British Airways and Time-Travelling Commercials

British Airways unveiled their big new commercial recently, as part of their £20 million advertising campaign:

It has a Downton Abbey/Mad Men retro vibe, mixed with a go-getting drive to the future; we’re meant to admire these brave ‘young men’ (as they’re always called – not ‘young people’ and certainly not ‘young women’) as they venture forth to build ‘superhighways in an unknown sky’.

For all the gorgeous visuals, the overwrought narration destroys any chance of nostalgia by continually reminding us what we should feel, eventually descending into a mish-mash of increasingly similar-looking shiny planes (including, amusingly, the Concorde, which conveniently zooms out of sight at the end lest we start thinking too hard). It could have been much more powerful if they had just a little bit more confidence in themselves.

It reminded me of two, better, time-travelling commercials that also try to impress viewers with their company’s longevity:

Hovis’ attempt is better simply because it’s more interesting and doesn’t have any godawful narration. However, the fact that it has practically nothing at all to do with bread is perhaps not the wisest of choices.

As an aside, these sorts of ‘historical vignette’ stories always make me wonder what would happen next, after the present day; might the little boy jump into a driverless car and then zoom off on a spaceplane to avoid the AI civil war in 2030? Speaking of vignettes, Hovis is clearly hitching its wagon to what it feels are all of Britain’s finest moments like suffragettes, wars, the 60s, miners’ strikes, and, bizarrely, the millennium fireworks celebration. One might have thought that a gay pride parade wouldn’t be amiss, but perhaps that’s too risque for such an old brand.

Then there’s the master:

I still remember watching Honda’s ‘The Impossible Dream’ commercial for the first time. Not only did I immediately go and download Andy Williams’ song, but I watched the video again at least a few times. Unlike Hovis, it’s actually about what Honda makes – cars, vehicles, and other transportation devices – and unlike British Airways, it has enough confidence in its message and audience that it doesn’t need to tell people what to think.

One can only imagine what British Airways’ advertising geniuses would have put on top of it:

Those first young men, the pioneers, the drivers, building superhighways across an unknown land … roaring across roads to go really fast … they didn’t have seatbelts or shit like that, they drove where they were no traffic lights … they drove motorbikes, small cars, big cars, fast cars, and hey, even a motorboat! We follow them to fulfill an unbreakable promise*, the same four words stitched into every uniform of every engineers who builds our stuff: The Power of Dreams.

Luckily, that didn’t happen and we got a good commercial instead. And while I’d be the first person to be cynical about what commercials are meant to do (often, to get us to buy things we don’t need), I’d rather watch a good commercial than a bad one.

(*Is it wise to make ‘unbreakable promise’ in a commercial? I suppose if it’s as vague or uninspiring as BA’s “To Fly. To Serve.” then it doesn’t really matter)

Sadly, someone at Honda decided to update ‘The Impossible Dream’ last year, adding on some boring scenes with robots and completely robbing the commercial of its dramatic, uplifting, and frankly inspired (since, after all, the song – and the video – is about Don Quixote) ending. Somehow, a guy slipping into a nice jacuzzi doesn’t elicit the same emotion:

I’ll leave you with a final commercial I discovered while trawling YouTube that proves that at least someone at British Airways once had a sense of humour, even if they presumably got fired five minutes after this aired:

Have I missed any good time-travelling story commercials? Let me know!

On Reamde, Neal Stephenson, and The Mongoliad

I was disappointed.

When I heard about Reamde‘s premise of hackers, spies, and gold mining in a massive multiplayer online game called T’Rain, I had the same worried feeling that I had when I heard about Anathem’s monasteries – that Neal Stephenson was venturing away from the sort of adventure/SF capers I enjoyed best. However, I was pleasantly surprised at Anathem and I held out the same hope for Reamde.


The problem with Reamde is not that it’s trying to be more ‘accessible’, if by ‘accessible’ we mean it’s set during the present day and has no obviously futuristic elements that might put the ‘mainstream’ off. No, it’s problem is that it’s frequently boring and it doesn’t add up to much at all.

Sure, there are flashes of the classic Stephenson brilliance – the insightful observations of how technology is changing the world, the clever ideas about business and gaming, the tangents into the finer points of grammar and MMO economies. But these are buried in literally thousands of words describing stuff that I frankly couldn’t give a shit about. Every fight, every journey, every thought is explained in excruciating detail, often from multiple points of view, and a lot of the time, none of it is particularly relevant to the plot.

Even worse, the usual and excusable Stephenson vices seem to be on particular show in Reamde: the tendency of almost all the smart characters to speak in the same over-specific way, the cliched over-weaponed and sprawling family of hard-bitten survivalists, the revisiting of Manila and Trinity College in Cambridge, the baffling hookups. I accept these things as being integral to Stephenson’s soul and writing, just as Iain M Banks frequently lapses into forced-jokiness and gratuitously violent torture scenes in his novels, but usually there are more than enough good moments to balance them out. But not this time.

It’s upsetting because there are some fantastic moments in the book where Stephenson was clearly having a lot of fun. I was impressed by the man-hunt in Xiamen, and later on, a massive battle in T’Rain occurred simultaneously with real world shenanigans. Many reviews (such as the WSJ’s*) suggest that these moments, and others like them, are the meat of the book; in fact, they’re far outweighed by tiresome detailing of gun battles and people travelling from A to B. Perhaps if it was a mere 500 pages instead of 1000, I’d have enjoyed it more. Unfortunately, as it stands, I can’t see myself recommending this book to anyone.

Stephenson is still clearly capable of writing awesomely interesting and entertaining fiction. The question is, what happened with Reamde? I can see three possibilities: Continue reading “On Reamde, Neal Stephenson, and The Mongoliad”

Things I’m doing

Over the next few months, I’m going to be doing several conferences:

There’d be three more if I weren’t going on holiday to Sudan for a couple of weeks in Oct/Nov. Plus I’m not including two workshops I’m doing with the British Museum about A History of the Future (for kids).

At the games/tech conferences, I’m going to be speaking about some of the new things we’ve been doing with mobiles and in particular, Zombies, Run! At the other conferences, I’m more interested in talking about some new thoughts I’ve had about the change shape of creative work (not terribly original, to be honest, but maybe I can give it a new spin).

So, things are very busy these days between Six to Start and all the extra-curricular stuff I’ve signed myself up to. I’m hoping to break the back of A History of the Future before the year is out (along with Balance of Powers) meaning that next year should be pretty different!

Finally, if you’re wondering why I’m not posting here as much, it’s partly down to the time I’m spending on A History of the Future (22,000 words and counting) and my blogging at the Telegraph. Sorry about that.