Product Placement - Original Short Story
Photo by Jenna Anderson on Unsplash
An old woman leans forward, her lip quivering as her eyes narrow focusing on the television.
“Oh, I love this one.”
In the distance a fat middle-aged man walks methodically along a beach with a metal detector. It’s twilight and his dark blue parka makes him fade into the background. Cut to him closer, his metal detector starts beeping insistently. The scene cuts to him squatted over his detector, a look of triumph on his face, then to him shoulder deep in a hole. He emerges holding a sandy, rusted metal detector and after looking back at his own errant device collapses against the side of the hole in frustration.
The screen cuts to black with the words...
My grandmother was my mentor, she liked the adverts more than the actual shows. I remember her eyes simmering when Coronation Street cut into the break sequence. She didn’t just swallow every word though, she was the harshest critic you could imagine. That’s where it began, subconsciously imprinted on my burgeoning adolescence. Advertising was worthy, something to be noticed, not to be taken lightly. I studied every advert I ever watched, the product became unimportant.
Most people switch off when the adverts come on. They are aware that someone is trying to sell them something and they detach themselves emotionally. The trick with a good ad - for TV anyway - is to let the product sit in the background, noticeable but not in your face. In this way you lull the cynic with the story of the ad, while the traitor subconscious mind laps up the product details. A good story brings that emotional attachment back. The non-cynic or grandmothers of the world - the armchair critics - always notice the product and they rate them by how much they like the ad. To make adverts in this way winds in the proverbial fish, as both parties remember the product and are hooked.
Photo by Arkadiusz Radek on Unsplash
The London Eye looks down on me, a white painted metal wheel that spins faster and faster. My eyes re-focus as I gaze into the face of my Rolex, shit its quarter to one, got to hurry.
I’m shocked out of my contemplation as a skateboarder flies past. Gleaming white Etnies shoes, a disgruntled panda chocolate hoodie and the eagle winged Birdhouse logo flashes by as the board flips past my head. He lands at the bottom of the stairs, riding away casually, as his friend trails him with his camera. I reach the top of the stairs and the hyperactive kid runs up, board wedged under his arm, tearing headphones out of his ears.
“Did he ruin the shot? Let’s see.”
His friend shakes his head.
“Check it out bruv.”
I hurry by and catch a glimpse of the display screen on the back of the camera. The skater hangs against the background of a busy London street. Behind him my shocked face is half turned, arm thrust out in panic, waving a bunch of flowers to ward of this airborne demon. The logo on the board is just in view, protruding in front of my wide eyes. Above me the skater hovers in full mid air crouch, arms stiffly bent in the air for balance, the tip of his tongue sticking out between his teeth in a grimace of concentration.
They cross the road, waving back at me and laughing in short adrenaline filled blasts, “cheers fella."
I stumble on through London’s midday rush. Lunch timers wander past clutching cups, plastic bags, Styrofoam containers.
Starbucks, Subway, McDonald’s. The logos pin them down.
Starbucks, too busy to eat. Subway, health conscious. And finally McDonald’s; just don’t give a fuck.
I hail a cab, which screeches to a halt beside me. The cab smells of stale cigarette smoke and a sharp bleach. The cabbie stares at me as I wrinkle my nose at the Saturday night smell.
“Alright gov, where’s it gonna be then?”
“Fulham Road, you know the cemetery.”
He nods slightly as the cab pulls off into the crawling traffic.
“Wait a sec, Camden Road at the Junction of Brecknock, I’ve got to change.”
I twist my head around to try to get a view of the extent of the jam. Cars stretch off into the distance, a mosaic of colour on the grey tarmac. London’s psychedelic blood flowing through filth blocked arteries to all its vital organs. The city fades into memory.
I look down at her wrinkled face, streaked with blue veins. She twitches in the depth of a morphine induced dream. A nurse hovers in the doorway. Her short blonde bob cuts across her cheeks drawing attention to kelp green eyes. The slight rise of her breasts beneath the generic blue nurses’ uniform sends my mind spiraling in all sorts of directions. It’s always been a fantasy of mine to fuck a nurse.
“I won’t wake her until my sister gets here.”
The nurse looks at me, sympathy painted on her face like make-up, “she’s had a hard time of it the last few days, very little sleep.”
I close my eyes in understanding, opening them quickly again to watch her as she walks away.
I stare down at that blue cheese face tracing the wrinkles around her mouth like a maze. That’s what it looks like, or maybe like a street map, lots of roads converging into one dark motorway. Light illuminates her face, her blue veins flare with colour as the sun burns a thinner, less smoggy, piece of cloud away. Her facial fiber optics dull in the fading light. The cancer sky eats away beneath the surface, erasing the beauty that’s more than skin deep.
Her eyes open. “Hello love, how are you?”
My hands fidget with the flowers I hold pressed against my chest. “Are you feeling any better?”
The car exhaust aroma wafts up from the bunch of petunias in my hand as I fumble them towards the table. Her spider web hand shoots out quicker than I would have expected and pulls them towards her nose. She inhales deeply and smiles.
“They’re lovely, I feel much better now.”
She hands them back indicating that I should put them on the bedside table.
“They remind me of the war,” her tranquil voice low and slow like a mother cooing a baby to sleep.
“Your great uncle and I would pick flowers from the side of the road for the dinner table. My mother, your great grandmother, was a very taciturn woman, she would take them off us and arrange them in a china cup without a word. Then she’d call father to the table and he’d nod his approval. It’s funny the way small things take on such importance when times are hard.”
“I got them from that little shop at Piccadilly Circus, you know the one?”
She nods her head, the wrinkles around her mouth creasing into a suspension bridge smile.
“It was always that way when I was a kid. Small, simple things would amuse us. That’s one thing you don’t see now. Kids just play Playstation or that ‘next box’ thing.”
I smile as the words wash over me, listening to her properly for the first time in my life. Not to the words but to the sound of her voice, a song of lament for the changing of the years. Her voice sounds as if she’s pleading for an answer from me. Her words crystallize from the fog as her tone becomes more immediate and vital.
“I remember a dance I went to near the end of the war. All these American GI’s with their funny accents. They were like kids in a candy store, away from home for the first time. I had a wonderful night. Margery Willet and me snuck out and met up at the bus stop. We were only seventeen mind, but we caught the number nine up Chesterfield Road and into town. I can’t remember most of that night, I danced my heart out. Be-bop, The Big Apple, the Jive, it was all so new you see. This was before I met your granddad of course.”
Her nose scrunches up in remembered pleasure as she sighs.
“Anyway, one of these American service men took a fancy to me, Chuck or Bert, one of them names. He’s talking to me telling me all about the Statue of Liberty and how everything’s better in America, so I turn to him and say, what have you got that’s so great, eh? His friends all start laughing and making lewd remarks. Well you Brit’s haven’t even got peanut butter, case closed, he says. I turned to leave but he grabs my arm and tells me to wait, he’ll be back in a minute. Sure enough he comes back waving a pot of this brown stuff at me as if he’s just been to the moon and back. Couldn’t stand the stuff, still can’t to this day but my sister and brother couldn’t get enough. I kept it in a tin can buried under the tree in the garden to keep them from prattling to dad about me and Margery."
Her eyes stare into the distance, rheumy and wet with the ghost of tears.
"I doled it out rarely, making sure that they could always see that there was some left. That small jar of peanut butter meant I could get away with murder. It must still be there under the tree. Small things, eh.” She gazes out of the window as her voice trails off, washing the past away.
I stand in silence, my mind a drying canvas. This picture of life burrows inside me and takes root.
“How’s your work going, anything new on the horizon?” Reality snaps me back from my contemplation.
“It’s going fine, I have the final cut of a project we’ve been working on right here. D’you want to see, you’ll be the first one outside the company. Your own premier.”
“Ok then.” She slips her reading glasses on and huddles forwards as I balance my laptop on her knee, leaning over to open up the file in ‘My documents’. The blue glow of the laptop's screen pulls us both in.
Fade in from black.
A bottle against a black background, the shape like two triangles meeting at their points in the middle. A golden coloured liquid swirls inside the glass shape.
‘What is inside’, the voice-over purrs.
The scene cuts to a circle of light, golden, bubbling liquid. As the camera turns on its axis we see that it’s a glass of Champagne clutched by a slender hand, then the camera pulls up to a tall slim woman in a black dress trimmed with threads of gold in a wave-like pattern down one side. She walks gracefully down a curving staircase into the midst of what looks like the ambassador’s ball.
The ball room scene freezes in a golden tableau of glitter and god rays. The narrator exclaims, ‘what is it she has’ and the bottle flashes back up with a single word beneath in golden letters, Inspiration.
Slowly a hand rises. Grandma removes her glasses, placing them in the white drawer beside her bed. She leans forward to give her verdict.
“Wait, stop. Turn the cab around.” The cabbie slows down, his head twitching, “what’s the problem?”
“Take me to Lowestoft Road please.”
“That’s half way across town, it’ll take a while with this traffic.”
“I don’t care, just drive.”
The cabbie puffs noncommittally on his cigarette then wheels the cab round in a U-turn to the shriek of horns from the oncoming traffic.
My job as an account handler is to facilitate. First we get a brief; what the client wants from the advertisement, their budget and most important, product details. Product details make our job a whole lot easier. With a product like toothpaste you’ve got an easy ride.
'New oxide wash action gives the feeling of gargling without the need for mouthwash. Our new fluoride deep white compound delivers the whitest of white teeth without the need for abrasive whitening treatment.'
We’re given plenty of details from the outset.
Unfortunately with perfume we’re given little to go on. It’s expensive and it stinks. I have to sift through all the corporate jargon when consulting with the client and give the creative team a framework. A basic outline.
The advert must be classy and appeal to women, the product name must be spoken and represented on screen. It should be understated yet extravagant... that really gets them thinking. Always fuck with the creative team, make them earn their money.
Once the script comes through I’m sent back to the client to get an earful. The costs are too high, they don’t like the name, the concept’s too simple. What is the man doing in her bedroom?
After lengthy consultation I return with a gutted script that the creative director won’t touch. This is the point where I take a back seat and the production team get to work formulating the costs of making it. An independent production company is hired, adding one more voice to the cacophony, and the realisation dawns that we’ve gone over budget so the decision is taken to film the party scene in a hotel in Bournemouth instead of Milan as planned. The cameras are hired, the location booked and paid for, the model agency contacted and the creative director grudgingly decides to participate.
After consultations with his editing staff he returns with a completely different script.
This is the point when I have to reiterate what the client’s brief was at the beginning of the project, as by this time it will be way off kilter. Days pass. The date for shooting creeps closer and eventually I am given a script from a grumbling creative team. I OK it out of sheer frustration and filming goes ahead.
Photo by Hal Gatewood on Unsplash
The cab pulls to a halt outside a tall thin house. Paint is peeling from the windows and the door frame. The house seems to stare down severely as I climb out.
“Wait there a minute.” I can feel the driver’s eyes on me as I approach the house. I ring the doorbell. A woman answers the door warily.
“We vote Labour, thank you very much. Anyway we’ve already had one of your lot over.” She pauses, her nose twitching like a guinea pig.
“Two days ago, don’t you keep a list of where you visit, no wonder the country’s going to rack and ruin if this is how you organise things.”
I stare down at my blue tie and suit and then raise my hand pleadingly.
“Please, I’m not selling anything, especially not politics. I was just wondering if you have a tree in your garden?”
Photo by Scott Rodgerson on Unsplash
The cab drives slowly through the forest of graves like a predator.
“Stop, I’ll walk from here.”
I lean forwards and pull my wallet from my pocket.
“You sure mate? I can get you closer.”
I stare at him.
“That’ll be fifty seven pounds ninety please.”
I deposit my treasure on the seat for a moment and count out three twenties before snatching it back up and jumping out. I walk quickly towards a group of crow-black mourners and push through the crowd. Blinking back tears, I sweep mud off the face of the object gripped in my hand to reveal a slogan, ‘Peter Pan Peanut Butter.’
The tin is yellow with age. I pop the lid to reveal a thin crust of brown residue lining the bottom of the tin. I stop in front of the open grave.
My sister’s eyes are fire that eventually simmer down to embers.
I don’t care.
The vicar finishes the eulogy.
My sister and her husband walk forwards and drop a bunch of white flowers onto the deep brown of the coffin’s lid. My fingers tighten around my rusty tin offering, before letting the residue of a memory fall, returned to the earth.
© Rowan Joyce, all rights reserved.
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