Part of my morning routine is to visit a site called brownielocks.com. Collected on the site, by an enthusiast, based in the US, is a list of thousands of commemorative days, from International Sword Swallowers Day to World Sauntering Day.
I spotted this morning that it is VCR Day.
VCRs, of course, are now part of the history of technology. They arrived in homes from the late 1970s and transformed the way that we watch television. Suddenly our lives were no longer ruled by the TV schedule. We could press record and step away rather than sit in to watch the latest episode of the Six Million Dollar Man or Dallas or Dynasty.
Everything that has happened since – through to our own on demand digital collections – owes something to the conceptual breakthrough of the VCR.
In 2004 I personally signed the VCR’s death warrant.
I was running PR for Dixons Retail and I took the decision to announce that Dixons was going to press the stop button on sales of video recorders. We did the maths, tried to model the consequences, but it was, in essence, a ‘do it and ask for forgiveness later’ moment.
My rationale was that DVD player sales were starting to accelerate and DVD recorders were gaining traction. I also knew that decisions to stop selling products generally translate into a rush to buy, something I’ve heard described as the ‘Heinz Salad Cream Effect’. All the charts suggested that it was a reasonable risk with a great deal of potential upside. We gave the announcement exclusively to the BBC and the Press Association under embargo on Friday for Monday. Within 15 minutes of the release of a one-page announcement we knew that we were on to something.
The venue for the announcement was the old Dixons store at 353 Oxford Street. We raided the Dixons museum and found an original video recorder (a top-loader with a timer no more sophisticated than would be found on an old cooker). In advance of Monday morning, we had BBC, ITN, Channel 4 and CNN lined up for interviews.
The announcement remains the second biggest announcement of my career to date (our work with Growing Underground has since eclipsed it). It won an industry Grand Prix for consumer PR campaign of the year. We got a clean sweep of the UK’s national media, a clean sweep of broadcast, vast amounts of international coverage (I did interviews with CNN and ABC News on the day) and much, much more. I still have the cuttings files, occupying several drawers of a filing cabinet.
The reports combined nostalgia, a focus on the replacement technology and a look to the future. Several papers and magazines gave the story a front page splash.
I do remember an awkward encounter with the Dixons buyer on the morning of the announcement. He’d just placed an order for 500,000 VCRs. In the end he cleared all stock faster than he’d expected – and sales of DVD players boomed.
Over the next couple of years I made similar announcements for cathode ray TVs, floppy discs and more. It’s a powerful example of the impact of a counter-intuitive announcement, laced with nostalgia. Audacious decisions that cut against the grain require a steady hand and nerves of steel but they can make a huge impact. Happy VCR Day.