Be happy - buy back a billboard


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The Independent Online

In Confessions of an Advertising Man (1963), David Ogilvy, a founder of Ogilvy & Mather, wrote: "As a private person, I have a passion for landscape, and I have never seen one improved by a billboard." Some 36 years after Ogilvy wrote those words, the Canadian author Naomi Klein used them at the start of her book No Logo, which would go on to sell more than a million copies and become a "manifesto of the anti-corporate movement".

But although No Logo served as a wake-up call, no one could claim that things have improved since its publication in 1999. Because while Ogilvy and Klein might have despaired at the soul-sapping saturation of branding and advertising all around them, neither offered a viable alternative.

So it is with some delight that I can report on the work of an organisation called Our Space (see It asks for donations from members of the public and uses that money "to buy back billboards" in cities around the world and "replace the ads with positive messages". These range from statements such as "Read more" and "Trust your instincts" to questions such as "What's the craziest possible thing you can imagine?"

Simple, brilliant and, when seen on huge billboards, strangely beautiful. The only surprise is that no one has thought of this before.

Rings a Bell

It has been a while since Lord Bell – the former PR adviser to Margaret Thatcher – raised his head above the parapet. But last week he responded to Hilary Mantel's short story The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by claiming that "Mantel needs to see a therapist. If somebody admits they want to assassinate somebody, surely the police should investigate."

Lord Bell would know more than most about police investigations. This is the man, it should be remembered, who was fined £50 in 1977 after being found guilty of "wilfully, openly, lewdly and obscenely" exposing himself with "intent to insult a female". Then, in 2011, it was discovered that Bell's PR company, Bell Pottinger (previous clients include Rolf Harris, Asma al-Assad and Augusto Pinochet), had doctored Wikipedia entries and generally used what one member of the team described as "dark arts".

So you might think that Lord Bell, now 72, would be keeping a low profile these days. What then brought on the Mantel outburst and the subsequent return to the media limelight? It couldn't by any chance have anything to do with the imminent publication of Right or Wrong: The Memoirs of Lord Bell, surely?

The ones that got away

Following the runaway success of last year's Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience, Shaun Usher, the man behind that Christmas bestseller, has been frantically collecting material for the follow-up, Lists of Note (published by Canongate this week).

But were there, I ask Usher, any lists that you were keen to get in that didn't make the cut? "There were a couple on my original wish list that I had to lose," he says. "The first was a list of names that Anne Frank gave members of her family in order to protect them. That arrived just too late for publication. And the other was a 2007 list by Debbie Harry titled 'People I'd Like to F***'.

"I had a lot of lists from men and not that many from women, but one of those I did have was Marilyn Monroe's 'People I Want to Sleep With'. I didn't want two women talking about the same subject so the Debbie Harry one had to go."

It is left to this column, then, to reveal Ms Harry's list, complete with her own comments: "1) Kate Moss (who wouldn't?); 2) Hugh Hefner (who hasn't?); 3) Lady Bunny (too bad I'm not black or gay); 4) Marilyn (Manson or Monroe, either would do nicely); 5) David Walliams (my computer says yes); 6) OJ Simpson (he just kills me); 7) Justin Timberlake; 8) Jack Nicholson."

Hero of the week

As anyone who has ever thrown a dinner party will know, cooking for other people can be a minefield. So you have to feel a little sympathy for the San Francisco restaurant owner James Chu, who put a sign in the door of his SO Chinese establishment last week that read: "We are closed because of you (customers). SO … yes – we use MSG [monosodium glutamate]! SO … we don't believe in organic food. And … don't give a shit about gluten free."

Sadly, after a flurry of media interest, Chu softened his stance. The new sign reads: "We work hard to please everyone, but know we can't. So if you're hard to please, please just turn around and go somewhere else."

No rhyme or reason

Another in a regular series of limericks based on recent events:

There was a young fellow called Ed,

Who talked off the top of his head,

But although his oration,

Got a standing ovation,

There were one or two things left unsaid.