Thursday, 19 March 2020

The World's Most Horrifying Advertising Animals #24: Peugeot 406 Shark

In 1999, French car manufacturers Peugeot got the latest spot for their 406 model off to an unsettling start by getting up close and personal with the murky, pointy form of a shark challenging us either to "Run or Fight", "Stand or Fall". This was the third in a trilogy of ads spanning the latter half of the decade for the 406. The first and probably the most famous was "Drive of Your Life" from 1995, which featured, among other things, a man rescuing a small girl from being flattened by a tanker truck, all to the upbeat pop sounds of M People's "Search For The Hero" (it was a strange ad, in that it was very blatantly influenced by the movie Don't Look Now - why else would they have decked the girl out in such a conspicuous red coat? - which makes the celebratory tone seem devilishly incongruous). It opened by asserting that the average person has 12,367 thoughts a day (admit it, though, you made that oddly specific statistic up on the spot), before assuring us that "There is no such thing as an average person". This ad can be seen as a spiritual successor to "Drive of Your Life", not least because it shared the same fixation with images of children in peril (the second ad, featuring Hollywood A-lister Kim Basinger, doesn't quite fit the mold, although it did continue to accentuate the theme of individuality, with the opening proclamation that "We are each as individual as our dreams"). This one is more haunting in tone than "Drive of Your Life", but it follows much the same formula, with various evocative images of human interaction accompanied by a rousing pop tune - in this case "True Colors", originally a hit in 1986 for Cyndi Lauper, here performed by Dominique Moore - while the hero of the piece expresses his singularity by breezing through the streets in a Peugeot 406. It received less fanfare than "Drive of Your Life", though it seems to have resonated with people - do a google search and you'll see that there are numerous sites and forums asking about an ad in which two kids go swimming and are attacked by a shark to the sounds of "True Colors".

If "Drive of Your Life" was a bizarrely feel-good take on Don't Look Now, then this ad (I don't know its official name, so we'll just call it "True Colors") plays like a feel-melancholic take on Jaws. Compared to "Drive of Your Life", the central scenario is presented a lot more starkly, with emphasis on just how exposed and vulnerable those children are as they go too far out and get their first real taste of the cold, dark depths of the world (and as the shark gets a taste of the boy's waist). The shark, of course, is a much-maligned creature and its representation in this particular ad would have done little to repair the damage that the aforementioned Spielberg film did for its public image, but it works as a shorthand for the unanticipated danger looming on the horizon for these carefree kids. This ad is about the loss of childhood innocence (the fact that the children start out at an innocuous-looking seaside resort reinforces this), but the discovery of something every bit as valuable; the children go out to sea and they return safely after their shark encounter, but they are not the same individuals as when they left, having discovered hidden depths within themselves.

There is an overarching story regarding the kids and the shark, which builds to an affecting pay-off at the end, but we also get a lot of extraneous "filler" imagery mixed in with it. These fit in with the broader themes of sacrifice and sensitivity, but unlike "Drive of Your Life", which explicitly set itself up as mimicking a stream of consciousness, "True Colors" doesn't really justify why it keeps cutting away from the main action to bring us all these additional sequences. Some of them, such as the businessman who goes barefoot in the rain after gifting his shoes to a homeless man, and the tough guy who loves his kitty, are evocative in themselves, but since "True Colors" is overall more narrative-driven than was "Drive of Your Life", it's easier to see them as just that; evocative images for evocative images' sake, added in chiefly to give the ad a bit more visual variety. The one which does baffle me slightly is the sequence in which a bride punches a reluctant groom who decides at the altar not to go through with their marriage, which follows more of a slapstick bent than the others (its - intentional? - resemblance to the final scenario in Four Weddings and a Funeral doesn't help in that regard) and I'm not sure how it fits in with the overall theme, unless it's simply that the people in question are being open about their feelings. It all helps to pad out the ad, until we get to the grand finale in which the driver of the car is revealed to be the boy bitten by the shark, now grown up and headed back to the same seaside resort to reunite with the girl. At the end, he takes off his shirt, revealing the gaping scar across his torso. That they're still together at the same resort implies that they still very much inhabit that distant childhood moment, the traumatic incident where everything changed, but ultimately defined them and solidified their connection. The implicit message of the "True Colors" theming, I suppose, is that the man's ostensibly hideous scar is actually a badge of honor, an emblem of the tremendous chivalry within (much like his hideous car?)

Still, according to at least one article I've found online (and I have been able to find precious little information about the actual making of the ad), "True Colors" did not pass without its share of controversy, with no less than fifty viewers making their discontentment known to the Independent Television Commission. Some apparently thought the man's scar was revolting and that he should have kept it concealed in the spirit of tasteful teatime viewing, but it seems that most of the complaints took issue with the broader issue of the ad focusing so extensively on a scenario in which children are in grave danger (they are very clearly shown to have survived and it's not as if the attack itself is at all graphic, although I suppose there were always going to be some who would find the mere concept distressing). According to the article, the ITC would have proceeded with an investigation into the advert to see if it broke any broadcast rules, but I have found no information of the outcome (it's too bad that old Ofcom archive appears to have been liquidated), although it does lead into a small mystery, as I do remember there being two versions of the ad - the longer version (above) from 1999, and a shorter version (below) which did the rounds the following year. The short version cuts down on some of the extraneous material (the handcuffed drink pass is completely excised), but the more curious alteration was the absence of the sequence in which the boy and the girl are seen returning triumphantly to land - instead, we get a repeat of the moment in which the boy is seen to shield the girl from the shark. Was that in response to the complaints, I wonder? If so, I'd find it a bit odd if this was considered the "gentler" of the two, as we're denied the additional comfort of actually seeing the children get back to safety, even if it's still made clear that they do. It can't surely have had anything to do with the boys' torso, and any visible injuries he might have sported, for as he limps back to shore in the original ad there's not really any conspicuous trace of mangled flesh and blood hanging off him (as would presumably have been the case if he'd endured an actual shark bite). Maybe it was just to make it clearer that the kids in the attack and the adults at the end were one and the same (for the benefit of those viewers who didn't pick up on this the first time round)? Regardless, in this version, the kids are left dangling there amid the dark waters, which potentially changes how we might perceive them in the present; no longer triumphant survivors who made it back in (almost) one piece, but drifters who are still emotionally lost in the big wide world, clinging to one another in an effort to stay afloat. This ending is a notch more troubling.

(Sorry, you'll have to go to YouTube for this one.)

So yes, Run or Fight Shark did a small bit of boat rocking within his time, although not as much as the next campaign I'll be examining, which likewise featured some fiendish fishes. Making viewers cautious to go into the ocean is one thing - this campaign made kids too terrified to go into their bathrooms.

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