Ad Breakdown: London Underground’s “Starve a meter.”

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Lewis Folkard

Suffolk-based conversion copywriter.

Today, we’re looking at one of Mary Wear‘s great ads. She has an extensive portfolio of brilliant work, including the famous “Make Poverty History”

She created a lot of her work with her ad partner, Damon Collins. I’m going to share some thoughts on one of their earliest pieces, which Mary describes as a “poster outside tube stations to dissuade Londoners from using their cars“.

Here’s “Starve a meter” from the 1988 D&AD annual.

Who’s responsible?

  • Copywriter: Mary Wear
  • Art Director: Damon Collins
  • Agency: FCB
  • Client: London Underground Ltd

New kids on the block

Fresh out of ad school and eager to prove themselves, Mary and Damon joined FCB on an unpaid contract. Their first agency experience presented some opportunities in unexpected ways. 

As Mary recalls in Dave Dye’s podcast

“The brilliant thing about FCB was that everybody was drunk from 1 o’clock right the way through until 6 or 7 in the evening. And quite often never came back. So if anybody wanted to brief anybody after 1 o’clock, and occasionally the briefs did come in in the afternoon, there was nobody else there except Damon and I – and a couple of other younger teams…”

So when John Sherfield had been “briefed” on the London Underground work after lunch… and the account manager came to collect work, there was nothing to hand over. 

Mary and Damon, being the only ones in the office at the time, were handed the opportunity. And quickly came up with the idea.

One of their earliest pieces of work came through by accident.

Experience vs inexperience

With a mind graced with failures and successes, it’s no surprise that experienced advertisers are generally better at their job. 

But we need to be mindful.

Because while experienced advertisers know when to break the rules, the inexperienced don’t know the rules to break. It’s a clean slate. And the natural naivety that tags along encourages a more fearless approach with fresh perspectives. 

The magic happens when you bring both together.

Playing with pain

As Mary shares in The Copy Book, “You don’t have to logic people into a corner, you can charm them into wanting to come out and play.”

She and Damon do just that. They tell a ‘boring story’ (don’t drive, use the Tube) in an engaging way by playing with the pain we feel when we reluctantly hand over our money.

Rather than the meter inflicting pain on you (by taking your money), you inflict pain on the meter – by using the Tube. 

That’s emotional persuasion.

The visual metaphor

To dramatise the ‘pain’ we can inflict on the meter (and shortcut generating emotion), the ad uses a visual metaphor to tap into our ‘existing skeleton associations’.

Not only does it speed up digestion, but it’s more persuasive and helps us remember the message.

But I need to be honest. I’m a 90s baby who grew up in a small village with no exposure to parking meters. And to me, the art feels a little ambiguous… and alone isn’t enough. So, I think the ad needs the copy to sharpen the message.

To someone with more exposure to parking meters – like 80s Londoners – I’d imagine this would resonate faster. 

Conclusion

Use experience and inexperience together, and great things happen. The fresh perspectives and elegant execution can create great ads just like this.

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