Ads On The Front Line

Christopher Owens with a review of Ads On The Front Line.

First off, it's both encouraging and comforting to see such a documentary being made. Comforting as I recall most of the ads in some shape or form, and encouraging because the media have played a huge part in shaping the perceptions of the conflict (bear in mind how much the broadcasting ban isolated Sinn Fein in the 80's/early 90's), so it's interesting to see how the media battle was shaped as the conflict entered the 'end game.'

Presented as both a serious piece on government attempts to use the media to influence public opinion and as an "I Love the Troubles" style nostalgic look back (complete with archive footage of Belfast at the time and the chart hits of the day providing the soundtrack), it straddles a fine line and actually does a fine job of integrating the two styles in a way that is neither forced or flimsy.

Notably, no one from Sinn Fein would appear on the programme (instead having to bring Danny Morrison in). Unsurprising, but still disappointing as I'm sure someone at Connolly House could have constructed an intriguing line about how the adverts, combined with the media ban, led to republicans being demonised and isolated to such an extent that it led to RUC officer Allen Moore shooting up the Sinn Fein advice centre. Whether that line would stand up under critical scrutiny is highly unlikely, but it is frustrating seeing the Shinners run from this particular debate.

Billy Hutchinson is interviewed and, by and large, mirrors the view of Danny Morrison in that both believe the adverts were propaganda designed to undermine and demonise paramilitaries who believed they were fighting a war. However, Hutchinson comes across as very thoughtful and insightful in places (especially when talking about some of the later ads), whereas Morrison (as described on a British Army message board) "...comes off in a particularly General Melchett tone as he is shown huffing and puffing about the ads...coming from a middle class mind set..."

And it's not hard to see why. The agency people interviewed clearly thought of people involved in paramilitary organisations as nothing more than cartoon characters who said "muahahahahaha" after committing some dastardly act. Attitudes like this show a clear division between the media and the people involved. Is it any wonder the conflict went on for so long with attitudes like that?

In terms of the adverts, it's telling that the ones that stand up today are the Troubles ones. All of them tap into the sense of dread and paranoia experienced by most people in this country at the time and can be taken as a reasonably accurate snapshot of the collective psyche as the conflict reached it's 20th anniversary (the 'Silence' one is particularly effective as an audio/visual piece with it's use of white text on a pitch black screen, the sinister sounding beat, gunshot and silence, even if it's message is ham fisted.)

Predictably, the advert that gets the most coverage is 'I Wanna Be Like You Dad' (otherwise known as 'Cats in the Cradle' due to the use of the song throughout). Interestingly, it ties in with what Peter Taylor has written about in both his Provos and Loyalists books, where fathers were coming out of jail after a lengthy sentence, only to see their sons going in to serve their own sentences, and Tim Brannigan makes similar comments in the programme.

It cannot be denied, it's a highly effective advert (although the look on the gunman's face as he sprays the pub did make me laugh when viewed in retrospect), and it's interesting to read various comments on YouTube where people (presumably born post 1997) debate what 'side' the father and son were on.

With them being aimed at the families of paramilitaries, did they work at dissuading their loved ones to carry out attacks? Somehow, I doubt it. Did it stop people from joining paramilitary organisations? Much more likely.

The one that I have vivid memories of is the 'Car Wash' advert where a seemingly normal, suburban setting is on the verge of being disrupted by a group of gunmen in a car who drive to a house where a father and son are washing their car and playing with their water pistols and Super Soakers. As they are about to shoot, an RUC Land Rover appears out of nowhere and the car drives off, with the father and son oblivious to what nearly happened.

I remember this one sticking out for a few reasons: it was set at daytime, the area was close knit with no obvious working class markings (so it was clearly an area untouched by the conflict), the juxtaposition of the water fight and the gunmen loading, the notion that a split second can change your life forever. It was genuinely disturbing to a seven year old me, and is something that remains very much at the forefront of my mind to this day.

Unsurprisingly, the programme loses momentum with the ceasefire, and the post ceasefire adverts are utterly cringe worthy, but are typical of that mid 90's "end of history" euphoria that was prevalent throughout the latter part of the decade (where people misread Francis Fukuyama and believed that there were no more wars to fight because neo-liberalism had won the day).

As well as this, they also introduced me to Van Morrison, who I have now hated for nearly 25 years.

The big question the programme asks is: did the ads have any effect? I doubt there'd have been many using the confidential telephone line who normally wouldn't have (certainly Suzanne Breen and Danny Morrison agree with that) but I suppose it did reinforce the view in the ordinary person's mind that twenty odd years of the Troubles was more than enough. So, in that sense, they were a success.

Also, the final advert ('Choices') invokes debate as it conflates voting for the Good Friday Agreement with voting for peace. Billy Hutchinson makes the point that, with the unionist community largely voting 'No' in the referendum, it seemed to be a last ditch effort for 'Yes' votes. Make no mistake, this was propaganda. And opinions are still divided today on how effective it was in securing a 'Yes' vote.

Overall, it's worth the effort but be prepared for your level of interest to drop around the 30 minute mark. And, as a final thought, I wish broadcasters would stop hiring middle class teenagers to show that the conflict is ancient history. Get kids from working class areas, they'll tell you a different story.

➽ Christopher Owens reviews for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.
Follow Christopher Owens on Twitter @MrOwens212

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