When I first moved up to Norfolk from London I worked in a fascinating archive, The History of Advertising Trust, which has its offices deep in the countryside where real estate is cheaper than the capital. (Archives only ever grow, they never shrink.) Anyway, it was my good luck to happen upon it, because over the years it provided me with a lot of stimulation, sparking my imagination when I was struggling for ideas.
Advertisements are still a favourite source of mine. I love the lateral thinking, the wit, the ingenuity, the nods to popular culture, to classical art and literature, but I have a soft spot for 1980s cigarette ads. In this decade, tobacco companies in the UK were no longer permitted to show actual cigarettes in their advertising, although they were still allowed to promote their products. I’ve never been a smoker, and I’m not endorsing smoking here, but the imaginative and surreal advertising campaigns that resulted from the efforts to circumvent the ban are as fantastic as they are bizarre. Remember the Benson & Hedges pyramids and the Silk Cut scissors? You can see them here: http://www.hatads.org.uk/catalogue/search.aspx?titleType=Print%20Advertising
But how could these curious images help drag my exhausted imagination out of the doldrums?
One particular series of ads was for Winston cigarettes and would have appeared on the London Underground. Because of the ban there are no images of lissom women enjoying cigarettes, no curls of smoke floating irresistibly upwards. The strapline reads simply, ‘We’re not allowed to tell you anything about Winston cigarettes, so here’s something to pass the time.’ But it’s the text that followed that catches the eye. Picture the scene…
You’re sitting on the train on your way home. You glance at the ad and read, ‘We’re not allowed to tell you anything about Winston cigarettes, so here’s something to pass the time.’ You read the rest of the text and an idea sparks. You take out your notebook, (because you always carry one, don’t you?) and let your imagination go. By the end of the journey you have a serviceable character study…
- Look at the person sitting opposite you.
- Just a quick glance. Try not to stare.
- What do you think they do for a living?
- How much do you think they earn?
- More than you?
- Could you do their job?
- Think of 5 possible Christian names for them.
- And one nickname.
- Are they married?
- Imagine their home. Their furniture.
- What do they keep on their mantelpiece?
- What colour bathroom do they have?
- Consider the ANY DISTINGUISHING MARKS section of their passports. What does it say? What should it say?
- Where are they heading now? And why?
- To meet somebody? Who? For what reason
- Do they look like they’re late?
- And if they suddenly leant forward and offered to buy you dinner, what would you do?
I’ve tried this as an exercise with my writing group and it always gets good results. It forces everyone to think a little outside the box and consider alternative character traits. It acts as a catalyst, igniting the imagination and sending it off in unusual directions.
Works every time, often with very interesting results.