Summer 1996

Advertising’s big fix

There is no avoiding Renton, Begbie and the whole sick crew, but what is Trainspotting’s campaign trying to sell us?

Trainspotting is a book and a play and a film, but to many people living in British cities this spring, it is first and foremost an advertising campaign. Just walking down the street is enough to have bought you in touch with the main characters. Great hoardings introduce you by name to all five at once; individual poster sites present them singly. Renton, Begbie, Diane, Sick boy and Spud have all been mainlined into the national consciousness.

The five Edinburghian anti-heroes originally emerged from the novel, Trainspotting, by Irvine Welsh. Set in the grimmest of Edinburgh’s housing estates, it is a subcultural excursion through heroin addiction, thieving, the risks of HIV transmission, and the characters’ longing and inability to escape their geographic and mental location. Welsh’s book could churn the stomach of the gentler reader with its descriptions of bodily functions, viciously pointless violence, shooting up, infant neglect and low-grade sexism. Danny Boyle’s slick and brightly coloured film owes more to the pop promo than to the kitchen sink realism of Ken Loach.

With its poster advertising campaign, PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, the UK distributor, completes the smoothing away of the scabrous original idea. The campaign’s art directors have trawled the world of contemporary youth-market image-making and middle market advertising. The Trainspotting publicity borrows freely from the current spare design aesthetic. The style of the black and white portraiture falls somewhere between the smug comfort of Gap ads and the thrusting poses of a Dazed & Confused fashion shoot. The chosen typeface is the kind of sans serif now associated in Britain with the art of soft-selling the subtler brands of banking and mobile phones. The words are either in, or reversed out of, orange. A pantone reference less synonymous with the idea of social dereliction would be hard to find.

The novel’s junkies are turned into clothes conscious charity shop-bargain hunters in slogan T-shirts. Begbie, the repellent psychotic of the novel, and an aggressive, but laughable, older bloke in the film, is no more than a badly dressed failure with a grin, a moustache and an identity bracelet by the time he takes his place on the poster.

Wayward schoolgirl Diana has become a babe in a sparkly Kookai dress. The famous five take on the cute identity of a pop group: these people, goes the subtext, are naughty, but nice. Plastered across mammoth sites, they become engaging role models, particularly for the very audience which is not strictly permitted to see the 18 certificate film.

Not so long ago, the media wasn’t so kind to heroin, or its devotees. In the 1980s we were told that it ‘screws you up’ by government-funded television advertising, and the celluloid addict Christiane F (message: you will end up a greasy-haired prostitute in a railway station toilet). In previous decades, heroin was the preserve of the decadent musician or the outsider artist. For all but the dangerously creative, it was the drug of failure.

In the 1990s heroin has been superseded by crack as the narcotic of despair, and a newly amoral attitude to the drugs has grown up, especially among many of the younger generation who regard recreational drug taking as normal. This is reflected in Trainspotting, the film, as it faces heroin head on – its highs and lows – without judgement. As we watch the irrational, sometimes tragic, events, we can draw our own conclusions.

But the publicity, with its bright clean fashion-led approach, decides the issue for us in advance. While Welsh deals in dilemmas, decay and the unacceptable truth, the bouncy Trainspotting campaign promotes an air of acceptability, if not respectability, around its subject. No doubt the sickly reality of heroin addiction is too far away from the bottom line to be a realistic marketing proposition. But to sell a film based on such a serious, problematic and compelling subject by airbrushing away all darkness and ambivalence could be seen as irresponsible, as well as missing the point.

Commissioned by Christopher Bailey at PolyGram Filmed Entertainment. Initial concept by StyloRouge. Design by Empire Design Co. Photography by Lorenzo Agius.

First published in Eye no. 21 vol. 6, 1996

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.


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