Cry me a river: why it’s time to stop floating stuff down the Thames

Mark Perkins

There is a largely held view that with London’s post-World War II economic readjustment the Thames ceased to be a working river. Not so. In the past decade the PR industry has been singularly responsible for a remarkable revival in river work, keeping barge men in business and polluting it with picture stunts. And it really has to stop.

In the space of four days this month we were treated to a giant birthday cake to celebrate 20 years of on online retailer and a giant billboard (really!) to mark the launch of something no one can remember. It is only a matter of time before lives are lost when PR stunts collide.

When Canaletto visited 18th century London he painted the bustling trade on the Thames. A trip to the 21st century, in the place of local traders and merchants sailing in from as far as the Orient (China, not Leyton) the artist could instead find any one of the following: a ice cream van, giant rugby ball, giant football, giant lottery balls, a house, the house from Up, a giant Spiderman, giant rubber duck, giant duck house, giant hippo, giant polar bear on an iceberg, whale, the Olympic rings, a giant Pharaoh made of Lego, a cricket pitch occupied by Australians, a full-size tennis court complete with John McEnroe and Monica Seles or Jedward on a speed boat being chased by a killer shark.

  • Giant Olympic rings marking 150 days until the start of the 2012 London Games
  • Lotto ball float launching the new-look National Lottery in 2013
  • Polar bear float launching the Natural History Chanel Eden

Even the Queen has been floated up the Thames to ‘celebrate’ the Jubilee. Her Maj was sent up river in weather conditions so appalling that the only abiding memory was of the abject misery etched on the faces of the entire royal family and spectators on the verge of hypothermia.

The river stunt is nothing new. In Ancient Rome to please and appease a notoriously fickle public the Emperors would float statues of the gods down the Tiber. In more recent times the Thames was used in 1916 to float a captured German U-Boat to whip up public morale. In 1965 the coffin of Churchill where, movingly, the dockers of London (no natural allies of Winston) lowered their cranes in sequence as it passed. Then it all went quiet.

If we can blame anyone for the resurgence of the Thames as a PR prop, it’s Michael Jackson. To mark the release of his History compilation his record company decided to float a giant Michael down the Thames on a barge in light drizzle. Soon after the bubble burst spectacularly for the King of Pop but the floodgates opened for the high-production, big budget ‘Lets float it down the Thames’ PR stunt.

A handful of these stunts are genuinely thoughtful and disruptive. The polar bear stranded on an iceberg – to launch the natural history Channel Eden – was poignant and powerful in the way it brought both home and to life an iconic photograph about the consequences of global warming. The giant rubber duck was wonderfully absurd (but did anyone ever know who it was for?).

This year’s Air BnB floating house was clever because it was actually a functioning home rather than a prop. People could win the chance to occupy it once it had moored further down the Thames and it had a certain charm that saw it achieve global coverage and huge volumes of social chat. So why do a few campaigns stand-out and so many others float into oblivion?

The harsh truth is almost everything else is never seen and quickly forgotten except by the client who shelled out for it. While a giant rubber duck floating down the Thames is an arresting image, less can be said for almost every other giant ‘whatever it is we have to promote’. The river is superfluous to the photo. There is no reason an object is being towed by a barge other than to promote itself.

There is nothing disruptive in something that has become the norm. In reality, when seen very afar from the bank these objects, dragged by barge upon a polluted river and under grey skies, actually look tiny and lost. The perception of blockbuster disruption is seldom delivered. With zero engagement the public don’t care and picture editors have seen it all before.

Disruption is about not about scale – “lets making a giant ‘thing’ and float it down the Thames”. Disruption is of the mind: little tweaks to our everyday environment and expectations.

In the build up to the Rugby World Cup it was only a matter of time before a giant rugby ball was floated down the Thames. And so it came to pass. When, however, a rugby ball smashed into the side of Cardiff Castle last week lots of people took notice. It was original and stopped passers-by in their tracks with impact in delivery, coverage and social share.

Rugby ball installation at Cardiff Castle marking launch of World Cup

A disruptive idea doesn’t have to be big. Small is beautiful. When ENGINE was tasked with communicating the issue of the fall in new blood donors we swerved the temptation to float a giant half-empty blood bag down the Thames. Instead we settled upon removing letters from signs and social media content for Missing Type in a way that built genuine intrigue and communicated the problem we were trying to solve.

Meanwhile, Nike Run conveyed their brand attitude with similar effect, not by putting a giant shoe on a barge but by simply removing the seating slats to a public bench in an image that people liked and wanted to share, and not a river in sight.