If you watched the World Cup, and even if you didn’t, you probably have an opinion on a certain commercial that has been played on national television with great regularity recently – particularly in between football matches.
The scene opens with a modern dad doing a spot of vacuuming, which prompts his son to ask where the electricity is coming from. The response is a one-and-a-half minute song and dance routine extolling the virtues of Icelandic water and hydroelectric power, and the main provider of both is Orkuveitan/Reykjavík Energy. “It hails from up in the mountains,” the lyrics say. “This is how we want it: No problems, and everything a-OK.”
The ad features dozens of actors, singers, dancers and other performers – all jumping around in tight formation and bright colours at a variety of attractive locations around the city. The music and lyrics, titled This Is How We Want It, were written by Benni Hemm Hemm and Hallgrímur Helgason respectively. If there is one thing everyone can agree on it’s that the score certainly captures your attention and sticks in your head long after you hear it.
The message the commercial is trying to convey seems quite simple, though: we provide water and electricity, and that’s a good thing. It’s also sending an eco-friendly message that contrasts with the negative press that power companies have gotten over recent dam projects: “The earth gives us the energy, and we return it back to her, so she can continue to delight us – and keep us happy and green.” A reminder of the belief espoused here that hydroelectric energy, even when fed by terrain-destroying dams, is relatively green (note: Reykjavík itself actually runs on geothermal, rather than hydroelectric, power).
Besides the sheer spectacle of the ad, and the fact that it ran for a tedious one-and-a-half minutes many times a day, there are the issues of cost and purpose. Reykjavík Energy is a publicly-owned company, one that also provides a necessary public service and has a politically appointed management. Not only do consumers have no choice but to do business with Orkuveitan, they are part owners at the same time. Margrét Sverrisdóttir, city council representative for the Liberal Party, told the Grapevine that she found the commercials “unintentionally hilarious,” but deeply unethical at the same time. “It’s absolutely surreal to watch this thing. Spending these amounts of money on something so pointless is completely unethical – it’s just not right.”
Steingrímur J. Sigfússon, MP for the Leftist-Greens, had a similar reaction. “Not only is this a publicly-owned company, but it presides over a complete monopoly in the energy market – so I find it peculiar that they would do something like this. Perhaps the higher-ups know that the company’s image has taken a hit because of its involvement with the development of heavy industry in this country – which is, after all, energy intensive and deeply unpopular.” He added that he wouldn’t have minded the ads so much if they had conveyed a positive message, such as an encouragement to Icelanders to drink more water. “But this was just a general song and dance routine to fix their image, and I think it’s been counter-productive.”
The cost of the campaign is probably the most contentious part of the issue. Statements such as “this was the most expensive commercial of all time” have been thrown about with reckless abandon on the Internet, while mainstream media outlets have been slightly more careful and only made mention of it being “allegedly the most expensive commercial in Icelandic history.” So how much did it really cost? The total bill was estimated by one gossip columnist to be upwards of 50 million krónur, a number that most other media outlets subsequently ran with the following day. That number turned out to be taken from an anonymous blog, and even if it had been true it most certainly would not have made that one song and dance routine the most expensive campaign in history.
“You can ask anyone in the advertising industry,” said Júlíana Guðmundsdóttir, project leader at Orkuveita Reykjavíkur. “This campaign was absolutely not the most expensive ever, and the actual price of making the ad was between 15 and 18 million krónur. Of course, that doesn’t include buying airtime, but for large advertisers that is a matter of negotiation and doesn’t have to be nearly as costly as the list price.” As it happens, our sources in the industry confirmed that 15-18 million was not a high price, believing the average cost of a high-class TV commercial to be around 11. The most expensive ad that has been filmed in Iceland, we were told, cost well over 30 million to produce.
Guðmundsdóttir told the Grapevine that she believed the fact that the company is inherently political was the main reason for the negative reaction they received from some commentators.
“Orkuveitan is intrinsically tied to politics, the board is appointed by whatever coalition or party controls the local government in Reykjavík. We’re also deeply affected by the decisions of politicians without being able to influence them in any way, and energy and the environment are always hot-button issues. I think people are basically using the opportunity to score political points.”
The ad campaign was designed and implemented by the recently departed Social Democrat-dominated board of directors. Their replacements from the Independence/Progressive alliance, on the other hand, are currently in charge of the operation. Those two parties just happen to be largely responsible for the energy industry’s close association with environmental destruction in the public mind. Both sides, then, have to carefully weigh their strengths and weaknesses before attacking Orkuveitan and their ad campaign. As a result, quotes may have been easy to come by but the job of actually raising the issue has largely been left to columnists and bloggers on the internet – resulting in a quagmire of speculation and misinformation.
For one thing, the purpose of the ad was clearly defined and laid out. It wasn’t a general celebration of water and electricity so much as it was a response to a recent change in Icelandic law, one that has deregulated the energy market and opened the gates for competitors to enter. One only needs to look at the timing for that to become blatantly clear; the beginning of June marked the adoption of the law as well as the start of the controversial campaign. Ms. Guðmundsdóttir told us that Orkuveitan had no intention to sit idly by and allow their market share to be eaten up by newcomers: “We understand that the public feels they own the company – and in fact they do. But people have to realise that the market has changed, and what we need to do in order to make that company thrive in the future. We have never even commissioned a television commercial before, besides the standard seasonal greetings everyone sends out at Christmastime. This is not a standard practise or something cooked up by one or two people on a whim, but a planned and necessary response that was decided upon after much consultation at every level of the company and outside of it,” she said.
So it seems that the story is far less sensational than it first appeared. The commercial may not be to everyone’s tastes, (frankly we had trouble finding anyone who wasn’t somewhat annoyed by it after one or two viewings), but it certainly wasn’t extravagant by the standards of the industry that produced it. The artists involved were all happy to get the work, and it’s not like there is an overabundance of opportunities for them to actually earn a living from their chosen vocations. No one is going to be able to make a rock-solid case for producing and airing this ad in the way it was done, but the rationale behind it was certainly far more logical than critics would lead you to believe.