Read about how the popular Bic Chick special shape hot air balloon came to life and flew high above the UK in the 1990s, written by ex VABC Creative Director Mark Lockwood.
At least once a year back in the 1990s, we organised a day seminar for advertising and marketing manager types, we even invited a few accountants from time to time but found they were atmosphere hoovers so kept it strictly for the more fun people! This was normally held somewhere nice in central London where they could enjoy a good lunch and imbibe at our expense but not before we had subjected them to a fairly intense education on the benefits of both balloon and airship advertising, delivered with salient facts and figures and in a language they could understand.
Over the years we had an increasingly good response to these sessions as well as getting in front of some of the big hitters who had money to spend and a desire to, so to speak, push the envelope. To one of them came a rather quiet yet extremely well besuited gentleman with a shock of salt and pepper hair. He listened attentively and cornered airship specialist Bruce Renny after our various presentations before disappearing before the planned lunch. Later it turns out he was a member of the Bich family, owners of Société Bic S.A., and was interested in looking at an airship to back up a number of their sponsorship deals including the Tour De France race and Formula 1. Negotiations continued however the biggest stumbling block turned out to be budget: they didn’t have any! Wisely, Bruce suggested they should look at a hot air balloon programme as the entrance cost and ongoing operating fees would be more within their means.
Accordingly, the brief came into to me to design something really simple, standard shaped and minimal investment to promote their new range of ‘Soft Feel’ ballpoint pens. There was a TV advertisement running for the brand at the time. A trawl of YouTube has sadly and surprisingly not managed to turn up a copy to date, however it featured lots of soft fluffy yellow chicks and was certainly one of those cute ‘Awww!’ type ads. A weekend of idly doodling various rather boring standard shapes in a number of different branding options had me yawning at the drawing board. I had decided to create it as a picture showing all these options in the sky at the same time so that they could choose which dull option they could afford. In desperation I drew a small version in the distance with the cute chick bursting from an egg and hugging the pen, knowing full well that it would be way beyond their meagre budget allocations. It was a last minute really simple sketch and not worked up at all. The finished set of drawings were delivered and presented by Bruce to the marketing team and met with an overwhelming wave of apathy.
Fortunately M.Bich happened to be passing and popped into the meeting to say hello and glanced at the sketches, immediately pointing to the tiny doodle bird and said “I want that one!” Thus the word came back to work up the design to a more finished degree and I duly set off with my trusty magic markers to recreate the shape so quickly drawn. This met with instant approval and someone proceeded to dig down the back of the Bic sofa and find a bunch of loose change that would cover the cost of the build.
I sent the drawing to Dave Boxhall at Camerons and a number of long telephone discussions and meetings then ensued to define how, in particular, I visualised the wings to be holding the pen. The basic shape was not an issue, nor was the head or the pen itself however the interface between the three parts when wrapped in ‘wings’ was proving to be an enigma wrapped in a conundrum. In the end I went to the local craft store and purchased a block of plasticine, stuck a biro shaft in a piece of wood (a Bic of course!) and build a model of how I wanted the shape to be, photographed this from a number of angles and sent Dave the shots. The lightbulb obviously came on in Bristol and this was pretty much how the bird finally came out although I was never truly happy with the beak as I thought it more duckface than Bic McChickface. It was not quite cute enough.
Delivery was scheduled for late May/early June and, as I recall, Mike Moore was unable to do a test flight before the scheduled first appearance either due to pressure of work or bad weather, more likely the latter. We had scheduled a stills and video shoot from Victoria Crescent in Bath and it turns out that we were only able to tether the chick whilst the other new balloons we were showcasing were able to fly and allow us to capture the right press images and footage. These were the days before Photoshop however we were able to doctor a number of the shots and remove the plethora of tether lines to create a presentable media image.
The chick went on to make many memorable appearances at the major balloon events around the country that year and for the next 3 years, and there were a few highlights including one extremely light and variable morning with a heavy dew on the ground where the pilot, Malcolm Dear comes to mind, ended up over the same grass field with just the tip of the ballpoint brushing the grass, leaving trails that certainly did not make any literary sense but looked really cool none-the-less. A bravura piece of flying by any sense of the word!
I have lost track of the balloon now as it vanished along with many of the shapes with the demise of VABC back in 2002 but there are hopes someone will eventually find it lurking in the back of a warehouse or a barn and breathe life into the cute cuddly chick once again.
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