I’ve always been a fan of the phenomenon of marketing tourism.
Back in the day – 1997, since you ask – I did my bit to irritate Naomi Klein and put a little bit of Salford on the global map. It was November, and to celebrate Barbie’s 40th birthday, the publicity agency I was part of happened upon the cunning stunt of painting one of the city’s most deprived streets pink. Entirely. And even though 1997 was almost pre-internet, a bright spark at ITN Source has recently deemed the News at Ten story worthy of uploading to YouTube, a platform that wasn’t even launched for eight years after the stunt took place. *feels_old* *is_old*
The story created a lot of buzz, as we used to say at the time. The legendary “And finally …” section on News at Ten. Page three of the Daily Mail. Blanket media coverage, domestically and globally. We heard they were rocking in La Segundo, CA, Barbie’s home city. I certainly was, on a media tour of the basmati rice harvest with Madhur Jaffrey, when I opened a copy of The Times of India over my morning idlis and bhajia only to see Ash street in all its glory.
Apart from the sheer extraordinariness of the visual nature of this event, the story had a human side too. Ash Street in Salford was – is still, I’ll warrant – a deprived place. The roofs of the street feature in the titles of Coronation Street – you know, when the cat (we’ll come back to cats) hops down from the wall? That’s Ash Street in the background. Houses were on sale for £2,000 at the time. You could have bought the whole street for the price of a Kensington shoe cupboard.
But rather than swan in like smarmy London media types – to eat, shoot and leave – part of the deal was a five-figure refurb of the community playground and a bumper Christmas budget for all on the street. Win – win – win. PR value, media value, social value. And a whole lot of fun.
What this stunt also spawned was my first experience of marketing tourism. People were so amazed by the visual spectacle that they travelled from hundreds of miles – we heard of visitors from the USA, Australia and Denmark – just to witness the Barbie world we’d created. And before the high pressure water hoses had removed the last tinge of pink from the walls and streets and chimneys in time for Christmas, Naomi Klein got cross with us. In the revised preface to the paperback of No Logo, she railed against Mattel for despoiling this community in the name of marketing. What she’d failed to appreciate was the doing-well-by-doing-good social value the stunt brought to Ash Street. But that little detail would stand in the way of a good story.
So it was with marketing tourism firmly in mind, en route to the PRCA’s national conference at BAFTA this morning, I took a detour from the conventional route from London Bridge to Green Park by making the trek further South of the river to Clapham Common tube.
I went as a cat lover.
I went as a keen observer – and sometime chronicler – of marketing phenomena.
And I went as a marketing tourist.
As many of you will doubtless be aware, for the middle two weeks of this September, cats – and more specifically cat photos – have taken over Clapham Common tube. The Citizen’s Advertising Takeover Service (which abbreviates ever so handily) is a crowd-funded initiative designed to replace ads with, well, photos of felines. To make incarnate a world in which an advertiser-funded economic model is replaced by one in which we adore our furry friends – something which the internet has been experimenting for almost all its life. Details and some thoughtful commentary here from The Drum, The Standard, and The Guardian, ICYMI.
When I got off the tube at Clapham Common, I was initially disappointed. I thought I’d missed it. The whole tube station had not been taken over by cat pictures. There were the same, dreary, shouty, competitive messages barking out at bleary-eyed commuters with predictable normality. But I was certain I had my dates right. So I trudged up the stairs, and then I started to see them. Cheeky cats and jaunty angles, grinning at me wherever I looked.
On the walls, on the ticket barriers, everywhere.
Cats alone, cats in ones and twos, cats in dozens.
It was rather a nice world I was living in.
Now of course, as I say, I AM a cat person. Apart from my tweenage and teenage years when my not-so-evil, dog-loving stepmother brought down a feline fatwah on our house – and of course the impractical university years – there’s very little time I haven’t lived with a cat. Apart from the gorgeous tabby Stripey (mown down when I was three), our current cat, Tony “Soprano” Knowles is possibly the nicest cat I’ve ever known. And one of the nicer sentient beings of any stripe.
So naturally, I was predisposed to like this experiment in anti-advertising. All models were from Battersea, and if it had been the canine collective from SW8 who’d graced the walls of Clapham Common tube, I wouldn’t have made the trip.
But more than that, this was a beguiling, serene experience, the kind of happening that makes you pause, reflect and recalibrate and imagine “What if …?”.
A bit like the new Breathe App on the Apple Watch.
And more than that. Despite all the cute things Tony has done over the past 12 years – “Darling, darling – look what the cat’s doing!” – #CatsNotAds has prompted me to do something I’ve never done before. Post my first cat video. I hope you like my holiday snaps and the movie from my latest adventure in marketing tourism.
Move over Barbie. There’s a new cat in town.
Sam Knowles is a master data storyteller and the Founder & MD of the consultancy Insight Agents. His purpose is to help organisations make smarter use of data, talk Human, and sound like people. An established and sought-after trainer, keynote speaker, and podcaster, he is the founder and host of Data Malarkey podcast and chair of I-COM’s Data Storytelling Council. He’s a Fellow of the Market Reserach Society, the RSA, and the Professional Speaking Association.
Sam is the author of the ‘Using Data Better’ trilogy of books, all published by Routledge. These include the 2018 best-seller Narrative by Numbers, 2020’s critically-acclaimed sequel, How To Be Insightful , and 2022’s eagerly-anticipated Asking Smarter Questions. In 2023, Insight Agents launched Using Data Smarter, a comprehensive, online training course based on all three books.
Find out more about Sam’s approach to data storytelling in this 15-minute video.