In the 1983 British TV commercial, fictional author J R Hartley famously tracked down an old copy of his own book ‘Fly Fishing’, following a tip off from his daughter to search in the 'Yellow Pages’ business directory.
The advertisement was shot in soft focus, as we meandered with the charming old gent round arcane and picturesque second hand London bookshops, where he became increasingly disheartened, announcing ‘It is rather old’, to the hollow background notes of a mournful piano. Britain was captivated – and when I later told a friend ‘I’m so sentimental I even cry at the Yellow Pages ads’, I was not alone – and I didn’t mean the ones printed in the big yellow book!
The directory was then an offshoot of state owned British Telecom – a year before the company was privatised by the Thatcher government -and thus had access to a very large marketing budget. In fact the 1980s proved to be a golden era in British TV advertising, and the selling off of state owned resources - BT, British Airways, British Gas - created a huge pot of money memorably utilised by ad agencies to create such award winning campaigns as ‘Tell Sid’ (flogging shares in British Gas ) and ‘The World’s Favourite Airline’ (British Airways).
J R Hartley became part of the national imagination – and was spoofed over the following decades by such acclaimed comedians as Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie (years before he became the misanthropic American doctor ’House’), in ‘A Bit Of Fry and Laurie’, Harry Enfield, Eddie Izzard and Ricky Gervais. In light of the continuing cult status of this fictional TV author, in 1991 Michael Russell wrote 'Fly Fishing: Memories of Angling Days’, under the pseudonym ‘J R Hartley’, and the ad ranked no 13 in ‘The 100 Greatest TV Ads’, as voted by British Channel 4 viewers in 2009.
The fortunes of Yellow Pages have long been on the wane, however, and a new TV ad campaign was launched in February 2011 to bring the ubiquitous directory – established in Britain in the 1960s - into the digital age. Following the same storyline, but with a very different central character, we follow a capped and bearded middle aged man – Day V Lately, around vinyl record shops. A former - and seemingly groovy - rave DJ, he is on the hunt for his ‘trance’ remix of ‘Pulse and Thunder’ from 1992. Trailing in his wake, I found I was not tempted to cry, or even get dewy eyed - though they may have glassed over a bit.
Rebranded as ‘Yell’, the Yellow Pages directory is now competing with Google and all other online search engines, and Day’s daughter’s helpful intervention – pointing out she has a Yell app on her smart phone – may have saved his day, but it all seems a bit unlikely. A dance DJ, however ancient (and he does admit in one shop that 1992 is ‘pretty old’), is not a great candidate for technophobia, even though he does have massive, outmoded headphones seemingly slung permanently round his neck. It just misses the mark, somehow. Maybe the reference – and reverence – to the original iconic commercial is endearing, but he’s not a befuddled and adorable old man, rather a bloke who’s still fairly young and maybe just dim. He hasn’t heard of Google. Really?
Still, the online campaign is inspired – Day V regularly tweets about his hit ‘Pulse and Thunder’ on Twitter, it is available in the original and remix versions on itunes, and has had (according to Day) in excess of 130,000 hits. His website – a spoof of a 1996 site built when he was but a lad – is just genius, and the smiley faces background and dodgy flashing lights are brilliant.
When Norman Lumsden, the veteran actor who played J R Hartley died in 2001 it made headline news in Britain. Whether the fame of Day V Lately, or Matthew Jure, the actor who portrays him is set for similar longevity is doubtful, though the ad may do its bit to bring Yell to the attention of the switched on youth of Britain. Though it may just be a yell in the dark.