The Only Popular Tax Ever Known: The UK Robin Hood Tax Campaign

April 13, 2010 at 2:59 am

The proposal to tax banking profits for the benefit of a variety of not-for-profit causes came to prominence with this short video, released in the UK in early February 2010, starring the ever popular Bill Nighy and directed by Richard Curtis, whose name is usually linked to feel-good British rom-coms like Four Weddings and a Funeral (which he wrote) and Love Actually (which he wrote and directed).

The argument in favour of the tax, an apparently grass-roots initiative, has now proliferated into a wider scale campaign (reportedly supported by more than a million activists) which is headquartered at an own web-site that represents a consortium of various activists and other non-profits (or ‘charities’, as they are called in the UK). It has been gaining momentum last week since the announcement of the coming elections on 6 May 2010. Supported by influential American economist Jeffrey Sachs (a man revered and loathed in different circles), the proposal is for a variation of the so-called Tobin tax, which makes provision for imposing a very small ‘spot’ levy on large financial transactions of the type that investment banks are regularly involved with.

Supporters of the tax were involved in events around Hyde Park’s Speakers corner last weekend. It all happens as Swiss-owned bank UBS is reporting a first-quarter pretax profit of 2.5 billion Swiss francs ($2.4 billion), compared with a loss of around 1.5 billion francs a year earlier. The campaign have just released a new video, starring Ben Kngsley as a banker (as well as a bunch of up and coming ethnic minority actors as the hooded boys who rob him in the ‘bank directors only’ car park).

In addition, here is a short video, again featuring Bill Nighy explaining why is this a good idea (as ‘no one is targeted, no individual is being punished’, and ‘it could be the only popular tax ever known’) and asking that people keep an eye on the campaign that appears to be gathering pace.

Gorbachev ad for Louis Vuitton, 2007/2008: Why am I Obsessed with this Photograph?

May 2, 2009 at 12:18 am

The first time I came across this advert about two years ago, it was displayed on a full page of broadsheet South China Morning Post (I was visiting Hong Kong*), but I have since seen it in Financial Times and in a variety of glossy lifestyle magazines like Monocle. Back then, I thought for a second, how interesting it is that now older men are being used for advertising. My second thought was that this man looks somewhat like Gorbachev. It was only in the third instance that I realized it not only looked like him, it WAS him! I must admit, it came as a shocking realisation to me. But why? Hasn’t Gorbachev become by now just another one in the line of celebrities like Sean Connery, Catherine Deneuve, Keith Richards, Steffi Graf, and Frances and Sophia Coppola, who posed to Annie Leibovitz for the other adverts in this successful promotional series?

The photo is clearly created for a certain context, but the act of someone like me seeing it opens up a host of other memory frameworks. Why am I still obsessed with this photograph? Maybe because it shows him in a car that is taking him somewhere, away from the Berlin wall seen in the background**. The man is checking out, he is leaving, and thus denying us his assured paternalistic presence. We, the losers, are left alone whatever follows.

Gorbachev announced the end of the Soviet Union and checked out. Communism collapsed. Many people across the Eastern Bloc were ill prepared for the knock-off effect on work and domestic routines that followed. Those who had nurtured an idealized image of western prosperity were startled by the increasing economic disparities within their once egalitarian universes. Confronted with the collapse of ideology and memory frameworks, many were plunged into an identity crisis.

I am clearly not the only one who is obsessed with this photograph. I discover a similarly-titled blog entry, Pourquoi suis-je obsédé par cette photo ?, on the site of a Canadian Francophone writer called Patric Lagace, who evidently saw the photo on the back of his copy of The New Yorker. Remarking that he can barely imagine a more bourgeouis-looking image than the one of the former communist leader turned luxtury promoter, Lagace writes:

Or, voilà, je suis obsédé par cette photo du nouveau « visage » de LV, j’ai nommé l’ancien (le dernier, en fait) secrétaire général du Parti communiste soviétique, Mikhaël Gorbatchev. Je veux bien que Gorby fut l’homme de la perestroïka, l’homme qui a amorcé un virage, mais ça reste l’homme qui représenta, jadis, le monde communiste. Bref, je n’ai de cesse d’étudier cette photo, qui est à l’arrière de mon magazine New Yorker de la semaine. Donc, il y a ça. L’association Gorby-luxe. Mais il y a que la photo est prise devant le Mur de Berlin. Il y a un je-ne-sais-quoi de troublant. C’est peut-être le sac plein. C’est peut-être la légende sous la photo, vaporeuse comme toutes les phrases de campagne de marque. C’est peut-être que ça symbolise une époque formidable de la grande aventure humaine, cette époque dans laquelle on vit. Je veux dire, un ancien chef communiste qui nous vend de la gogosse de luxe, moins de 20 ans après la chute de l’URSS. Vous m’auriez dit ça en 1986, j’aurais ri de vous (enfin, pas moi, j’avais 14 ans, mais vous comprenez ce que je veux dire). Bref, un ex-kamarade qui devient on ne peut plus bourgeois. Je ne serais pas surpris que, de mon vivant, un pape lâche le Vatican pour devenir producteur de télé-réalité…

Lagace’s post has generated eighty three reactions in the comments***. I admit I had no idea that, as one of the commentators remarked, this was not the first array of Gorbachev into advertising. In fact, it transpired, the man had already done a Pizza Hut ad in Moscow, featuring a group of Russians who ave gathered for lunch at the Pizza Hut restaurant near the Red Square and concede that Gorbachev is the man who brought them freedom, so that they can eat this pizza to the end, and shout ‘Long Live Gorbachev!”. Here it is:

The Gorbachev ad run in a number of male luxury lifestyle magazines. My copy of the Monocle from February 2008 displays it with an inscription below the picture, which reads: ‘A journey brings us face to face with ourselves. Berlin Wall. Returning from a conference’. Futher below it says: Mikhail Gorbachev and Louis Vuitton are proud to support Green Cross International (an environmental charity started by Gorbachev). It is a fine, understated advert, which has probably brought some proceeds to the Green Cross, and which is no flashier than the set of Marc Jacobs-designed set of Louis Vuitton trunks (pictured) that were dragged across India by Owen Wilson, Adrian Brody and Luke Wilson in Wes Anderson’s recent Darjeeling Limited.

© Dina Iordanova
2 May 2009

*It happened in October 2007, in Hong Kong, in the afternoon. I was at the at Holliday Inn on Nathan Road, in the very center of materialism, a place surrounded by innumerable shops selling everything imaginable, from Tahitian pearls to h-tech electronics. The buffet at the Viennese Cafe is one of the best deals in town, with mountains of raw oysters, a delicacy of an acquired taste for the local Chinese who mount piles of them on their plates and keep coming for more as soon as more emerge from the kitchen.

** Media reactions to the ad mostly focused on the fact that the magazine that shows from the half-opened bag, alongside the pale-salmon shade of FT, features an article on Litvinenko’s murder. NYT called it a ‘visual joke’.

*** Some of the commentators refer to other situations, like an imaginary Jello ad which plays on the images of an exchange between Dalai Lama and the Pope and somebody else wonders what are Gorbachev’s real motives to do such a shoot, probably not money — precisely like one wondered back then what were his real motives undermining the communist system. Like it is typical for comment press, all sorts of comments and agendas come to the surface here — touching on issues of spirituality, capitalism, aesthetic, commercialism and so on, but there is no unique voice to dominate the discourse. Someone remarks that the ‘sfumato’ quality of the image is the reason for triggering a specific unacknowledged nostalgia. Someone who has even copyrighted his comment speaks of Mephistophelian quality of the photo? The post is made on Le Vendredi 21 Septembre 2007, 7h44 in reference to the NYT article Gorbachev Made Me Buy it. on July 26, 2007, pre-announcing it.

Who is Your City? Tyler Brûlé, Part II

February 7, 2009 at 4:21 am

Here is where Tyler Brûlé comes into the picture. This is the man who essentially picks up where Richard Floridaa drops it. Brûlé is not only aware of the ‘spikiness’ of the world today and of the intense condensation of creativity in some of its select spots. Unlike Florida who forsakes his important premises and volunteers to limit his findings to the US (a place that can easily be questioned as a sole source of innovation today), Brûlé identifies the places where creativity thrives. And then he spend all his time circulating between these places and reporting on them.

No wonder, his itinerary does not go through North America very often. He much prefers touching down in Tokyo, Copenhagen, Seoul, Zurich, or Sydney. A native of far away Canadian prairies, Brûlé is a man of inexhaustible determination and commitment to propagating the lifestyle that he has discovered for himself and has made a selling point for others. He still mostly goes by the fame of having founded Wallpaper, the great design magazine that is still better known than his more recent project, Monocle.

I do not know why he has left Wallpaper and has come to develop other projects, but Brûlé is now mostly focused on projects that promote the creative lifestyle and the places that people like Florida miss out on. He tried a short-lived TV show (I believe it was on BBC TV 4) and is now mostly visible through ventures like Monocle magazine (and a recent shop in London and other locations), and his writing for the Financial Times.

Brûlé writes a weekly column for Saturday’s Lifestyle section of the Financial Times, and has been doing so for about two years now. The topics are somewhat repetitive and reading his writing week after week gives the feeling of monotony and, ultimately, boredom. But what he talks about is, in principle, exciting to me: airports, design, modern architecture, user-friendly cities, comfortable travel, nice hotels, luxury shopping, global creativity. He is often quite critical of the country (England) and the city (London) where he is primarily based. This came across particularly clearly in a column entitled Band Aid’s Won’t Save Britain (18 July 2008), a piece which I found truly enjoyable as it was summarizing precisely what people like myself and friends think of this country’s misguided self-esteem and antiquated management styles. But, I am in the minority here, as usual. Brûlé’s ‘rants’ , especially when they get to praising non-Western locations and to criticizing the metropolitan hubs of the West (as it were, untouchable by default), routinely trigger angry (and sometimes approving) reactions from readers on the letter pages of the FT, as well as in the blogosphere or other media. Like this blog post, for example, which simply invites him to shut up.

Monocle magazine is Brûlé’s main undertaking at the moment. I have been subscribing for a year now, and feel I can say a few things about it ( my 14 year-old son, who is interested in style matters, reads it with great pleasure). I will not subscribe for the next period, though, as I did not think it was value for money: you see, while the magazine costs £5 if purchased in a shop, the subscription costs you £75 for 10 issues. I was curious to see what could possibly justify the 50% increase in price when subscribing, as the only identified extra benefit was access to the web-site. And now, after having had access to the web-site for a year, I do not think it is worth it, as even though the web-site is nice, there isn’t anything much on it to make me feel I have got my money’s worth. And I do not see the point paying for the chance to watch all sorts of promotional videos for which the publishers already have been paid by the promoter. Normally, subscriptions are cheaper than purchasing a magazine in a shop. Reversing this and making the subscription more expensive than a shop purchase is certainly a cunning approach to marketing, and I would be curious to find out if it has worked, in principle. I am sure that there are people out there who would feel nice to know that they are simply taking up the chance to spend more when they could spend less. I do not belong to this group, however.

Monocle the magazine engages in diverse promotion of a cosmopolitan yappy lifestyle for those who have good taste and who know that the nicest places to be are not the ones that Florida is discussing in his book but are more likely to be found today around Osaka or Stockholm. In line with the current manga-craze, the magazine has commissioned its own series, Kita Koga, which features the adventures of a young cross-breed advernturer, Niels Watanabe, and which is executed by a Japanese cartoonist and attached to each issue of the magazine (a collector’s item, in other words). Monocle features a range of articles on global cities, from Beirouth to Reykiavik, and never limits its worldview between the East and the West Coast. What I like about the magazine is its great vision of the world as a globalized place where a variety of people (and not only Americans) exist and spend their lives, its concern with livability and its daring encouragement of truly creative and diverse lifestyle choices, its excellent advertising and style trends features, its competence in assessing important aspects of modern travel, and, in general, its relentless concern with issues of the quality of life in the modern globalized age. What I do not like about Monocle is the repetitiveness of its endless lists (it feels like crushing monotony after some time), the tiny font size used, and the subscription price.

But even though I am dropping my subscription and will probably not continue following this publications, I cannot stop admiring Brûlé’s inventive entrepreneurship and his commitment to promoting his vision of the lifestyle of the creative classes (precisely the area where Florida fails so badly). Monocle is also used as a platform for selling stuff which is of the style and quality personally approved by the man in charge. There is an on-line shop, and there is a shop in London’s Marylebone, featuring items developed in partnerships with high brow brands such as Comme des Garçons (Japan/France) or Valextra (Italy), largely reflecting the nature of Brûlé’s global trendspotting travails. You can buy a small selection of high quality items at extremely high prices: the target audience here is clearly yappies with a good style sense. (It would be interesting to see if the venture will survive beyond the current financial downturn, provided we have already seen predictions that services that rely on the same clientele, like the Bloomberg media empire, may be severely affected soon). What I find particularly interesting is this ‘interdisciplinary’ entrepreneurship of sorts, which spans media (magazine, web-site with videos, on-line shop), advertising (some of the best advertising can be seen on the pages of this magazine), events (they have branched out in some conference organizing lately), and retail.

© Dina Iordanova
7 February 2009

Orangina Advert 2008 France

May 31, 2008 at 1:29 am

31 May 2008

Going to the cinema in Paris these days comes in with the chance to see once again the great Orangina advert, a truly post-modern gem which seems to have been released only in France.

The advert is on TV as well, on vending machines and in magazines, and on moving poster displays around town. It looks dazzling on the big screen, however, so the cinema is the place to see it.

Here is a video, which may give some idea of it.

There is also a longer, 1:45 min., version at YouTube

Cannes film festival and advertising

May 25, 2008 at 1:19 am

In the finances of large film festivals, company endorsements have long surpassed the simple sponsorship schemes. Advertising revenues are a vital income stream in the budgets of big festivals, who heavily rely on their brand value to bringing these funds in. The festivals’ branding becomes increasingly complex, resulting in situations where the brand value of the festival is recognized as superior to the one of the promoted brand and is used to enhance the commercial value of the product.

These days various French brands keep reminding the public of their proud and enduring partnership with the Cannes Film Festival. The festival’s name is being referred to as yet another top brand, the partnership with which brings prestige to the advertiser. Luxury watch and jewelery maker Chopard, for example, displays the little bough of the Cannes logo along with diamonds, bags and gold watches in each of the windows at their upscale Place Vendome location in Paris and manifests its long-standing relationship with the festival on a special web-site. L’Oreal have also dedicated a special interactive web-site to their lasting position as an official make up partner of Cannes. Having used film actresses in their advertising for years, L’Oreal recently reached out globally by using Asian female stars, such as Indian Aishwarya Rai and Chinese Gong Li, both well-known favorites seen regularly at the Cannes red carpet.

In other cases, the mutual dependence of advertiser/sponsor and festival, is being made the basis of the advertising campaign. Referencing the fact that they have been an official partner of the festival for 25 years now, Renault run full page magazine and street poster ads showing a star arriving at a gala on the back of a motorbike, with the copy line: What Would Cannes Be Without Renault? A version of the same advert is developed for TV airing, and is featured on Renault’s web-site:

© Dina Iordanova
25 May 2008

Scholar’s Library in upstate New York, Peter Gluck Architects

May 19, 2008 at 12:59 am

I believe I finally came across a visualization of what I imagine to be the perfect working space, something that concerns me a lot. What I would produce hugely depends on the ambiance in which I work. Having grown determined to create the perfect working place for myself, I discovered what it should look like it in the photograph of this office space, created by Gluck Partners in 2004 in Olive Bridge (Catskills mountains) for a Japanese scholar. It is pictured in a book we bought at the modern furniture department of Bon Marché in Paris, Library Design, which contains scoores of other inspiring images for people like myself who live with books, DVDs and CDs all around.

I am longing to enter this office, open my computer, and start writing. The minimalist clutter-free space, the clear surface of the desk, the books — present yet tucked away below the level of the desk, and thus not domineering, and, the most important element, the wide clean window through which one sees trees.

Now that I have found what I want, my next biggest hurdle toward creating a space like this for myself is finding the place. I have to think up a way to somehow reconcile the location where I live with what I really like. I am now based in a village on the shores of the North Sea in Scotland, a lovely place which many people would find most beautiful. But I like to be surrounded by trees, and in this respect my ideal place would be somewhere around Muskoka lake or some other Ontario lake (or upstate New York, for that matter). Yes, I do have view of the sea from my window, and the skies and the golf spaces in Scotland are so beautiful. However, there are not many trees around, and certainly no houses are built among the trees even where they exist. I still ponder on how to resolve my need to see trees through the window. How can I combine a country I love (Scotland) with a landscape I need (Ontario)?

© Dina Iordanova
19 May 2008