked it out of my mind), but once upon a time I was a... it was only for a little while, and I think I escaped with my... times were hard, you see, and they offered me an awful lot of money, and it was the beginning of the Eighties, when owning a BMW was just the most... hell's teeth, this is difficult, so the best thing to do is get it over with, right? Right.

I was once in Public Relations.

Not exactly Public Relations, you understand. I didn't sit by the telephone waiting for journalists to ring me up so that I could tell them lies. I didn't take journalists on press trips ("Something special lined up this eve-ning, old cock: thought we'd give you a glimpse of the underbelly of Tokyo") or arrange for them to have special briefings with the Chief Executive ("Actually I'm rather good friends with your editor"). And I certainly didn't get one of those little PR men's erections - you know the ones, prominent enough to be em-barrassing, but too small to be of use - whenever someone mentioned Sir Tim Bell's name.

But I was in Public Relations. I had an office and a nasty assistant, and my own personal suit, and an expensive pigskin briefcase from Swaine, Adeney, Brigg, who used to make briefcases, whips and brollies, but who now sell clothes. Have you noticed how everyone now sells clothes? Gunsmiths like Holland & Holland. Tractor companies like Caterpillar. Even snout companies like Camel and Marlboro now sell clothes ("Twenty king-size and a rugged but form-fitting oiled kip cagoule, please"). Brand Identification, we used to call it in Public Relations, but the truth is, it's for losers who can't afford the real thing so settle for something bearing the logo, and, even as I write, you can bet that someone is putting together a marketing plan for Princess Di Sex Aids.

I could have handled that. What I couldn't handle was working for That Pimp, as we used to call him without any trace of affection whatsoever. ("Is That Pimp in yet? He's really dropped us in it this time.") It was quite jolly at first; That Pimp was an energetic megalomaniac with an office the size of a small village, decorated in the Executive Bordello style favoured by American hotel chains. He wore Gucci pimp shoes and nip-waisted pimp suits, and was regularly attended in his office by his tailor, barber and manicurist, and after a while one naturally found oneself wanting to destroy him.

My job was... well, to be honest, I never quite worked out what my job was, and nor did That Pimp, except that I had attacked him so often in the medical press (don't ask) that I suppose he decided he would hire me for a ridiculous salary in the hope that I would then turn upon his enemies. Doomed idea, of course, since once I became That Pimp's personal mouthpiece, I no longer had any print to attack his enemies in, so he ended up sending me off to joke places like Morocco and the Emirates on secret missions, then hauling me back again to make little films.

The little films were fascinating. They purported to sell That Pimp's various wares and schemes, but, curiously, they either (a) failed to explain what the wares and/or schemes actually were, or (b) were never shown to anyone who might be interested in buying the wares and/or schemes.

It wasn't long before That Pimp and I had a row, shouting simultaneously: "You're fired!" and "I resign!" Thereafter we devoted much of our energies to trying to destroy each other's reputations, and met regularly for lunch until, unexpectedly, That Pimp dropped dead, at which I fell into a profound sadness from which I have never quite recovered; a spark goes out of life when a worthy enemy croaks.

I frequently think of That Pimp, because of the little films. The main thing he taught me was not that the client is always right, but that the client is always telling lies. This opens up a great source of entertainment when watching (or when asked to write) what are inexplicably called Fact Films. Ostensibly, Fact Films tell us about some aspect of the client's business, but in reality their motives are very different. The client's wife wants to meet some actor. The client's brother-in-law is an unemployed cameraman ("Frank could do it at a good rate"). The finance director wants to sleep with the Public Relations man's nasty assistant. Someone on the Board thinks that "Fact Films" are a waste of money, and all the other directors hate him.

After a bit of practice, Spot-the-Ulterior-Motive becomes second nature, and a talent to employ even if you are never forced to watch Fact Films. Lots of commercials will do just as well, particularly those which make you think "What the hell are they advertising for?" The best example at the moment is the Thames Water advertisement, in which a throaty, threatening voice-over person tells us how carefully Thames Water test their, er, water. What are we supposed to do after we have seen this commercial? Are we meant to rush gleefully to the tap, shouting, "What ho! A glass of foaming Thames for me; it's tested, you know"? Is it supposed to help us make up our minds in a tricky consumer-choice situation ("What do you fancy from the tap tonight, honey? Thames? Welsh? A spot of that French stuff? Or just, bugger it, we'll have whatever comes out?") Is it designed to incite envy in Northern breasts ("Hand us t'jerry- can, lass; ah'm off tert' capital fer a fill-oop o' summat tasty")?

It could of course just be that everyone involved in the management of Thames Water is a bit of an arse, playing at being a proper business, but my money's on an Ulterior Motive. More specifically, I reckon that they're going for Brand Identification. Five years from now, you may not be able to afford their water, but, by God, you'll look smart in their duffle-coat. !