Saturday, 27 June 2020

Ad capture (02) – Nurofen

This the second in a series of posts that are designed to take a detailed look at TV advertisements. I want to slow down the experience and pay attention to what is offered to view between programs on the small screen. This kind of content tends to be considered unimportant or ephemeral.

This 15-second ad came after one for a home building company and before one for a food delivery service. The narrator asks: “Looking for osteoarthritis pain relief?” With this voiceover, the screen fills with a store aisle and, on a blue sign in the top right, the word “Prescriptions” as though, for reference, you were being placed in your imagination in a pharmacy. The shelves are pale and grey, with only the occasional sign indicating that you are supposed to be in a real place.  Some of the objects on the shelves are boxes, some are bottles. They are in a section of shelving marked “Pain Relief”.

They look like the types of bottles that liquid comes in but whatever they contain, the dream-like and washed-out colours give the space an unfamiliar feel, as though the woman in the ad had suddenly found herself in a distant shopping centre – convention might tell you something about where you are but a lack of the fine detail that accompanies you on an everyday outing to your local supermarket means you feel disoriented.

Entering the frame from the right-hand side, the woman has blonde hair and a slim build. She turns her head as she progresses, slowly and tentatively, on foot, approaching the camera. She moves from right to left, giving you the impression that you are at the beginning of a story. The imagery links cosily with the voiceover and the suspense you feel at being part of this woman’s quest – she’s someone struggling to solve a problem (what drug to buy?) – is lessened by three quick cuts that bring her rapidly to a column of shelves marked at the top, in big white letters, “Pain Relief”. The same words are printed on blue signs plastered to the sign of not one but two columns of shelves (see screenshot below).

No time is wasted in getting to the point and the blue of the signs, in stark contrast to the grey and white of the confusing shelves, offer a bit of comfort, blue a colour freighted with meaning in Australia as it is associated with authority. It is used by the police in most states and territories and it’s also the colour used for highway signs that contain general information – for example those giving notice of rest areas and of exits where food can be purchased – whereas green signs on a motorway will be used to provide directions. So blue reassures in the context of the ad, eliciting welcome feelings. In contrast to the conservative blue signs, the blonde woman wears a modern, sporty, bright pink cardigan. It’s a colour – unlike, say, pale blue, which might also suit a blonde – with other connotations, and an older woman like the one we see in the ad might be making a statement in wearing it. It suggests she has alternative views.

I will return to again and again to the contrast between opposites used in this ad. So, for example, the plain packages of the goods on display offer contrast to the unsightly gaps between the shelves. These two elements combine to give the early shots of the ad a forlorn look and make you feel that something is missing. The woman, for her part, looks lonely and afraid; the pink of her cardigan is, moreover, feminine, underscoring how vulnerable she must feel all alone among the confusing array of products, none of which is what she is looking for. 

To add to the feeling of being disembodied, or in a dream, more disturbing information is delivered via the voiceover. The narrator refers, using his confident male voice, to legislative changes regarding the sale of painkillers. As Senior magazine relayed on 30 May: 
FROM Monday all modified release (MR) paracetamol products, such as Panadol osteo, often taken by osteoarthritis sufferers and other with chronic pain, will only be available from behind the counter at pharmacies. 
The Therapeutic Goods Administration made the decision to reclassify the schedule 2 medication to a schedule 3 (pharmacist only) from June 1, 2020, because of concerns around deliberate and accidental overdose.
The ad exploits changes in federal law designed to promote responsible use of a product that is commonly used by seniors (the woman in the ad looks to be aged in her late 50s or early 60s – about retirement age), and the drab setting underscores the unease people feel about using medications.

In the third shot the woman is shown front-on to the camera, but now she’s turning her head, scanning the shelves with their grey boxes, her relaxed facial muscles pulling down the corners of her mouth. While unsure of herself, she looks like a woman who can give a crisp answer to a question, and who doesn’t like feeling out of her depth. As she turns her head to the right (our left) – taking us back into the past in our imagination, into the realms of memory – her eyes slide in the same direction, emphasising forcefully the notion of “searching”. It is clear that there’s an answer to the woman’s problem, but so far she hasn’t hit upon it.

Added to the feeling of unhappiness the woman evokes in the viewer’s imagination are her big, dark eyes, their colourlessness merging with the grey shelves and contrasting with the bright pink cardigan she’s wearing. The contrast is designed to keep our interest, even as the colourless packages on the shelves lull us into a dream-state, but this first section of the ad lasts for approximately half of the available time – about seven seconds – and this protracted period of disorientation is powerful and compelling for the viewer.

On her left shoulder the woman carries a handbag and in the final shot of this section she is situated just within the right-hand half of the frame. When she finishes turning her head, forming a point of punctuation for this quick, efficient series of shots, most of the screen is filled with those boring grey shelves with their endless ranks of grey boxes. They surround the woman. “And why,” you can hear her asking herself, “are things so hard to find now that the law has changed?” Perhaps she had heard about the change as she was listening to the radio in her car … (She used to be able to go into her local supermarket and buy Nurofen Osteo in the cosmetics aisle when she picked up soap and toothpaste …)

At the bottom of the screen are two rows of fine print that you might have the time and inclination to read, and the lack of colour in the shots encourages you to do so. They say that the medicine being advertised in the ad may not be right for everyone. They also say that the medicine is for temporary pain relief. This is all fine in general, but as far at the woman in the ad is concerned the medication is absolutely essential – why else would she subject herself to such rigours? These pesky grey boxes! It’s impossible to find anything in this place!

From the shot of the woman in her bright pink cardigan we cut to a shot (see image below) showing shelves with ranks of identical grey boxes of painkillers. We’d seen boxes of drugs looking like these in an earlier shot, rows and rows of them on offer. But not the ones the woman is looking for.

You see a hand scanning from right to left (the tonic directionality showing that a question is still to be answered) and the tendons and bones in the back of the hand are clearly visible through her skin. It is a hand that has been carefully thought out as is the packet design of the boxes of painkiller which resembles that of the main competitor of Nurofen (but it is not the brand the woman is looking for). The main competitor being Panadol, which is made by GlaxoSmithKline, and which uses green on its packaging. 

At this point in time, it is the hand that is shown doing the thinking. It’s an intelligent hand, with the thumb cocked, the index finger pointed, and the three remaining fingers bent at the knuckle, as though finding the right box of painkillers were a matter of the utmost importance. This kind of definition of the problem faced by the woman will be familiar to people aged over 50, for whom the youthful luxury of a feeling of having unlimited time has been replaced by the necessity of selecting, based on experience, the appropriate form of activity for each segment of the day.

Visible in this shot, near the top of the frame, is a barcode such as you find on products displayed in retail outlets. It’s there to show that, despite the grey boxes, this is a real shop and this is a real situation such as any 60-year-old woman living with chronic pain might confront on any day of the week. Two more barcodes are visible each side of the woman’s wrist but they are abstract and impersonal, giving nothing away. The hand looks very much like it could be the hand of the woman we have become familiar with as our avatar – a person slim enough and blonde enough to be a fitting representative of everywoman (even us!).

The next shot (see image below) is fascinating not only due to its centrality. The woman stops scanning, looks straight ahead (still with her head and shoulders situated in the right-hand half of the screen, with her right eye at the centre line of the frame) and up pops her head, as if finding the right product had enabled her to levitate. The horizontal of the gap between the shelves behind her head bisects, in the middle of the frame, the vertical created by the shadow under the woman’s hair, to form a cross. A fitting symbol of suffering and redemption. The horizontals of the woman’s eyelids, her eyes, her mouth, and the two gaps between shelves behind her create a nice rhythm in pictorial form to accompany the woman’s sudden broad smile. She’s slightly narrowed her eyes, enabling the viewer to see her eyelids.

Before her eyelids had been invisible. The eyelids are important because they show that the woman is healthy and not puffy-eyed (as a person might be if they consumed too many medications). Now, the woman is so high that the top of her head is cut off by the frame. She’s high as a kite! And her eyes and mouth are so dimensioned and contoured to be almost the same shape as each other.

Note how the hair on her right shoulder is swept back, increasing the lightness of the imagery used to orient the viewer. The tan strap of the woman’s handbag declines to enter into a rhythm with the gap between the shelves, her eyes, her mouth, and the shadows made by her hair, and in this shot harmonises with her hair and with the pink of her cardigan. We are now at the ad’s midpoint.

It’s a point where certainty has been disturbingly delayed for seven seconds – an eternity in advertising time. The narrator now says, “Thankfully, there’s Nurofen!” The tone of his voice shifts to match the popping head of the woman in the pink cardigan, and lifts to a peak on the first syllable of the product name. Your mood instantly becomes brighter as the man emotes happiness with his voice. It’s a voice that is on the high end of the scale for men and whereas before he had been downbeat and factual – all that talk of frightening legislative change – now he is as surprised by fate as the levitating woman.

The next shot, showing a comforting array of boxes of the drug the woman has carefully and determinedly been searching for, appears precisely in tandem with the spoken word “Nurofen.” Perspective now goes not from the right-hand edge to the left-hand edge, but the other way: from left to right, which is subliminally comforting for the viewer. We are arriving at the conclusion.

To consolidate the achievement of a form of closure, the shot of boxes of drugs is quickly replaced – it shows for about a second – by an animation (see image below for its end state) that is labelled, in the top-right corner of the screen, “Dramatisation”; (honesty is important). Now, a range of things happen in quick succession in an ambience saturated with very bright colours. The rapidity and colourfulness contrast dramatically with the long sequences in the washed-out store aisle belonging to the first seven seconds of the ad. 

First up, you see a knee with the bones visible as though an X-ray were had been made of a leg. A red glow around the joint demonstrates that the people who make the drug understand how pain can be crippling if it’s severe enough. Then, from the left-hand side, at the bottom of the screen – the “real” zone – an image of the drug packet slides succinctly into place. You can almost hear it make a “click” as it comes to rest at a polite distance from the aching knee, with its calf muscle carefully outlined in white. 

The words “reduce inflammation” run in the voice-over as this happens, and then suddenly the words “relief of pain + inflammation” emerge in caps above the packet as a set of interlocking rings, with red on the outside and yellow in the middle, appear behind the knee and the words “… and relieve osteo pain …” are layered over the visuals by the male narrator, though the voiceover doesn’t end there and continues as the shot changes to the next one.

Establishing a link between pain and inflammation using the plus-sign is clever, hinting at the speed of the drug’s effect when taken in a suitable dose (which information will be on the packet). The rest of the voice-over’s sentence (“for up to eight hours”) arrives on top of the following shot.

The blonde woman is smiling broadly now, the ends of her hair lying on her pink cardigan. She occupies the right-hand third of the screen, and in front of her face holds up a packet of the drug. The colourfulness and her location in the shot – especially her eyes, which are in the top-right of the frame – combine to give this composition of elements a positive energy. Reinforcing this, the front of the packet of drugs is clearly visible (though it’s seen at an angle) so you know what she’s looking at. Behind the woman’s hand three shelves full of packets of the drug, their bright label in full view (this is what made the woman smile so broadly before), are clearly visible. Their fronts show the same three-ringed symbol as the graphic that came up behind the aching knee in the earlier shot, which had made explicit and unambiguous a link to arthritic pain.

“Switch to Nurofen,” the narrator says as the final shot appears (see image below). The bright white radiating glow coming out from the space behind the logo (made up of its distinctive triple ring of red, orange and yellow) on the idealised packet not only take up the critical central space of the screen that had previously been occupied by the worried-looking woman, they are also echoed by similar rays on the small bottle that is offered as a product packaging option for fussy consumers who might want to travel and hence want something a bit stronger than a cardboard packet.

My analysis is almost over. I just want to quickly note how the ad achieves the transition from the image of the now-smiling woman to the brand shot that closes it out. It is very clever, and uses the three rings of the logo in a compelling fashion.

As the woman stands in the frame with her packet of drugs – the acquisition of which being an achievement that fulfills her immediate goal – colours enter from the extremities of the screen (see image below) and zoom ecstatically toward the centre, the canonical splash ending up as the logo on the packet pictured in the image we saw before. 

Then, in black and red, the words “Switch to Nurofen” are visible at the top of the screen, in the ideal zone, and this message is underscored by the narrator’s voice, which says, “Switch to Nurofen.” The first syllable of this sentence is said in a high tone, with the voice descending in pitch to end with a neutral point in the middle of the narrator’s vocal range.

This ad is incredibly good and uses a full range of elements to achieve its goal: to convey a message about the importance of going to the pharmacist’s shop to get the painkillers that some older people might need to live meaningful lives. It’s a difficult subject to address on TV due to the negative connotations aroused by, for example, the law change. But the ad comes at the problem with alacrity and verve.

Nurofen is shown to be an alternative brand for the thinking woman. It is a brand of Ibuprofen made and marketed by Reckitt Benckiser, a British company that is publicly listed. According to Wikipedia Ibuprofen is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug that was discovered in 1961 by Stewart Adams working at Boots UK Limited, and initially marketed as Brufen.

In the above I focus mainly on the secondary messaging that operates in addition to the words used in the voiceover. Almost like subliminal or hidden messaging, in subtle ways video and audio content affects the conscious mind as it tries to make sense of adverts.

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