Making a Splash

It was the dream and ambition of most reporters to get the splash – the lead story on the front page, and the most important story in the paper that week.

As time went by it began to look as though I probably never would have one. I was grandly titled consumer correspondent, but these stories rarely lent themselves to the drama and huge headlines of a tabloid splash. Sensational exclusive revelations were the subject of splashes, not outrages over the price of supermarket bleach.

Most of the time it didn’t bother me that much. Splashes were usually forgotten by lunchtime, I told myself, whereas a good consumer story could make a lasting impact.

But one night I was idly sitting with my then husband Neville watching television. When the ads came on an American-style thirties barman was polishing glasses and saying to a customer: ‘Harvey Wallbanger? White Lady? Slow Screw against the Wall?’ The customer, however, resisted all the invitations to have an exotic cocktail, and asked instead for the simple lager or beer that was the subject of this very elaborate and expensive commercial.

I had never heard of any of these cocktails, nor had Nev, so the next day at work I asked my colleagues whether they knew what a Harvey Wallbanger was. None had any idea; they had never heard of such a drink. On a hunch, I rang a few hotel bars and they said that since the ad had appeared, people were coming in asking for Harvey Wallbangers and White Ladies. Previously, they’d had no such requests, but now they were inundated. Many barmen said they’d never previously heard of these drinks either and that in any case cocktails were no longer very popular. This ad looked like changing all that.

What about the lager that was the actual subject of the ad? No; nobody was asking for that. In fact, none of the barmen I contacted could even remember which lager was being advertised. All that stuck were the unusual names of the cocktails.

Aha! Of such trifles light as air are the best newspaper stories often made. I wrote a memo for conference, and handed it to the newsdesk secretary, Beryl. She said she’d also seen the ad, and had wondered what a Harvey Wallbanger could be. The newdesk were also intrigued, and added it to the schedule of stories for the week.
After conference, Ernie Burrington, the deputy editor, said: ‘I like that Harvey Wallbanger idea, we could go big on it. So, could you find out how the name originated, how popular this cocktail is in America, contact the ad agency, and see how easy it is to get a Harvey Wallbanger in this country. We could even herald the return of the cocktail. Get the recipe for the Harvey Wallbanger as well, and we’ll take it from there.’

I amassed a large amount of information about Harvey Wallbangers, and became an instant expert, the way one often does as a journalist, and now had enough detail, or at least, as much as I would ever have, to write it up.

It was all, at least for us, a glamorous and upbeat story. The news point of the story was that, since the ad had appeared on television, sales of vodka had rocketed and sales of its vital ingredient Galliano, which previously had been little-known in the UK, were going through the roof as well.

Only the lager, which was what was actually being advertised, was refusing to budge.

The upshot was that the lager company, which had spent thousands of pounds, probably hundreds of thousands, on the ad, was in effect, promoting other drinks. They had spent a king’s ransom advertising something other than their own product.

It was this fact that gave my story its special twist and, as it happened, catapulted it out of the inside pages and onto the front page where it became that week’s splash, driving all the heavier stories inside the paper. The headline was: EXCLUSIVE: THE AD THAT PROMOTES RIVAL DRINKS.

If I had underestimated the pride and pleasure that getting the splash brings, I certainly understood it now. It made me feel like a real journalist at last, as if I had finally won my spurs in the competitive, cut-throat world of national newspaper journalism. And it was all so effortless, in the end. The story practically wrote itself. On every level, it was a winner.
Several people, including my mother, rang to congratulate me on the story. I was also pleased that, for once, my big story did not involve doing other people down in any way – apart from, perhaps, the ad agency which had dreamed up the unfortunate commercial. But they were big enough to take it. In any case, the facts spoke for themselves and could not be denied.

For me, getting such a nice story meant that I wouldn’t have to have palpitations all Monday, and go into the office on Tuesday with heart pounding, pulse racing, wondering what horrors in the form of comebacks from aggrieved parties awaited me.

By Tuesday, most of the daily papers had followed up the story, although they had little to add to it, really. But all wanted to get in on the act. The very name Harvey Wallbanger, familiar enough now, but unknown then, was striking enough to want to do a story around.

When I got into work on Tuesday morning another nice thing awaited me: there was a case of vodka and a case of long, slim yellow Galliano bottles with my name on, sent by grateful manufacturers. All my colleagues were congratulatory, too.

‘We must have a drink to celebrate,’ said Eric Leggett, as we passed each other in the corridor .’I knew you weren’t as dim as they made out. They said you weren’t up to the job, but I knew different. See you in The Stab at lunch time?’

‘Thanks for those few kind words, Eric. And yes, I’d love to.‘

We got there at about half-past twelve, giving ourselves special dispensation from our (often broken) rule of one o’clock.

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