David Bernstein: Getting back to basics

When the going gets tough marketers adopt hard sell tactics, says David Bernstein, but he recalls the vital role creativity also plays when times are lean

Insurance, states a current Norwich Union TV commercial, is ‘not about what you want, but what you want to keep’. That has a post-11 September poignancy.

Disaster makes us re-assess priorities and re-examine values we may have taken for granted. A recession makes advertisers reconsider their strategy, reduce risk if possible and, in their communication, buttress fancy with fact, provide reasons for purchase, especially if that purchase may otherwise be seen as marginal.

If the economy nosedives and the advertising industry suffers further damage, then watch out for more fact and less fancy. And should the so-called ‘war’ on terrorism get real well, we may really get back to basics.

Here is a copy line: ‘Solid sustenance to keep you going between meals’. Can you guess the brand? Answer: Maltesers, 13 August 1940. In the same issue of the Daily Express, Mars’ competitor Cadbury’s headlined its Dairy Milk chocolate ad ‘If it’s chocolate it’s FOOD’, and itemised the bar’s contents as ‘all the three food categories which the Ministry of Food are urging us to include in our daily diet’. Rowntree’s cocoa promised to guard against infection, prevent rickets and help you see in the dark.

Hard times call for hard sell. But also creativity, ie the ability to see something in a new way. In the war we were made to see familiar things anew. Aluminium pots and pans would magic into Spitfires. Park railings would become tanks. Bones, glue.

Lord Woolton’s Ministry of Food helped housewives transform the seemingly mundane into tasty and nutritious meals. Rationing and imaginative use of resources ensured that nobody starved.

Britain discovered vegetables. The ministry, enlisting advertising and design professionals, published regular advertisements entitled Food Facts and a recipe book. In its preface Woolton wrote, ‘It is a plain production: a wartime production pure and simple. The ingredients are pure and the methods of preparing them simple.’ The design too was pure and simple – and user-friendly, in Woolton’s words ‘a serviceable weapon’. For housewives were ‘war workers same as everybody else’. Home-grown ingredients, nurtured ideally in your own allotment, reduced the cost, in lives and money, of imports.

Food Facts number 109 promoted the Health Meal of cheese, milk, bread and shredded raw vegetables. It was ‘ship-saving, fuel-saving and easy to prepare’. This echoed the Ministry of Information’s poster Spades Save Ships in which the official war artist Abram Games fused the image of a spade with that of the prow of a merchant ship. (There might be an opportunity to study Games’ contribution to the war effort next year at a comprehensive retrospective at the Design Museum.)

Games defined the poster artist’s task as ‘Maximum meaning. Minimum means’. It could apply equally to the housewife’s task. It was a time for re-appraisal, for concentrating on essentials. ‘For wartime zest – simple and natural food is best’ announced McVita wheat crispbread. The day that ad appeared,15 July 1940, The Daily Telegraph’s main headline indicated that wartime zest would be much needed: ‘Mr Churchill and invasion. Ready, undismayed, to meet it’.

Backs to the wall – and back to basics. Function determining form. The ration book, as far as I know, never won a design award, but study its cover and admire its efficient layout of key details plus a space for change of address. There were 60 million changes of address during World War ll.

The cover, as the contents, worked. There was nothing extraneous. Just like Utility furniture, introduced in 1941. The same choice, the same price for everyone. The Utility scheme defined the style for the 1940s and 1950s and, as Catherine McDermott points out, ‘for the social revolution of the 1960s, it proved a powerful force against which to rebel’.

The Utility scheme began with clothing. The range was restricted, the design was simple, the price low and the quality guaranteed. Trouser turn-ups were prohibited. Mr Dalton, president of the Board of Trade, claimed it saved millions of square feet of cloth. But we learned to live without them. Maybe it was an improvement, going without. Tea began to taste better without sugar and did pencils really need a coating of paint? Unpainted Utility pencils held sway till deregulation in 1950.

Today they’re much more professional – at least to those of us who appreciate the basics.

Latest articles

What we loved at Milan Design Week 2018

From a fully functional American diner through to Google’s unnerving house showing how technology has taken over our lives, we round up our favourites from this year’s Italian design festival.