Tomorrow We Live (In Richard Branson’s Brave New World)
Tuesday, June 16th, 2009
I’ve been slightly perturbed by a few adverts on digital TV channel Virgin 1 recently, which have featured an Apprentice-style interview room scenario set up in the Virgin headquarters. Apart from being disturbing due to the fact that Richard Branson is trying to model his look ever-increasingly on that of an omiprescent Yahweh God, these adverts have also been worrying because of their decision to feature a range of brightly coloured muppet-a-likes who are supposedly looking for a job with Virgin’s “Big Boss”.
Now The Muppets were great. Kermit, Piggy et al were responsible for some of the most subversive 70s prime time TV and (in the early part of their history, at least) some pretty fantastic movies too. However, cheap muppet imitations are most definitely not great – and certainly not suitable fodder for a major ad offensive from one of Britain’s biggest companies. But that’s beside the by…
These Virgin ads have been cropping up for a few weeks now and I couldn’t find anyone who would explain what they were about. A new show, perhaps? A long anticipated Apprentice rip-off? The resignation speech of Sir Richard of shoddy goods and cash-grabbing? If only.
It was only last week during the premier of the latest season of Chuck (which is a superb show, by the way, and nowhere near jumping the shark despite some negative reviews) that the point of these adverts was finally revealed. With a modest fanfare we discovered that these banal segments have been promoting the fact that…..wait for it….Virgin 1 is rebranding! Well sort of.
Yes, apparently creating a slightly different logo qualifies you for an extensive PR overhaul these days. As does the introduction of a new mascot – one of the aforementioned muppets called Red – which could possibly be one of the most ridiculous decisions taken by a supposedly viable company looking for credibility. Evidently some flunky was watching MTV, saw the old Flat Eric video and thought “hey, if we got that puppet, painted it red and crossed it with ITV Digital’s Monkey, we could be onto a winner here…” No doubt when the marketing department at Virgin wakes up from their mushroom-induced stupour they may realise the error of their ways, but I fully expect this montrosity to continue on-screen for some months until that finally happens.
Anyhow, the point isn’t about the muppets or the re-branding or anything like that. I was more surprised with the first set of adverts that were featured on this brand-spanking-new Virgin 1. Every one of them – and I mean every single one – was for products provided and marketed by, you’ve guessed it, the Virgin co-operation.
Quite aside of being the most mental thing I’ve seen TV-wise this year, this does pose a serious question. Virgin is a huge company that has turned its hand – successfully or otherwise – to everything from computers to coke over the past 30 years or so. It currently does broadband, airlines, trains, phones and space travel and makes millions every year. It has it’s own TV channel which is actually in a position to promote and hawk its other products and, unlike any other satellite or digital company, it appears to be actually trying to do so.
Oswald Mosely, the British Union of Fascists leader, famously envisaged a British nation state that survived on self-sufficiency for worldwide greatness. The idea was that Britain should grow and produce everything it needed for survival internally – so that people in Britain would effectively be trading with themselves instead of the rest of the world. If there were still a few things that the population needed after this internal free-for-all – bananas and so forth, that weren’t readily available or indigenous to somewhere like Bradford – then the country would trade with the other nations in its Empire. And if after this there were still some items that people needed, we would consent to trading with the rest of the world for them – as a last resort.
It seems to me that Sir Branson of Virgin has taken this model and applied it to his own company. Rather than letting anyone else into his empire, it appeared during this five minute ad break that the company was just going to advertise within itself – leaving no room for competitors. Of course, this Virgin love-in only lasted for one set of adverts, but I’ve increasingly noticed that Virgin products are still being heavily promoted through ads on the company’s flagship channel.
If this continues then, eventually, I envisage a situation where Virgin may actually start providing everything – cars, food, etc… – and we get a channel that constantly promotes itself at the danger of stifling economic competition. That would be a scary new world indeed. Especially if the bearded one puts himself on a podium to lord it up over his new kingdom.