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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 October 2006, 11:49 GMT 12:49 UK
The point of an arrow
Virgin Trains advert
Virgin Trains go all Wild West

THE BRIEF: Show that going by train gives you thinking time

THE SCHTICK: Apaches on horseback race down a British hillside chasing a Virgin Pendolino train. In hot pursuit, they fire arrows at it, to no avail. One manages to hang on to a window, where he wields a tomahawk and gestures to a passenger that they want his notebook. The passenger clutches the book to his chest, and the Apache is knocked off by an approaching tunnel. The caption is: "Man who go on big train have big idea."

THE BREAKDOWN: Seen one way, this advert is refreshingly escapist. It's big, it's dramatic, it's got great scenery and music, and is a stylish successor to last year's classic which stitched together Hollywood moments (such as Eva Marie Saint canoodling with Cary Grant) on board a modern Virgin train.

But seen another way, despite the excellence of the production, it can be rather confusing, it buries its message, and it can leave you feeling a little uncomfortable.

First the positive.

Virgin Trains advert
Apaches set pulses racing

For too long, the thinking goes, train travel has been seen as the nightmare option, crippled with delays and overcrowding. So Virgin's tactic has been to emphasise the romance of the train - literally in the Cary Grant ad, and by extension here.

Going by train gives you time to ponder, space to look at the scenery, and opportunity to daydream. Crucially, here, it's the sort of place you might have a really good idea.

Puzzled passenger

In staging the Apaches attack in the English countryside (filming was done in County Durham and Cumbria), director Fredrik Bond - who gave the world the dancing jellyfish for mobile phone network 3 - has authentically brought a feel of the Wild West.

Virgin Trains advert
They're after the ideas

In a delightfully random way, the Apaches knock over a cyclist but ignore a couple of shepherds, who only seem faintly amused. Their whoops and arrows and their horses' pounding hooves almost get the viewer's pulse racing. The passenger, who has just been pictured having a smart thought and jotting it down, is puzzled and vaguely threatened until it becomes clear that, yes, the Apaches are after him.

Brand consultant Keith Lovegrove, author of Railway: Identity, Design and Culture, who was a fan of the Cary Grant advert and is impressed with this one too, says he particularly enjoyed the notion of the Apache chief attempting to steal the passenger's intellectual copyright. "Perhaps that's the 21st Century equivalent of lever-action Winchester Carbines," he says.

Big ideas brigade

But for him the masterstroke is that the passenger is not typing on a laptop, or thumbing something into a Blackberry, he's using a pencil and notebook. The advert knows its market - people who like to think of themselves as having big ideas and writing them down. "It's an advertising creative director's concept for the creative market," he says. "It's indulgent and that's probably why it works."

Virgin Trains advert
It's only a First Class experience

"I think an advertisement should firstly entertain and then inform. This does both, although I notice that a quick fade-in/fade-out subtitle tells us from the outset that this exciting interlude may be experienced in 'First Class only'. Train travel does give one time to think, possibly more so in first class where there are fewer fellow passengers and even fewer children."

There is a downside, however. One Native American living in the UK - part of a community reported to be just 25-strong - has complained that the advert is "trying to show us as savages or dumb-ass Indians who are going to be wiped off the face of the Earth". He is not alone - there have been 49 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority about racism and stereotypes in the advert, and the ASA is now investigating the matter.

Virgin's position is that the advert "spoofs the cowboy and Indian genre and is quite tongue-in-cheek", which is undoubtedly true. With the use of language, a spokesman said, it's clear that the advert is based on the film genre rather than showing disrespect to Native Americans today.

Subversive enough?

Often in these kinds of cases you would find stereotypes being subverted, and it might be one of the watchdog's considerations that this advert does not go far enough in that direction. It simply replicates the relationships of power seen in a hundred cowboy films - white man has the privilege, the wealth and the technology while the Indian (now in itself not a term used in the US) is racing to catch up and only has bows, arrows and tomahawk. The sting in the tale, in which one of the Apaches is shown having got on board and is serving coffee in a steward's uniform, goes some way to addressing the point; the ASA may well decide to consider if it's enough.

Virgin Trains advert
But is it subversive enough?

Another drawback with the advert, it might be suggested, is that it's not immediately clear what it's saying. On first viewing one might even think it was advertising Ernest Hemingway-style Moleskine notebooks. If it's the idea the Apaches are after, how exactly are they supposed to know the passenger has just had it? Until the viewer has seen and understood the "Man who go on big train" tagline, their chances of understanding the message are slim. Good job, in that case, that the advert repays repeated viewing.

Ad Breakdown is compiled by Giles Wilson

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Upon first watching the advert, I found it to be quite funny, if a little confusing. I think it's just typical of people in this day and age to complain about something as trivial as a humerous advert, which obviously has no intention whatsoever to cause offence.
Nick, Liverpool

While on the one hand the advert clearly seeks to subvert the traditional stereotypes of the Western genre, given that Native Americans haven't been portrayed so unsympathetically in at least three decades it is forced to first perpetuate the stereotype in order to subvert it. One step forward, two steps back, methinks. But mostly my reaction was: "What the heck was *that* all about?" It will surely get people talking - but are they saying the right things?
John R, London

Not all passengers can see the scenery. Virgin Vogagers have some seats with NO WINDOWS, and the seat backs are too high to look out of other windows.
Frank Skinner, Cirencester UK

The message that this advertsement conveys to me is that Virgin trains travel at the speed of a galloping horse.
Colin A Smith, Enfield

If you travel by train, you are likely to be attacked by warring tribes >> good advert! Virgin Trains are attacked by Indians >> Virgin Trains are cowboys >> good advert! It seems like someone didn't think this through very carefully...
Stephen Down, Selby, UK

I thought the advert was saying that Virgin are the cowboys!
Roger Green, Eastham, Wirral

And there was me thinking that the message for this ad was 'Virgin Trains - slower than a horse'
Kelly Mouser, Upminster, Essex

The article claims that the term 'Indian' is no longer in use the US. While this may be the case when listening to politicians or policy makers, it is certainly not the case among the rest of the US populace. I am very white, but I'm from an area where if you travel ~100 miles in any direction, you will find an Indian reservation. I have several friends who are part Indian. Both those who are Indian and those who aren't continue to use the term 'Indian'. PS. For the curious, politicians refer to Indians as 'Native Americans'.
Joe, Richer, Maine, USA

sorry i thought the ad an offensive racist portrayal relying on old hollywood created stereotypes and it did nothing to encourage me to swap my car for the train - not to mention its cheaper and quicker to fly !! i stopped watching westerns years ago as i found them painful even as a kid - but hey perhaps genocide is acceptable if its by white americans of british descent
fi, tyne and wear

Are these guys living in a cave? I've not seen the advert, however as described here it is far beyond rude and insensitive. If a student were to turn in such a story-board for a project he would/should receive a failing grade and a first class ticket to sensitivity training. The ad execs should never have let this insult get past its first mention in meeting. Beyond that, once a group has said that it's offensive, drop the ad. Apologize and proceed to become more informed on matters of culture and respect.
TH, Portland, Oregon USA

It's racist. The ending showing the Native American in a serving role is disapointing and the pidgeon english "Man who go on big train" is easy to ctiticise. Just because old films show Native Americans as raiders and savages does not excuse this use. Some may recall the stereotypes of African Americans in early films, we would hardly expect 'Mammy' style adverts to make it past the censors.
Jones, London

Good God, your in the UK and you fret over this?
Ian Jones, Knoxville, United States

It also neatly aligns with the notion that train operators are a bunch of cowboys, surely?
Simon Hacker, Wotton-under-Edge, GLOS

How on earth can people find anything offensive or racist in an advert such as this is beyond me. The people who complained are probably the same ones who complain about everything slightly controversial on television. People who sit up looking for examples such as this to have a moan about. My advice to these folk, get out more and relax a little you bunch of boring moaning minnies.
Gary Welsh, Essex

I watched it all the way through and eventually cottoned to the fact that it was for trains. Was I the only one to think it might be for BA? That first piece of music seems VERY nearly to pastiche the 'Flower Duet' by Lakme, BA's theme music of the last few years.
Jembo, Scotland

It reiterated for me how slow Virgin trains are, that Apaches on horseback can easily catch up with and attack the train. "Virgin: it's quicker by horse"
Richard Ghail, London

Isn't the train a Pendolino... if so where are the wires?
Railbender, Manchester

I can not belive that this advert has been reported as racist. Do these people who make these compliants have nothing better to do with their lives than look for reasons to complain? It is a wonderful advert. I think the main point is the old fashioned romance of train travel. The whole "man who had big idea" thing is confusing and I don't think has much point. More should have been made of the old fashioned western film with the brand new modern train.
Col, Halifax

As a regular Pendolino traveller from Manchester to London, my first interpretation of this ad was that the apaches were my text messages and phone calls desperately trying to reach me on the train (to no avail due to poor reception). You could take this as a good thing or a bad that they didn't make it!
Claire Burns, Manchester

Perhaps the most effective way of looking at whether or not this advert is offensive is to view similar constructs. If this had been any other ethnic group, african tribes or Arabian nomads there would be a massive news uproar. As its Native Americans, a small group in the UK and frankly a small group in American its permissible as they are merely a genre rather than a people. This is an erroneous justification reinforcing a negative stereotype.
Rebecca, Edinburgh

Oh dear, I got a completely different message out of it. If there are indians outside Virgin Trains, who can that be on the inside? Man who go on big train get taken for ride by cowboys?
Adrian, March

It's just an advert. I won't get to see it as these convenient TV breaks are for making a cup of tea or catching three minutes of news on News 24. They're certainly not for watching - who does that these days?
Richard Shipton, Billericay, UK

I recognise that it's meant as a spoof on Wild West films, but this type of advert would never see the light of day in uber-PC Canada, where I'm originally from. "Man who go on big train have big idea?" Attacking trains with bows and spears? Somewhat derogatory to the intellect of the many Natives who still live (and ride trains) across North America, wouldn't you say?
M, London

Surely Virgin have grasped the wholey grail of advertising with this one ...... it's probably meant to be a load of un-dicipherable nonsence that has got everyone talking about it's very meaning and in that way massive advertising value!
Steffan, Hartley (Dartford), Kent

Shouldn't it be train-robbers (ie white men) persuing the train? All the cowboy films I used to see, showed trains being held up by white men on horse back. The poor old Native Americans never got a look in. Maybe, the connection of robbery and trains would be too uncomfortable for Virgin to draw.
Sue, London

Why the in-depth analysis? if the advert is popular, then people will associate the product with it.
Neil Small, Scotland

So many Ads today try to be too clever. Many highbrow ideas are confusing to the man on the street for which the Ad is intended. The message trying to be portrayed by this Ad is not entirely clear until it tells us at the end. The previous Ad with Cary Grant et al was very easy to understand however I don't feel that the Ad in this case is exploiting racial stereotypes. Many people today seem to be only to eager to jump on this bandwagon with accusations in the hope of making "a quick buck" through a personal injury/grievance lawyer. In summary, let's see more clearly what is being advertised and unless the Ad men have an idea that 90% of the poulation will understand, don't try to be too clever! Regards Bob Durie
Bob Durie, Fareham, Hampshire

When I first saw this commercial, I thought it may have some tie-in with films... perhaps, that Virgin Trains had started showing films in a similar style to services provided by airlines. I interpreted the tagline as saying that travelling via Virgin Trains is a good idea and preferable to other means of travel. As for the question of the Native American references - as a person of Native American descent, I find them a little over the top, but by no means insulting. Overall assessment: the message is unclear, but the commercial is amusing and memorable.
Amber, Ashford, Kent

The first job of adverts is to be memorable - I hate the Gilette Fusion advert, but I remember it. This advert is just a way of reminding viewers of the fact that trains have better views than cars, and (aimed at drivers, I would think) gives you control over what you're doing. You can think instead of worrying about that green light turning red. I like it. The debate on stereotypes is redundant in my view. The advert recalls western movies, and is not intended as a critique of modern day or old west Native Americans!
Algo, London

What's next? WIll VIrgin Trains help deliver the smallpox-infected blankets to the Iroquois? It's not like the Brits have a very positive history with Native Americans to fall back on... This is in very bad taste. shame on virgin
Chris, USA

I had the opportunity to use the new Pendolino trains recently and think they are brilliant but can see no essence of connection between the new adverts and the actualitee of train travel. We never have had the wild west in this country. What we do have is a ridculous booking system which makes it ten times harder to get from London to Pitlochry that it takes to get from Paris to Kamtchatka. An advert about smiting the beaurocracy involved in this country might have been more apposite.
Tony, Welling Kent

I din't quite get the ad when I saw it last night, But it did grab my attention, which is, after all, the point. As far as the people who have objected to it, what can every reasonable person say? Something like "get a life". I don't suppose that there is any truth in the rumour that the BBC have been inundated by complaints from aliens in our galaxy and beyond, against "Thermo Man", particularly in his latest incarnation, as showiong them up in a bad light? Thought not, they must have a better sense of humour than we earthlings.
Steve Smith, Dollar, Scotland

The term "Indian" is still in widespread use here in the US, most noticably in publications and enterprises run by "Indians" (Native Americans). Have a happy Columbus Day (October 9th)
Frank Harvey, Craley, York County, Pennsylvania

The first thought that went through my mind was that if horses are successfully chasing a train, it's only going about 40 miles an hour. I guess that shows Virgin Trains are making sure you get "thinking time", and plenty of it!
David, London

Maybe Virgin should have used the money spent on this ad to actually get their product right first before trying to tell everyone its a great experience to travel by train. The last three trips I have had have been horribly overcrowded and seemly seats have been sold twice.
gaz, london

White Man speak with forked tongue. White fathers have no ideas worth stealing since 1822. Iron Horse dead. Silicon smoke blanket to signal other tribes good. Ugh. Song "Crazy" good tribute to old chief. Many know this.
Curt Carpenter, Dallas, Texas USA

What made me laugh was the implication that Pendolinos were only slightly faster than a galloping horse (about 30 mph ?!)
Martin Edwards, London

I think the Native Americans should Sioux the rail company for not following correct lines. They should form a plot and then Hatchet, not giving into any reservations. At all costs they must not offer the pipe of peace as we all know tobacco advertising is banned.
Hilton Carr, Horsham

What a excellent marketing campaigne...every one is talking about it so its got the message over and a great bit of fun as well
paul, suffolk

Saw this advert earlier in the week Having been at first interested in what the message was going to be, in the end I thought it was just pointless amd self indulgent. But what would I know - I'm only the consumer!
Philip, Liphook, Hampshire

If multi-billion dollar companies spent as much money on reducing the costs of the products as they do on advertising the world would be a better place.

The hill it's filmed on is one of the best fell running hills in the country. I've ran over, up, down and round there but I've never seen any apaches. They certainly aren't local.
Harry H Howgill, Kendal

I guess this advert is aimed at First Class passengers only since it's extolling the benefits for those passengers. What about the vast majority of people who travel Standard Class...
Supplied, Supplied

There are somethings that shouldn't be analysed. This is such. However. It has a simple message which is dramatically demonstrated in a humourous, entertaining and eyecatchy way. Good on Virgin for comming up with it.
Niel, Gosport

Exactly how would dressing up the 'indian' in the uniform of the white man's servant address the balance?? Thought the advert is utter rubbish - I though it meant that the trains are operated by a bunch of cowboys!! The only thing that is good about it is that it sticks in your mind as it appears to be a pointless yet monumental waste of money!!!
Jenny, Wolverhampton

I would feel insulted if I was a "Red Indian". Why not use intelligent beings like football supporters instead?
harry magombo, Norwich

Just for once it would be nice if people could sit back and look at something for its entertainment value only. I have seen the advert several times and haven't once thought that red indians are supposed to be stupid and trying to aspire to be the whiteman. In my opinion the people complaining about this advert are the ones highlighting these stereotypes and thereby keeping them alive.
Sarah MacGregor, York, England

What this advert and previous adverts using the train service show is a complete lack of regard for the safety, currently we are trying to educate children that playing near the railway is dangerous and here we are yet again showing an advert showing Indians chasing a train on horseback. The previous advert showed a woman literally jump from an overhead bridge onto the roof of the train then break through the window to hand her boss some paperwork. I feel that the advertising companies must think hard before putting such adverts together which may jeopordise the hard work already put in by the Transport Police and Teachers.

Having seen this ad (which I might add is useless), and having been subjected to 3 hours sitting on a filthy floor or standing on a virgin train from manchester to loondon, i think that Virgin could be sued for misrepresentation as there are never any seats on their trains! Someone needs to see the real picture and stop being seduced by the Virgin brand - it is a money hungry organisation with no thought for their customers!
Eva Teng, London UK

When I first saw this advert I did not understand it. Now I have read your report I understand the onjective, but I do not think it comes near to achieving it. It certainly does not encourage me to go by train, and I have heard it said that if you travel second class you will not get attacked by indians!
Robert Walpole, Hastings, UK

25 Native Americans in the country, and yet 49 complaints. Why should anyone other than the native Americans complain about this frankly non-offensive advert. Its escapism at best. I was a little bewildered at first, but view it nothing more than an advert.
Mike, Bath

Forget the analysis, I just enjoyed the advert. Its better entertainment than some of the programmes it goes between.
Russ Cooper, Dursley UK

As someone who for the last 12 years has worked at trying to prevent the public from trespassing on to the railway, from train surfing, throwing objects at trains etc, I feel the content of this advertisement to be totally inappropriate
Yvonne Shephard, Stafford

Pendolino, electric, but no wires. We can let them off because it is escapist and good fun
Ray, West berks UK

"there have been 49 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority about racism and stereotypes in the advert" - They need to get out more, perhaps Virgin need to do an advert about people using their tains to get a life.
Jeremy, Hampshire

I saw this advert for the first time a couple of nights ago and I think it's stupid. Just the latest in a long line of overly annoying, confusing and unfunny ads. If adverts fall into the fantasy category, rather than more believable - where the viewer is expected to identify in some way - then they should be entertaining - like the dancing jellyfish was. The only response this elicits from me is 'what?'
Jennifer, Reading

Ad breaks are for letting the dog out, cat in, going to the toilet, making a cup of tea or getting a drink, making a snack. Or, at least, flicking the channels. If all else fails watch the ads with the sound off while the family makes up absurd dialogue for it. Actually watching them is the nadir.
David Hadley, Cradley Heath

Maybe they can do a follow-up that points out the guy will be safe from the Indians in second class because the carriages are so overcrowded that they won't be able to reach him.
Anne , Leicestershire

The thing that annoys me most about this advert is the music played at the beginning, which is so similar to the BA advert theme
Karen, Slough, England

I think it's an ace advert but in order to ensure some balance given some people have possibly been offended, why not have another advert talking the mick out of British misconceptions of Native Americans? A bit like when Bomber from Aufweidersein Pet described to a Native American how he got to the USA, "In big Silver Bird over many waters" (sic) to the reply, "Oh, 747 then?" Sorry if the German spelling's incorrect. What else can you expect from a Dyslexic Geordie?!
KJ, Fife, Scotland

Woop woop....... Is this not just another example of political correctness gone mad. Its FUN, no more no less. Its quite obvious that these people complaining have forgot what fun is about.
Stephen J Smith, Manchester

The fact that you devote an article on this means the advertisement has done it's job! After all, even bad publicity is publicity. Well done Virgin.
Twan van Stiphout, Greencastle, Co. Donegal, Ireland

The advert is actually filmed in Weardale, on the currently disused Wear Valley line. The Eastgate cement works (which used the line after passenger services stopped) was demolished last year, otherwise you'd see its huge chimney blotting the landscape.
Roger, Swindon, UK

It seems we are living in a world where everyone is in a constant state of being offended by one thing or another. Society and the use of words has become so politically correct that unless you are 'in the social know' you might almost require an interpreter to unravel the real words behind all the 'right on-ness'. I appreciate the comment of the native american indian person living in the uk and also the notion of romance and adventure in the advert, but I felt it ended on a strong point of resilience, endurance and persitence with the Apache man having entered the train and being in disguise. Also why are we spending so much time as a society being so sensitive to others, will other societies/cultures be so sensitive to my heritage? White british male 40yrs old brought up in an age where there was so little visual entertainment that after 5 years TV he had vitually seen all that had been made. That time is lost and will never be seen again, but is part of MY heritage.Julian Davis, sheffield

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