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Authors: John Bowen

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STORYBOARD

a novel

by

JOHN BOWEN

For
J
EREMY AND
P
AMELA

I
have myself worked for two advertising agencies. The Agency is neither of them. While there may be some procedural similarities, because procedures in many agencies are much the same, no person or happening in either of the agencies in which I have worked (or any others) may be identified with any person or happening in this book.

There is no such thing as Foundation Soap, as far as I know, and I doubt if it would sell if there were. For obvious reasons, I had to invent something which couldn't exist as a marketable product. There are many toilet soaps, and some have a lanolin base, and most are perfumed, and such phrases as “deep-cream cleansing” and “exclusive ingredients” could be used, and
probably
have been used about many of them, but none of them is Foundation Soap.

Hoppness, Silch & Co. is a firm which does not exist. What is called “the soap field” is, it is true, dominated by three firms, but it wouldn't have been possible for me to find any commodity of mass-distribution in this
country
for which similar conditions did not obtain; wherever you look, you'll find that a few giant firms in
competition
with one another control most of the market. None of the three companies which between them make and sell most of the soap, washing powders and toothpaste
we buy is Hoppness, Silch, and I have no reason to know that any of them has ever launched a product identical in all respects with another already on the market. I have, in fact, written advertising for such a product, but it was not launched in this way, and it was not a soap.

In my last novel there was a short scene which
described
an internal meeting in an advertising agency. Several people wrote and said that they thought it a pity to spoil the realistic surface of the book by satire of this kind. It was not satire. Advertising people really do talk like this within an agency; if they're sensible, as most are, they slough it off in private life, or even make fun of it. After all, most jobs have a jargon into which the people who are doing the jobs fall without
self-consciousness
, and soon the jargon comes naturally to them. And it is quite simply shorter to ask, “How's the copy productwise?” than, “Can what you have written be supported by the product in performance, and
conversely
have you done full justice to the qualities
inherent
in the product?”

Lastly, my thanks are due and most gratefully given to Jeremy Bullmore, Sheelagh Churton, Brian Gore, Antonia Gray, Barry On and Patrick Woodcock, all of whom have helped me with this novel.

J
OHN
B
OWEN

March, 1960.

T
he Agency was a large building, and took up most of one side of a small London square. Eight houses had once occupied the ground on which the Agency was built; a blue plaque on the wall facing the square
announced
that someone historical had lived in one of them. Houses of the type which had been pulled down to make room for the Agency were still to be seen in the square, but nobody any longer lived in them; they were all offices. A
couturier
occupied one, and had his
workrooms
in the mews at the back; two were owned by a firm which sold agricultural machinery. The whole square now was given over to offices and showrooms. Cars were parked round all four sides of it, and from twelve in the morning until three in the afternoon, the lunch-hour taxis ran round and round, like a sluggish river that was forever drained away and forever
renewed
. The square was no longer as quiet as it must once have been, but trees still shaded it and the Council tended the turf; in summer it was pleasant to sit on a bench under the trees, and eat one’s sandwiches, and watch the messenger boys and secretaries strolling by or lying on the grass, and to stare up from time to time at the Agency, ten stories high with a front of glass that glittered in the sun, and wonder what important affairs were hatching there.

Advertisements were hatched there. A clutch of
advertisements
made up an advertising campaign, and in the hatching of that clutch, the eggs were warmed by many bodies. All manufacturing processes begin with raw material. Steel is turned into ships; wood into tables; tobacco, paper and acetate become filter-tipped
cigarettes
. The Agency, like an army, used
people
as its raw material. People were turned into advertisements.

Perhaps that is an exaggeration. The talents and
attributes
of the people were used, not the people
themselves
, although when, as sometimes happened, the talent dried up, there was not much left of the person, since after all it may be said that a person is his talent and his attributes—his capacity to love, hate and fear (which the Agency used), his sympathy and empathy with others of his own kind (which the Agency used), his pride, his hope, his self-respect, his need for
self-expression
and desire to communicate (all of which the Agency used). The Agency demanded a high standard of raw material, and paid well for it. Above the ranks of messenger boy and telephone operator, it employed two hundred and thirty-eight men, and one hundred and fifteen women, all of whom had I.Q.s of over 100, and most of whom held university degrees. These people were grouped into departments. First were the Account Executives, the non-specialists who formed a link
between
the Agency’s clients and the Creative and Service Departments of the Agency. Among them were fourteen Old Etonians, ten Harrovians, two Wykehamists, two baronets, an Olympic hurdler, and the younger son of an ambassador; it is one of the functions of an Account Executive to butter-up clients, and the idea of class still persists sufficiently in Britain for clients to enjoy being buttered-up by such people. In the Agency’s Market
Research Department, there were three who had studied with Laski and one who had studied with Jung. In the TV Department, there were two ex-actors, a sometime radio announcer, and one man who had made good documentary films in the thirties. A poet in the Copy Department had not written a poem for six years, a novelist had not written a novel for three, and a man who wrote detective stories under a
nom-de-plume
continued
to produce them very happily at the rate of two a year. Two of the Agency Art Directors were A.R.A.s, one had begun as a designer for the theatre, and quite a number had hoped at one time to become painters.

Taste, talent and intelligence were, of course, also to be found outside the Agency, and the Agency found them, and used them. It used the producers, directors, cameramen, lighting cameramen, designers, cutters, dubbers, and all the other film technicians of the
television
production companies specially formed to make television commercials for the Agency and other
Agencies
. It hired famous photographers to take the
photographs
for some of its press advertisements, and its Art Directors shuttled about Europe to find artists who would illustrate others; once an Agency Art Director had
approached
Matisse for a poster, but Matisse had wanted too much money, so the Agency had made do with Van Dongen. Actors and dancers in need of work were glad to perform for the Agency; one well-known
Shakespearian
, needing money to pay off arrears of tax, had guyed
Othello
to sell a deodorant. Art is the expression of the soul of man; intelligence lifts him from the ruck of creation; communication is his deepest need. The Agency took Art and intelligence, and turned them to the task of communication, and
what
was communicated was a series of promises from the Agency’s clients to the public.

Every medium of communication was used. Personal precept and example—the Agency’s Public Relations Department organized lectures and demonstrations all over the country. Letters—sent out in hundreds of
thousands
by the Direct Mailing Service. Radio—the
commercial
radio station of Luxembourg, in between
interminable
Request Programmes of popular gramophone records, broadcast the promises of the Agency’s clients mainly to the young, mainly to the working classes, mainly to the North of England. Television—at least on one channel, with the possibility of another coming up. The Cinema. The Theatre—in the programme, or sometimes on the safety curtain between acts. Posters —which dominated the streets of every town and city. Newspapers and magazines of all sorts, from the great national dailies with circulations of over four million to the tiny technical journals read only by the trade. Choice among these media was made, for the most part, by the Agency’s Media Department, whose concern it was to see that each promise reached those people who were most likely to respond to it, and reached them at the least cost and with the most frequency—since if, let us say, you are advertising expensive French wines to
connoisseurs
, it would be unwise to use the pages of the
Daily
Mirror,
most of whose readers care little for such matters.

These were some of the promises which the Agency devoted itself to communicating.

—That a particular patent medicine fortified the “hidden cells” of the body, so that even quite old men and women who dosed themselves with it continued to have clear skin, bright eyes, freedom from colds and (for men, it was hinted) a prolonged sexual potency.

—That a particular cigarette was a badge of social
acceptability. Those who smoked such cigarettes found friends everywhere, and even to be seen with a packet indicated that the smoker was “one of the group”.
Sub
sidiary
:
that these cigarettes “satisfied”—a necessary promise to make, but unimportant because most other cigarette advertisements also made it.
Subsidiary:
that the new “synthesized” filter, with PK63 to stop the carboniles, cut down the smoker’s chances of contracting lung cancer—this promise, which had some truth in it, was left over from a previous campaign which had failed because, it was discovered, smokers did not care to be reminded of lung cancer.

—That a particular sort of washing powder gave what is called “the heavy wash” a particular sort of whiteness (indistinguishable outside the laboratory from the
whiteness
given by any other washing powder) because it
contained
a particular ingredient (also remarkably similar to the special ingredients in its competitors). That this particular sort of whiteness was in some way whiter than the other sorts.
Subsidiary
(varying from month to month); threepence off the packet or a variety of useful gifts to be obtained by sending in packet tops and postal orders to the value of roughly what the gifts would cost wholesale.

—That a particular jam, while it did not actually contain
more
fruit than any other jam, gave the
consumer
more
fruit
taste.
Subsidiary:
children loved this jam, and it was good for them, and they would reward with love any mother who gave it to them.

—That, by buying a particular sort of car, a man might both possess and impose upon others his own ideal vision of himself—or rather a sort of ideal
Id,
in that the car symbolized his sexuality and his power to hurt. The owner of such a car had not only the pleasure of power over others and power over things, but the
additional narcissistic pleasure of being able to cosset, stroke, burnish, and generally pleasure himself in the person of the car every Sunday morning.
Subsidiary:
a high social status signified by his being seen to own such a car and the up-to-date gadgets that went with it.
Sub
sidiary
:
a low mileage per gallon,
considering
the
size
of
the
engine.

—That British wine, made in Cornwall, aerated, put into tiny bottles, capped with gold foil and christened Pink Charmain offered to women in pubs all the
glamour
and luxurious associations of pink champagne at a fraction of the cost.

There were many other promises; the Agency had many clients. For each client the Agency devised a promise, and before these promises were, as the Agency would say, “finalized”, there had to be research (or at least some intelligent deduction) to make sure that what was being promised was something that people actually wanted at some level of their consciousness, and that the promise was not being offered by any other Agency for any other client, and that the promise could be kept. Then the promises were made into advertisements, and the Agency bought the space or time in which they
appeared
, and accepted from the newspapers and
magazines
or the radio and television stations a kick-back of 15 per cent. So that, except from those whose advertising appropriations were so small that it was more profitable for the Agency to charge them a service fee, the Agency took no money from its clients, but only from the media in which the advertisements appeared, and which, without the advertisements, could not survive. What the Agency did was a public service; the Agency’s Chairman, speaking at formal luncheons to opinion leaders, had often said so.

He was right. The Agency was part of the system of capitalist urban society. It had grown with the system, and it could not be cut out without harming the system—indeed, even in a system of state socialism it is at least likely that many of the Agency’s functions would
continue
to be performed, probably by a Ministry of
Information
and Propaganda. If the common articles of household consumption were to be sold at a low cost, they had to be produced in large quantities, and the Agency helped to sell those quantities, so that production was maintained, and the workers kept their jobs and were paid, and consumed more—the Agency had not built this treadmill; it only oiled the wheels.

As for the washing powder, perhaps it washed clothes no whiter than its competitors could, but at least they were whiter than they would have been ten years
before
, since the Agency (though it might state only one side of a case) did not explicitly lie, and the constant pressure of their competitors’ advertising forced the Agency’s clients continually to improve their products. Perhaps there was no medical reason why the Agency’s “hidden cells” tonic should do those who drank it any more good than an orange a day or liver once a week, except that they believed in it as they would not have believed in the oranges, so that in fact it did much of what was claimed for it, and its manufacturers received many letters of thanks from potent old gentlemen or comparatively unlined ladies. Pink Gharmain, too, did what was promised. Those who bought it would not have been able to afford real champagne, and would not have liked real champagne any better. Those who knew what real champagne was avoided Pink Gharmain; the Agency’s promise was not directed at them.

People said that the Agency “corrupted public taste”,
but it did not; it suited the language of its promises to the media in which they appeared, speaking
intelligently
to the readers of the
Spectator,
emotionally to those of
Woman’s
Day,
excitingly to the children who watched television at five in the afternoon. People said that those who engaged in the Agency’s business were corrupted by it. The young actress quaffing a fizzy medicine, the dancer spinning through a jingle, the painter turning to commercial art, the photographer who had once
exhibited
at Whitechapel, the young film-maker who yearned for Free Cinema—these were people whom the Agency helped to keep alive, and if some of them found the money so easy that they gave up the practice of an art to work for advertising, were these not the very
people
who would have given up anyway at the first hint of hardship? The Agency helped to establish and
maintain
lines of communication, and along these lines (if only they would) artists might move towards people, and people towards artists; if anything like mass-art were ever to be possible, it would need these lines. Meanwhile they were there. The Agency was not
concerned
with art, except in so far as it could be used, and so it moved along the lines, presenting unimportant things in an important way, and material things in a spiritual way, and everything in a general way.

A general way. If there was harm, it was here. For, whereas most of the good and harm the Agency did was part of the up-and-down of the system and cancelled out, those who believe that human beings are important as individuals might always say this against it, that it communicated to individuals only on a broad beam of general similarities. The Agency knew that one
housewife
in four had red hands, that three children out of five were afraid of the dark, that AB class men in general
lost their hair at an earlier age than D class men, but were less worried about it. It dealt with groups—income groups, class groups, age groups, regional groups—and not with individuals. But the Agency was, after all, only part of the system, and the system does not deal with individuals either.

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