It all started with Gail Porter back in 1999, when ad agency BBH projected her naked form onto Big Ben to promote lads’ mag FHM’s 100 Sexiest Women Poll (well, it was the 90s). This stunt was surprising enough to make it onto the ITV News at 10, and has acted as encouragement to brands and celebrities ranging from PG Tips to Geordie Shore’s Charlotte Crosby to try their own projections since.
Technology has made it easier too, both to actually project imagery and also to make it look as if you have, via Photoshop. “The technology now, apparently, can be quite a small thing, that can project a big image,” says Lee Bridges, director of external communications at the House of Commons. “So it’s easier I suppose than it would have been when they had Gail Porter – I think that’s increasing the frequency. What we’re trying to get across is that the building is there as an international icon for the UK. It’s not a free billboard … it needs to be kept to its iconic status. Of course there is a risk that that makes us sound really po-faced but that’s not the message that we’re trying to get across.”
Bridges points out that anyone wanting to project imagery onto the buildings should apply for planning permission from Westminster Council and also the parliamentary authorities. He does acknowledge that brands’ chance of being granted permission to project an ad are pretty much zero, though projections have been allowed to celebrate major national events, such as the Olympics or in moments of national commemoration, such as Remembrance Sunday (see images below).
Charities and activism groups have occasionally projected messages onto the Houses of Parliament for political purposes, which at least seems relevant to the setting. Bridges acknowledges that these campaigns are “heading into the greyish area” but believes that a blanket ban is the fairest way to approach it. He also points out that there are lots of other ways, sometimes more meaningful, to make political points and get your voice heard.
While FHM’s projection may have caused national headlines, the more recent projections rarely get much traction in the press, but still do well on Twitter etc, as the top image demonstrates. “Gail Porter was probably one of the first times that actually happened, so it had a novelty to it,” says Bridges. “I’m not a marketing person myself, but the more people that do it, the less effective it is, you would think.
“But online it’s a great visual,” he concedes. “So that’s why I’m more in sorrow than in anger really, but we just feel that we have to protect the integrity of the building for people who come and take pictures and enjoy it.”