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Choosing talent is a talent in itself

Much as I like poring over photographs of the Beautiful People, the awful truth is that there is no science to it whatsoever.
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I have never been comfortable with choosing talent for photography or commercials. Much as I like poring over photographs of the Beautiful People, the awful truth is that there is no science to it whatsoever. In my case it really has always been as uncomplicated as tossing a coin. Or, if I am feeling very flash, ‘eeny meeny miney mo …’

At the time of the first New Zealand challenge for the America’s Cup I was charged with the responsibility of designing and producing a catalogue for a range of leisurewear commissioned by Steinlager. The KZ range. I’m not surprised you don’t remember it. With the benefit of hindsight the kit was truly awful. The early 80s were to fashion what Radko Mladich is to civilisation.

As a young art director I was handed any job nobody else wanted to do, which suited me just fine as I was learning. I mentioned to my younger sister that I had to find a model for the project. She was a student at Glenfield College on Auckland’s North Shore and one of her classmates wanted to be a model, she said. So a very young and inexperienced Rachel Hunter featured in my catalogue. Her range of expression ran the gamut from A to B (a lifetime in advertising has given me a propensity towards hyperbole). I am sure there will be a copy of the document in the Lion Nathan archive. In that instance Ms Hunter was simply an expedient choice. Not unattractive, a wonderful clotheshorse and a heck of a lot less expensive to book then than in her prime.

I am convinced that selecting female models is really a function of one’s lizard brain. It sounds terribly coarse, but I am, metaphorically speaking, selecting a mate. There is nothing I can do about it. The term model gives the game away—they are idealised projections. They will also be conditioned by cultural conventions of the day. It all makes me feel very uncomfortable—a selective process that is innocent on one level and perverse on another. Eugenics, selective breeding and The Boys From Brazil come to mind.

Advertising has a way of shaping our culture as well as reflecting it. The choices I make when called upon to populate commercial messages are telling. They are influential. Happily, there is a very civil trend of including more diverse ranges of people in our messages to ourselves. It also makes sense among an aging population to include older people in advertising and fashion. It’s hard to empathise with string-bean 16-year-olds when you’re holding to the opposing aspirations of dignity and being contemporary, when your contemporaries are inviting you to their 50th birthday commiserations.

One curious trend in advertising is the emergence of the hipster male in commercials (if I might borrow from What Was The Hipster published in New York magazine: trucker hats; undershirts called ‘wifebeaters’, worn alone; the aesthetic of basement rec-room pornography, flash-lit Polaroids, and fake-wood paneling; Pabst Blue Ribbon; ‘porno’ moustaches; aviator glasses; Americana t-shirts from church socials and pig roasts; tube socks; the late albums of Johnny Cash; tattoos). My theory is that many denizens of ad agencies and design and film companies are themselves members of this cohort. Their tastes shape their work and the invasion of this stereotype into our living rooms can be explained simply: our taste-makers have no taste—or rather a neo-bohemian rejection of mainstream tastes in a desire to assert themselves as individuals. Albeit a herd of uniquely identical individuals. Given my prior confession I can hardly point an accusatory finger.

The funniest part of the process comes when it’s time to pitch my choices to the client. The horny little reptilian brain is locked away and the rational cortex comes to the fore—possibly one of the most creative tasks in advertising.