River Thames


Float It Up The Thames

The Thames: a place where brand "Floaters' result in effluent flowing in both directions. We take a look at this creative and historical canvas

By jeremy lee

Thames Water was responsible for discharging at least 72 billion litres of sewage into the River Thames between 2020 and 2023 – roughly equal to 29,000 Olympic swimming pools - according to figures released last year. The sewage eventually flows out to sea having polluted the silvery thread that winds through the capital, turning it brown.

Wags have pointed out that it's not the only one responsible for releasing shit into the Thames - brands do too.

James Herring, the chief executive of Taylor Herring, probably summed up most people's weariness with Thames brand stunts when he recently published on LinkedIn an image he'd created of all the things that agencies had floated up (or more often down) the river over the years.

We've all got our own 'favourites': Michael Jackson; the PG Tips Monkey; a giant rubber duck for online bingo company Jackpotjoy; Pepsi cans; Lotto balls; a Lego pharoah; a rugby ball for Land Rover; a giant birthday cake for Ebay; a two-bedroom house for AirBnB; Stormzy for EE. The list is endless. And that's the problem (you can see a selection below).

Big Build Pollution

Following the success of the post, he wrote a piece for trade website PR Week decrying the trend, saying: "Big builds on barges pollute both the reputation of the industry and London’s iconic river."

"Floaters", as they are known in the trade, are the last refuge of a dearth of ideas - the aquatic equivalent of firing something into space, which was also a trend for brands desperate to try and get attention and for agencies that lacked an idea.

But the problem with floaters, as Herring points out, is: "Savvy consumers are wise to such marketing nonsense. If they’ve seen it done before in their morning copy of the Metro, they’re yawning as loudly as the industry."

Herring traces the origins of the stunt back to 1972 when a mannequin of the film director Sir Alfred Hitchcock was floated past County Hall to promote the movie ‘Frenzy’. This floater became a national talking point so it was only a matter of time before others followed.

Historical 'Activations'

However it's possible to track the Thames's use as a promotional (and ceremonial) route far further back still. For over 1000 years, monarchs and royalty have made their homes along the Thames and in London. At different times, royal palaces were to be found along the Thames at Greenwich, Rotherhithe, the Tower, Bridewell, Whitehall, Westminster, Richmond, Hampton Court and Windsor.

While travelling between palaces by river was quicker and safer than by land, since Tudor times, the Thames has provided a celebratory route for royal events and processions, including arrivals, departures, receptions, coronations, weddings and christenings. Much like all the plastic tat on barges today, it enabled royals to be seen.

King Henry VIII owned two royal barges – the Lyon and Greyhound – which served his riverside palaces, and were kept at the Royal Bargehouse, at Lambeth. He also used the Thames as a very public way to transport people - including wife Anne Boleyn - to the Tower of London for their execution.

Regular royal river pageants and ceremonials stopped in 1856 although Queen Elizabeth II led a flotilla of boats on the Thames on a notably wet day in June 2012 to mark her Diamond Jubilee. Again, crowds gathered on the banks to watch the procession in a way that Jackpotjoy or Jedward can only have dreamed about.

The Thames was also a focus of national attention when it played a key role in the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill. After a service in St. Paul's Cathedral his body was taken from Tower Pier to Festival Pier, from where it would travel by train from Waterloo to his final resting place in Bladon, aboard the vessel Hanvengore.

As it passed up the river more than 36 dockers lowered their crane jibs in a salute on the south side of the bank. Whether this was a spontaneous gesture of respect by the dockers or if they were paid to do so has subsequently become a matter of debate.

More recently, just last week the Thames was used as a backdrop for the Ceremony of the Constable’s Dues at the Tower of London. This ceremony traces its origins to the 14th Century when the Constable of the Tower had the right to extract tolls from ships going past the Tower of London in exchange for providing them with protection. The Royal Marines delivered a barrel of port by landing craft, in a tradition that follows an edict made in 1381 by King Richard II that every ship that came upstream to the city presented 'two roundlets of wyne' to the Constable.

Foreshore Stunts

Permission to use the Thames as an advertising medium is complex and expensive, according to Herring - little wonder given that it is still a working waterway used to transport people and goods, even if London's heyday as a port has long since passed.

It isn't as simple as simply loading a barge with a giant plastic effigy, letting it go and hoping for the best from an incredulous public who just might have forgotten the last time they saw the exact same stunt pulled off. For that reason Thames-side activations have also become popular.

WaterAid unveiled four ice sculptures on the banks of the river featuring people from around the world collecting water, to highlight how climate change is causing fragile water sources to disappear for vulnerable communities.

Christian Aid used the banks of the Thames to raises awareness of the climate crisis and how rising sea levels is threatening three of the smallest countries in The Rugby World Cup: Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. It created a film showing UK-based Pacific Island dance groups, Beats of Polynesia and Yanuyanu, from Tonga, Samoa and Fiji, dancing knee deep in the Thames.

And in 2020 Jonathan Glazer created an emotionally-charged film to debut Alexander McQueen's Spring Summer '21 collection. The film was produced by Academy and Glazer worked closely with Sarah Burton, creative director of the fashion house, to make a film "grounded in the eternal, beating heart of London" – the River Thames.

The Thames and its environs have also been used for messaging - with the Elizabeth Tower (home to Big Ben) a popular backdrop for causes as diverse as FHM's Sexiest Women Poll (with Gail Porter) to the conflict in Gaza.

The London mayor Sadiq Khan was accused of politicising the 2023 New Year's Eve fireworks on the Southbank by adding a message of self-congratulation to the display.

Given its historical importance, to the experiential sector in particular, perhaps it's little wonder that the industry turned to the Thames to highlight its plight during the Covid pandemic.

In 2020 the Royal Festival Hall, London Eye, National Theatre and the Tate Modern were all illuminated red, while hundreds of volunteers dressed in red lined the banks of the Thames to draw attention to the crisis faced by the events industry.

Many agencies have subsequently rushed back to re-embrace the Thames as their creative canvas, showing that (much like Thames Water sorting out its negligent discharges) there's little chance of them finding an alternative any time soon, no matter what the rest of us are probably hoping. The floaters - brand and biological - sadly aren't going anywhere other than slowly up and down the river.


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