In New York, there was no escape from the tempest of information and debate
When Biz Stone, a co-founder of Twitter, relates the story behind his iconic venture, he likes to use a picture of a flock of birds. The reason? As Stone tells the story, he first appreciated the power of social media a few years ago, when he watched a crowd suddenly arrive at a bar after exchanging messages on a phone. That event, Stone says, helped him to understand how social media enabled people to suddenly congregate with unforeseen speed and force. To put it another way, what 21st-century tools do is enable people to “flock” together – around ideas, emotions, places or events. Hence that picture of birds.
It is a thought-provoking image, and it feels particularly pertinent to New York right now. Last weekend I hunkered down, along with millions of other New York residents, as the tropical storm-cum-hurricane known as Irene ripped along America’s East Coast. In some senses the experience turned out to be far less dramatic than many had initially feared: though the East Coast was battered with powerful winds and lashing rain, and there was terrible flooding inland, New York itself suffered far less damage than predicted. Before the storm hit I moved out of my apartment, which is next to the river, to stay with friends elsewhere. But my girls and I slept soundly during the night (much to the fury of my daughters, who were hoping that the winds would wake us so they could hold a midnight feast).
While Hurricane Irene might have spared New York in physical terms, the experience was nonetheless striking, for reasons that Stone observes. In earlier periods of my life, I have experienced moments of adrenaline-fuelled anxiety, holed up in a hotel in the middle of a civil war, or marooned in a remote outpost by snowstorms. Those occasions were marked by long spells of boredom, punctuated by flashes of anxiety, since I was dependent on a crackling radio or creaking telephone for news.
However, living in a hurricane in the age of social media takes adrenaline to a new level. Wherever you sheltered in the city last week, there was almost no escape from the tempest of information, debate and analysis flying around. Television and radio offered non-stop coverage, which became distinctly hysterical. The internet provided multiple tools to track the storm in real time. And as it approached, a gale of social media messages swirled, as New Yorkers “flocked” together, trying to make sense of events. (Apparently, there were 36 times the number of tweets per second than there were during the civil war in Libya.)
Is this a good thing? From a practical viewpoint, it might appear so. Some of the messages posted on the “Irene” Twitter page were distracting or trite (“Hello Apocalypse Irene”; “Loving the new hairstyle – I guess the wet look is in”, and so on). Many others were informative: citizens tracked the path of the rain, and government agencies sent out a blitz of practical advice and updates. The office of Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, was particularly efficient and co-ordinated; one could track almost all the events from that Twitter feed alone. “City bridges may be closed”; “There are 78 hurricane centres and 8 special medical centres across the City”; “We are in the midst of the most dangerous period of the storm … continue to remain indoors.” Or – eventually – “By 3pm we will officially lift the evacuation order.”
. . .
Yet there was also a dark side to this “flocking”. A week after the event, some political rivals have accused Mayor Bloomberg of over-reaction. The television coverage has been criticised. What also needs to be debated, however, is whether this cyber “flocking” heightened public emotion too. After all, the more that people share their thoughts and fears in cyberspace, the more they create echo chambers. To use another metaphor, Hurricane Irene was producing an emotional “wind tunnel” last weekend, as news and moods were channelled into a small space and funnelled back and forth between media outlets, over and over again.
This was addictive, but the flurry of debate was disturbing, too. And while Bloomberg’s office was clearly determined to corral this information tempest – and did so, in my view, with some success – it faced a tough challenge. After all, fear is contagious and social media is anarchic, even – or especially – in 140 characters.
There is no easy solution to this. Just before the storm began to affect New York, the mayor’s office warned in a tweet that the electricity could fail (“If low-lying areas begin to flood, there is a chance that Con Ed will have to shut down the grid in parts of the City”). If that had happened, it would have been fascinating to see how New York would have behaved if all those modern forms of communication had shut down. Would people have panicked? Would they have been happy to rely on old-fashioned, battery-powered radios for news instead? Might that have been a relief? No one knows. One thing that is clear is that the impact of these emotional “wind tunnels” requires more debate. They will stay with us long after the hurricane season is past, and in far more places than New York.
It is well understood how we have shaped these wolves: our ancestors would have favoured those that were friendly and useful to humans, so eventually creating the domestic dog of today. But less well studied is how this relationship changed us. Shipman argues that those humans who showed the right skills and sensitivity to manage wolves outlived and out-bred those who tried to go it alone; the result is a world of dog-lovers. Domestication runs two ways.
She claims that three giant leaps in human development were all about this animal connection: our mastery of stone tools (to kill or cut up these animals); our development of language and eventually writing (to communicate information about animal habits and habitats); and our domestication of other species. Together these laid the foundation for modern societies.
This is a bold hypothesis, and among the evidence she presents is also a great deal of speculation. But there are at least some cases where the results of these connections are clear – such as our alliance with the cow. DNA profiles suggest that 10,000 years ago, the vast majority of humans were lactose intolerant – genetically incapable of digesting milk beyond infancy. Yet in Europe and those areas colonised by Europeans, 95 per cent of the population now can (and do) happily consume dairy products into their dotage. So in these cow-rearing lands, humans with the ability to digest milk spread at the expense of their fussier cousins. In effect, just as we have bred cows for high milk yield, so they have “bred” us to digest this milk (and therefore to have a reason to care for them). And if we have evolved lactose tolerance through our interaction with the bovine, it is not crazy to think we might also have evolved a fondness for dogs, or a predilection for observing the behaviour of predators.
Music to elope by: a generation learnt how to say 'I love you'
From Mr Paul Frandano.
Sir, Thank you for making a point to remember the lyricist Jerry Leiber (“Yakety yak no more”, editorial and obituary, August 27). He and his partner Mike Stoller, along with Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry, and other denizens of Broadway’s fabled Brill Building, created the emotional vocabulary of my generation’s young lives, teaching us how to say “Yes”, “No”, “Why?” and “I love you” in myriad variations, all imparted through 3-inch dashboard speakers.
They taught us that to rebel for love was most correct, and my wife and I took that lesson to heart – and, I’m delighted to report, preserve it still, 43 years after she climbed out of a window to marry me.
Reston, VA, US
August 26, 2011 10:24 pm
Yakety yak no more
One of the peculiarities of the world of pop music is that, rather unfairly, songs tend to be associated with those who perform them, rather than the composers who tore out their hair writing them.
Take “Hound Dog”, for example, one of the iconic songs of the 1950s. For most people, the song will always be associated with Elvis Presley, who seared the number into the US public’s consciousness in a blur of pelvic thrusting on the Milton Berle show in 1956, before cementing the association by giving a less provocative rendition to a remarkably patient basset hound on a different television show a couple of weeks later.
Look beyond the dog and the gyrations, however, and the song was the work of Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber, the American songwriter who died this week. From their 1950s heyday, the duo’s songs helped launch a number of stars into the musical firmament.
That performers as diverse as Presley and Edith Piaf, the Rolling Stones and Fats Domino queued up to sing Leiber and Stoller’s various works is a testament to the pair’s musical dexterity.
Their tunes and lyrics became the backing track for the changes that swept through society in the US and Europe in the 1960s. This was partly because they wrote at a time when American culture was in the ascendancy, while the postwar consumerist revolution was bringing pop music to a young generation for the first time.
In the era of gangsta rap, “Yakety Yak”, a light-hearted song about parents ticking off their children, harks back to a more innocent age. But for the postwar generation, Leiber and Stoller’s songs were among the first to speak directly to their own experiences.
While their output dried up in more recent years, performers continue to record their classics. Noel Coward once remarked on the “extraordinary” potency of what he snootily called “cheap music”. Their names may not be as well remembered as Piaf’s, but the power of their music still endures.
August 26, 2011 9:44 pm
‘Hound Dog’ writer who chronicled rebellion
By Peter Aspden
The songwriter Jerry Leiber, who died this week at the age of 78, was a leading figure of postwar popular culture. With writing partner Mike Stoller he created some of the most memorable hits of an era that saw an irreversible shift in social attitudes. With songs such as “Hound Dog”, “Jailhouse Rock”, “Yakety Yak” and “Stand By Me”, the pair chronicled the rebellious mood of 1950s America with flashes of wit, and the sharpest of ears for the black vernacular that would dominate popular music to the present day.
Such was the lyrical and musical suppleness of their songs that they were covered by a wide variety of artists: Fats Domino, The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Edith Piaf. They also allied their songwriting talents with an entrepreneurial intelligence that ensured they would remain in work and in demand. Leiber and Stoller managed the rare combination of reading the music industry at least as well as the epochal social changes of postwar culture.
The most famous of the artists who covered their work was Elvis Presley, who took their 1952 song “Hound Dog” to astronomic success four years later. The song’s evolution served as an instructive fable for its time. The teenage Leiber and Stoller wrote the song for Big Mama Thornton, “the toughest looking woman we’d ever seen”, recalled Leiber years later, but not robust enough, it seems, to make an significant impact on the charts.
But Presley performed the mischievous song, about the relationship between a woman and her gigolo, on The Milton Berle Show in 1956, where his gyrations caused headlines and outraged middle America. It was a clamorous moment. For a subsequent performance on The Steve Allen Show Presley was called to account and forced to sing the song to a basset hound wearing a top hat.
The next morning the furious singer recorded the studio version, demanding 31 takes to achieve the necessary catharsis for his wrath. The finished product, snarling with aggression, though never liked by Leiber, was a massive hit and pinned down the moment that the rock and roll attitude was born.
Jerry Leiber at the Grammy Foundation's Starry Night gala in Los Angeles, California in 2008
Leiber was born in 1933 to a middle-class Jewish family in Baltimore. His father died when he was five, and he worked for his mother’s grocery store from an early age. He always ascribed his affection for and understanding of black musical forms to those experiences: “We were the only grocery store that delivered to black people, and I was the delivery boy. We had a great relationship. It started from there.”
He met Stoller, who was born the same year, in Los Angeles in 1950 and the pair struck a musical rapport, with Leiber predominantly supplying the lyrics to Stoller’s angular melodies. The young men worked fast and fluently.
Leiber and Stoller’s early songs were characterised by a deftness of touch and gift for irony that made light of the tensions felt across the racial divide, and between the generations. In 1953 they formed Spark Records, which signed The Robins, a group that combined R&B and doo-wop to pleasing effect and who were the forerunners of The Coasters.
As the pair’s songwriting confidence grew, so did their ambitions. In 1955 they signed a deal with Atlantic Records as a songwriting and production team, and wrote some of their most notable songs. A hit for The Cheers, “Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots”, was covered by Piaf, translated into “L’Homme a la Moto”.
They wrote further songs for Presley, including “King Creole”, “Loving You” and “Jailhouse Rock”, although their attempts to get closer to the singer floundered when they crossed his famously protective manager, Colonel Tom Parker, who terminated their relationship with his protégé.
In 1957 they moved to New York to take their place in the Brill building, a factory for similar hit-making partnerships such as Gerry Goffin and Carole King. In the same year they co-wrote the hit “Spanish Harlem” with Phil Spector, whom they had taken under their wing to teach the deft arts of record production.
Their 1958 song for The Coasters, “Yakety Yak”, was typical of the duo’s flair for original writing. The song poked fun at racial stereotyping, and its witty internal dialogue was similarly light-hearted on the theme of teen rebellion: “Take out the papers and the trash, or you won’t get no spendin’ cash.”
Popular culture idols such as Presley and James Dean may have put more intensity into their interpretations of the generation wars, but rarely achieved the succinctness of the song’s defining couplet: “Yakety yak! (Don’t talk back).” The song, delivered at breakneck speed, made the top of the US charts.
Leiber and Stoller’s work at the beginning of the 1960s saw them at the top of their game. “Stand By Me”, co-written with Ben E. King, was a tender blues ballad.
But the new decade brought an entirely new sensibility to popular culture, as well as a change in songwriting’s business model, with the growth of singer-songwriters. The levity of Leiber and Stoller’s songs was unsuited to a more confrontational era.
There would be further highlights in their careers – they produced Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with You” and wrote “Pearl’s a Singer” for Elkie Brooks – but it was the rediscovery of their early work by younger generations that kept them in the public eye, especially after their 2009 autobiography.
Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong. By Gordon Mathews. University of Chicago Press; 240 pages; $19 and £12.50. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk
THE walk down Nathan Road to Kowloon’s promenade along Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong takes the sightseer through a hyper-modern commercial avenue, overhung with LED signs and trimmed banyan creepers, to the stately Peninsula Hotel, the futuristic Hong Kong Cultural Centre and one of the most celebrated skylines in the world. Every year the avenue is more lustrously paved with the gold of a million spendthrift tourists from mainland China.
Chungking Mansions, which stretches from 36-44 Nathan Road, comes as a shock of otherworldly proportions. Teeming, crumbling and motley in the extreme, it is a structure to attract or repel the people of Hong Kong, like the Spaceport Cantina in the original “Star Wars”. Pushtun touts, Nigerians slinging fake Rolexes and a flock of Indian prostitutes in garish saris congregate at its maw. Inside, a glittering and stinking confusion of shops, food stalls and dormitories is piled on itself in an impossible jumble—17 storeys high and covering most of a city block. Is it even a building? The “Mansions” is a singular noun, but most people who live and work there speak of its five blocks, A to E, their lifts connecting only at the dim and claustrophobic bazaar on the first two floors. South Asians and Africans: people from at least 129 different countries have thronged to this warren to trade, talk, eat, pray and fornicate, all in a context of mild lawlessness and constant flux.
Gordon Mathews, an anthropologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, spent his every free moment from 2006-10 absorbing this place in an effort to bring analytical light to its darkest corners. The clarity reveals a marvel. Hong Kong Chinese, which make up 95% of its neighbours, tend to regard the place with a kind of horror, as a heart of darkness that just happens to be located in the heart of their city. This is partly a matter of racism, but mostly it reflects their vague awareness of the criminality that makes the building hum. Mr Mathews starts with the assumption that “whereas the illegalities in Chungking Mansions are widely known, the wondrousness of the place is not.”
It turns out that there are three buildings, more or less. They have become what they are, a trading centre for the still-poor world, for three reasons: Chungking Mansions is cheap; Hong Kong allows easy entry; and southern China, just over the world’s busiest border, has become everyone’s manufacturer of choice.
There are drugs—heroin, mostly shot up by a few dozen Gurkhas on the dole who sleep in an alleyway—and there is sex. But these are footnotes. Mobile phones and cheap textiles are where the real money is. Mr Mathews identifies Chungking Mansions as “a central node in low-end globalisation”, by which he means “the transnational flow of people and goods involving relatively small amounts of capital” and informal transactions that mark “the developing world”. The model might be a Tanzanian trader who travels to Hong Kong for a week to source a few hundred used phones imported from Europe, “refabbed” over the border in Shenzhen, specially packed to disguise their counterfeit batteries and then brought back to Africa as extra luggage—facilitated by undocumented labour. His coffin-sized room costs less than $20 a night and the trip nets him $400-1,300, if nothing goes wrong. He makes multiple trips a month.
Mr Mathews’s book is an exercise in ethnography, the discipline of describing individual lives in detail. It sings in the chapters where the author and his researchers transcribe the personal stories of the traders, shopkeepers, asylum-seekers and Hong Kong policemen who inhabit this stupendous building, making side trips to Kolkata and Lagos along the way. Every gritty question is answered; at times it reads like a how-to guide for low-end globalisers. Academic language rarely intrudes, aside from the odd “transgressive other”, and the self-disclosure peculiar to field anthropology has a charm, as Mr Mathews deploys it.
He plainly loves the place. He credits Islam and neoliberalism as the forces that keep its many people living harmoniously in close quarters. “Ghetto” might be a misnomer, unless one allows a cosmopolitan and bourgeois ghetto. Chungking Mansions turns out to be “a staunch bourgeois enclave of chamber-of-commerce capitalism, albeit with a few corners cut”. Everybody is there to do business. The multicultural frisson is no more than a happy by-product.
Like Hong Kong itself, Chungking Mansions exists to fill a gap between different kinds of economies, the middle-income and low-income. Its residents are the arbitrageurs of goods and labour. In this way it is like the Hong Kong of old, and a living map of the former British empire too. The likelihood is that it will end some time soon (either as a result of Chinese traders cutting out the middlemen, the legal pressure of too many asylum-seekers or because mainland Chinese buy out the building). Unmentioned goes the fact that Hong Kong too is likely to pass into history, its special role withering as China integrates more fully with the rest of the world. Chungking Mansions is already becoming more “normal” as the world outside grows everywhere more exotic.
Walmart wants to open 15 to 20 Walmart Express stores by the end of next year
American shops are getting smaller as retailers seek to reach consumers through new compact formats in the face of a stagnant economy, demographic shifts and a growing demand for convenience.
Retailers including Walmart, Office Depot and Best Buy are introducing smaller stores in urban areas, a departure from the “big box” stores on which they built their success at out-of-town sites in the past three decades.
Tesco, which has forged into the US with stores that are smaller than traditional supermarkets, is shrinking its format further with convenience stores that might be dubbed “micro-boxes” by US standards.
“The cookie cutter, one-size-fits-all doesn’t seem to work that well any more,” says Ira Kalish, director of global economics at Deloitte Research, who links the shrinking of stores to the diversification – or fragmentation – of consumer profiles and preferences.
But the convergence of so many retailers on small formats is creating stiff competition and exacerbating the difficulties of operating on expensive and unfamiliar plots, squeezed between the offices, car parks and apartment blocks of big cities.
Walmart, the discounter that dominates US retail, has opened three Walmart Express test stores in recent months and says it wants to open 15 to 20 by the end of next year.
At about 15,000 sq ft, the Walmart Express stores are just 8 per cent the size of Walmart’s trademark Supercenters, which are 185,000 sq ft and cover the same ground as two-and-a-half standard football pitches.
Tesco of the UK began its move into California under the Fresh & Easy brand with stores of between 7,000 sq ft and 10,000 sq ft. But to push deeper into urban areas it plans to open stores as small as 3,000 sq ft, roughly the size of a UK convenience store.
“We are always looking at different sizes of stores,” says Tim Mason, chief executive of Fresh & Easy.
The shrinking of stores is partly borne of the “age of convenience”, says Ken Berliner, president of Peter J Solomon, a boutique investment bank. “Consumers want more choices. Retailers need to offer whatever the consumer wants to buy, however they would like to buy it, whether in stores, through a catalogue or online.”
Cash-strapped shoppers are also less willing to fund long drives to big boxes given high gas prices.
Consumers’ expectations for convenience have been raised by online shopping, an option that has harmed Best Buy, the US’s biggest traditional electronics retailer.
Part of its response has been to create small-format Best Buy Mobile stores, which sell telephones and tablet computers and will expand in number this year by 150 to 325.
Target, a Walmart rival, is next year planning to open five experimental City Target stores, which will be between 60,000 sq ft and 100,000 sq ft, compared with the typical 135,000 sq ft.
The downsizing also signals that retailers are adjusting to a higher concentration of people in urban areas – one result of the housing bust, which emptied new developments in the Sunbelt states of the south-western US.
John McIlwain, senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute, says two deeper demographic trends are also at play.
First, people in their 20s and 30s are living in urban areas longer than previous generations because they are marrying and having children later.
Second, baby boomers are moving back into city centres because they want to be able to walk to shops and entertainment.
But, in spite of retailers’ plans, city-centre stores are “typically not their first choice”, says Mark Keschl, national director of retail at Colliers, a property agency.
Retailers can run big-box stores off a single blueprint for inventories, staffing and fixtures.
But in each city location, they must adapt to a different set of constraints, ranging from narrow lanes for their trailer trucks to the existence of labour unions, he says.
Some retailers are not keen on the idea. Safeway, a grocery chain whose typical stores are half the size of a Walmart Supercenter, has two small shops in California but they are “a labour of love”, says Melissa Plaisance, head of investor relations.
“We are profitable in both, but it’s very hard … Hard to do enough volume to cover the costs.”
The right words, connected to properly differentiated feelings, matter enormously at all times
A boy lights a candle for the victims of Norway’s twin attacks
I was struck by the contrast when the British prime minister, David Cameron, expressed outrage at the terrible attacks in Oslo and Utoya island, while the Norwegian prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg, expressed no such thing. What he conveyed, instead, was shock, dismay, sorrow and a determination that the bombing and mass murder of teenagers by Anders Breivik should not change the country’s way of life, democratic values and commitment to human rights. “You will not destroy our democracy, or our ideals for a better world,” said Stoltenberg: “No one will ever scare us away from being Norway.”
In the coverage from Norway and interviews with those who had witnessed the attacks and people in the street I heard no one expressing “outrage” or any similar emotion, or the desire to hit back against evil. What was so moving was the restraint and dignity and solidarity of the Norwegian people, gathered in communal expression of grief.
You may think I am mincing words, and at a most inappropriate time, but I believe the right words, connected to properly differentiated feelings, matter enormously at all times and especially at times like these. It is worth weighing these words, outrage, dismay, grief, and what they mean.
Outrage struck me as an odd and even ironic choice of word from David Cameron, not least because this is the staple fare and fuel of newspapers such as the now-closed News of the World, The Sun, the Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail, from which you might think the British prime minister was trying, belatedly, to distance himself. Such newspapers constantly try to stir up outrage in their readers, about a bewildering range of issues (at the same time, of course, as they are stirring up prurient interest in other people’s sex lives). Outrage is incited against immigrants, whom sober studies show to be beneficial to the economy. A notorious instance was the “naming and shaming” of paedophiles in the News of the World, which led among other things to the vandalising of a paediatrician’s home. That case reminded me of the great scene in Julius Caesar in which the mob lynches a man they believe to be the conspirator Cinna: “I am Cinna the poet” cries the victim of mistaken identity, before being torn to pieces.
So what kind of emotion is outrage? Although etymologically it has nothing to do with rage, and starts from a somewhat inchoate sense that something is beyond all bounds, you could say that outrage is rage directed outwards, an emotion which no doubt has its place, but could also be a defence mechanism. Part of the great work of psychoanalysis in the 20th century, especially the work of Melanie Klein and her followers, has been to show how often one emotion covers another, less bearable one.
Outrage, let’s face it, is relatively easy both to feel and to incite in others. It also seems to be an emotion on the rise in the age of internet chatrooms, Twitter and so on. Commentators have been remarking recently how angry everyone seems to be in cyberspace. Anger and outrage are certainly more popular emotions in the blogosphere than dismay and grief.
Dismay may be a difficult emotion, especially for political leaders, to feel, or to admit to feeling, because it implies disorientation or weakness. “Utter loss of moral courage or resolution in prospect of danger or difficulty”, the first definition in my Shorter Oxford, does not sound promising at all, or rather far too judgemental. I would say dismay can be absolutely the right and proper and human thing to feel in the face of some unexplained and apparently inexplicable tragedy or catastrophe. It is actually braver to admit to dismay than to cover it over with some more acceptable or “manly” emotion, for instance the determination to “hit back”.
Grief is more difficult than any of these because it means facing up to irrecoverable loss. Sometimes whole lives can be blighted as a result of the inability to confront loss and to grieve. Although it is dangerous to make these comparisons, I couldn’t help feeling that the Norwegian people seemed better at grieving than we in London were after the 7/7 attacks, which were met with impressive stoicism but not with public grieving.
As well as expressing outrage at the events in Norway, David Cameron promised that “we can overcome this evil and we will”. The distinguished psychoanalyst Hanna Segal, who died a few weeks ago aged 93, would have called this an omnipotent phantasy. We can no more overcome or destroy evil than we can overcome or destroy human nature, since evil is part of us. This is not to say Segal was passive in the face of evil; a refugee in Paris, then London, in 1939-40, she wanted to go back to Warsaw to fight the Nazi invaders of her native country, but couldn’t: “There were no more trains.” Instead she devoted her long life to trying to understand the ruses by which the mind avoids facing up to intolerable losses.
Top billing: Bruce Willis has helped Trust National Bank improve brand recognition through an ad campaign
Trust National Bank was a midsized Russian lender with a big problem. Created out of the remnants of Menatep Bank – a $29bn organisation that went bust during the 1998 Russian financial crisis and saw its former owner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, imprisoned in Siberia – Trust wanted to increase its popularity and brand recognition.
As Dmitry Chukseyev, the bank’s vice-president of communications, recounts, there was just one man for the job. And that man was Bruce Willis. “You need someone stable, understandable,” Mr Chukseyev says, explaining why the bank decided to make the Die Hard star the face of a two-year campaign.
While Mr Willis cultivated a tough-guy persona in his most famous films of the 1980s and 1990s, he adds, there was always a character underneath the veneer that movie-goers could relate to. “In all of his films, Bruce is brutal but he’s doing it with a smile and a sense of humour.”
Never mind that the 56-year-old Mr Willis has no connection to Russia, let alone its banking sector. Since November, a series of billboard ads has run across Moscow featuring the star with tag lines ranging from: “Trust: it’s like me only a bank”, and “When I need money, I just take it”.
According to those behind the campaign, the association has worked. “Some people think it’s a mistake, some think it’s genius. But what I can tell you is that Trust, which was outside the top 20 banks in terms of awareness is now in the top five,” says Pierre-Emmanuel Mahias, chief executive of the Moscow agency Young & Rubicam and a consultant on the campaign.
The use of celebrities in advertising has only taken off in Russia over the past five years but local brands look to global celebrities rather than local ones.
“Your average Russian consumer, certainly in Moscow and St Petersburg, watches international movies, watches international news, travels abroad, consumes international brands,” says Richard Bonner-Davies, an executive at McCann Worldwide and former head of the group’s Russia operations. “There aren’t too many Russian celebrities that are able to stand on the global stage.”
Capital Group, a property developer in Moscow, says it decided to use model Naomi Campbell as the face of a new apartment complex because as a “global celebrity”, she gave the brand a more elegant and high-powered air. The fact that her boyfriend runs the company may also have helped.
According to a study done by Millward Brown, the research affiliate of WPP, about 13 per cent of Russian television ads used celebrities last year (out of a sample of over 400 ads) – compared with 7 per cent in 2009 and 2 per cent in 2005. While Hollywood stars have gained greater prominence, most groups continue to rely on local celebrities. To wit, Vera Brezhneva, a 29-year-old pop star, is advertising everything from deodorant to banking products.
Since its contract with the star began, Trust has also regularly ranked as one of the five fastest-growing institutions for both deposit and credit card growth, despite being only in the top 30 by size.
In Moscow, Mr Willis is one of a handful of ageing stars who are enjoying new face time despite quieter Hollywood careers. Sylvester Stallone appeared three years ago in a BBDO-produced commercial for local vodka brand Russkii Lyod (“Russian Ice”), while in recent weeks more than 400 Moscow billboards, some several stories high, have been plastered with the faces of Steven Seagal, Kevin Costner and Dustin Hoffman, to attract attention to a children’s charity concert in July where all three were expected to appear as special guests. (Mr Hoffman ended up pulling out of the event.)
Hamish Pringle, author of Celebrity Sells, says Russian advertising campaigns present the perfect vehicle for former A-List stars who peaked before it became acceptable for big-name stars to do sponsorships in their home market – a trend that only took off ten years ago.
“The stars like Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone and co. were before that era ... Now that they’re not so hot most western brands probably couldn’t find a place to use them.”
Russian companies, he adds, “may simply not have the budget to afford today’s A-listers”, making older stars a more affordable option.
Mr Chukseyev says Trust decided to start working with Mr Willis after surveying hundreds of 25-to-55-year-old urban professionals in cities such as Moscow and St Petersburg, and asking them to identify male celebrities with whom they had positive associations.
Out of the stars – both Russian and foreign – Mr Willis was the best known, with 97 per cent recognition. Close behind him was Arnold Schwarzenegger then Jackie Chan, Mr Stallone, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Mr Seagal. Brad Pitt came in a distant eight place, while Johnny Depp did not even make the top 10.
“Bruce is not like some of the new stars, but the new stars are not as well-recognised nationally in Russia,” Mr Chukseyev says. “Every Sunday there’s a Bruce Willis film on Russian television.”
The actors of his generation also help advertisers reach the coveted 25-and-over middle class demographic, who would have first seen Die Hard as students and consider Mr Willis to still be cool in his late 50s.
“Culturally we like strong types and assertive characters,” says Turkhan Makhmudov, managing director of BBDO’s Russian operations. “For a generation [that grew up] 15 to 20 years back, those were the symbols of American culture and American society for our public. We like to see them as the models of the western heroic man and masculine character.”
Kevin Costner and Dustin Hoffman have been used to promote big events such as this Russian charity gala
Perhaps no one embodies this macho character better than Mr Putin, who happily poses shirtless on fishing and horseback expeditions. His sex symbol status last year inspired a group of 12 female journalism students to dedicate a naked calendar to him, while this summer a separate group of girls launched a “Tear off your clothes for Putin” campaign ahead of his potential run for president.
“The classic picture of Putin is with his shirt off, wading through a swamp with a gun in his hand. You could tie a red necktie around his head and he’d be Johnny Rambo,” says Adrian Goldthorpe, a strategy partner at Hello brands and veteran of the Russian advertising market. “Most Russian women like this type of man and most Russian men aspire to be that kind of character.”
Oleg Yasenov, marketing director at Synergy, says the vodka group decided to work with the real Mr Stallone after BBDO suggested it choose a Hollywood star of Russian descent from a list that also included Natalie Portman, Harrison Ford and Milla Jovovich. Mr Stallone, whose grandmother was born in Odessa, was an easy choice, he says. “We needed to show physical and moral authority.”
In the commercial, Mr Stallone drinks Russkii Lyod and fights off thugs before the tagline appears: “There’s a bit of Russian in all of us.”
Working with such Hollywood stars is not cheap, Mr Yasenov admits. Trust was reported to have paid Mr Willis $3m to use his image in its ad campaign.
Mr Chukseyev, however, argues that for a once top-billing star the price tag was almost a bargain. “Look at the amount of money Hollywood spent to create Bruce’s mega star image over the past 20 years,” he says. “We think we actually got a good deal.”