Last week an eloquent appeal was made by Mark Perkins to all London PRs: stop floating things down the Thames. He reminds us (given how forgettable they all are) that this year our murky waterway has been invaded by an armada of houses, apocalyptic horsemen, lottery balls, melted ice caps- to name a few. In a talk I presented this week to an audience of senior communications and marketing directors I described these stunts as a prime example of ideaporn: interventions for the sake of being interventions, existing simply because everyone else is doing it. One explanation for the rise in stunts of this kind is the growing lack of confidence in how to deploy effective PR. For many the stunt isn’t about the brand or the story but is an opportunity by integrated marketers to charge higher fees.
An interesting point that Perkins touches on is that the current fad for Thames hijacking has an historical heritage stretching right back to the Romans (of course). You can’t imagine the Michelin man drifting down the Seine like a Hitchcock dummy gone wrong or an Audi motoring along the Spree. Our stunts tell us something about our distinct cultures. What is stimulating or provocative in one country can strike the people of another as daft. Just look at the bizarre video posted on the Instagram of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov. The professionally captured video shows the virile young leader effortlessly subdue a crocodile. Put aside the fact that prior to being tackled the croc was rather peacefully minding its own business. The propaganda makes sense in the tradition of the nature-conquering Russian strongman–from the folklore hero Ilya Muromets battling the three-headed flying serpent to Vladimir Putin’s rule of hunting anything that has four legs and is bigger than him.
Moving westwards to Germany we see a stunt culture that is characterised by a desire to inform. Berlin, home to more consumer activism organisations than anywhere else in the world, has a stunt calendar dominated by think before you buy pop-up interventions. Even the more cynically commercial, like a fitness-promoting PowerAde workout billboard from earlier this year, come with didactic overtones. It may be that this practical orientation insulates German PR from susceptibility to ideaporn. Where Britain inherited the stunt from a transatlantic tradition of commercial showmanship that disguise stunts as spectacle -think P T Barnum and Harry Reichenbach- the German stunt is self-conscious and entangled in the artistic movements of the 60s and 70s. Practitioners such as Christoph Schlingensief hijacked public spaces to rile every scintilla of the conservative establishment. Famously he once installed a container town populated by asylum seekers in the centre of Vienna and invited the Austrian public to vote them out of the country – Big Brother style.
In stark contrast, many Japanese stunts make the most egregious of Thames floaters look like public service announcements. Interventions that are grand and garish by European standards aren’t so much challenging taste as trying to keep up with a pop culture than is marinated in comic book fantasias and uncanny simulations. In a country that is drawn to extending the scope of technology in our lives –from robotic receptionists to a hat that feeds tomatoes to the wearer while on the go- the criteria for differentiating the absurd from the serious is not immediately obvious for the non-native.
So what can we learn about the British from our predilection for the Thames? It could be linked to our imperial inheritance, a subconscious yearning for an age when we ruled the waves. Alternatively, it may be that we’ve simply exhausted projecting our brands on the other surfaces of London. The capital is an increasingly busy city, which is all the more reason for new ideas for cutting through the noise and the smog.