Advertising: Non-stormin' Norman: an English hero

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D'you remember Norman, the fantastically prescient insurance nerd? Norman appeared in a notable series of commercials in - at a guess - the late '80s. I've often thought about Norman and his useful virtues but, sadly, couldn't remember who he actually worked for.

The thing about Norman was that he was obsessed with risk - the plummeting stone, the hurtling car - and how to avoid it. He planned ahead and he was always right. The other thing, of course, was his huge specs. They were jammed on his head from the age of four. Norman, mercifully, didn't have a secret heart or a cultural hinterland, he just concentrated on the matter in hand. His lady colleagues in the glorious late '80s insurance back office in Basingstoke or Swindon were all called Norma and they shared a sensibility, a service ethic. I found it utterly compelling, an example to anyone making financial services commercials.

Well, the commercial's turned up on my tape. In the middle of all the attitudes and effects, the sofas and CDs, here's this delicious classical thing.

It's narrative for a start (nothing is now, except for Stella Artois). And it's absolutely English in the way that The Good Life was. Meaning suburban, but not quite the Terry and June suburbs. And the voiceover's old and unequivocally Received Pronunciation. (And male, of course; it's not Honor Blackman or her lovely daughter Mariella).

It's pretty much as I remember it, and it's for Sun Alliance (now Royal and SunAlliance). What I'd forgotten was the '80s obsession with period reconstruction. So Norman's childhood as a savant is set in the late '50s, with a walnut-cased black and white TV and haute-Pooter set decorations and costumes. The TV's saying "the heatwave hits Britain" and little Norman's putting on his mac and rainhat to step into the garden. There's an instant downpour.

No wonder he gets to work for Sun Alliance, no wonder he's got an umbrella in the street when the other wage slaves are running for cover. And no wonder he's there to protect Norma from the speeding office tea-trolley (it's a Bristow kind of life).

The best bit is when Norman Junior - in specs and hard hat - meets Dad off the Southern Region commuter train (British Empire rolling stock, single compartments). The station clock, huge and Victorian, falls down heavily behind them. "Well done, son."

This is a little masterpiece of strategy and execution. The strategy exploits one's every expectation of insurance folk and turns them to advantage, instead of attempting to play against type (no "turning banking upside down" nonsense), and the 30-second comedy's immaculately made.

peter@sru.co.uk

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