In recession-hit Britain there are more TV commercials than ever as retailers and services compete for our ever-dwindling stores of cash. Once, our TV ads used to be renowned for their wit and imaingation, launching the careers of movie directors like Ridley Scott and Alan Parker. But, says Philip Norman, they are now mostly cheap and formulaic, treating us like children, playing on our financial insecurities – and usually wasting the talents of the famous faces and voices they employ. These are the ad breaks that drive him to breaking-point.
The Corner-shop Syndrome
In their pursuit of our money in hard times, huge, faceless corporations and mega-retailers represent themselves in TV ads as friendly little neighbourhood businesses staffed by lovely people whose only desire is to ‘help’.
It started with the compassionate Cockney voice-over for Britain’s greediest utility: ‘At British Gas, we understand how having your power cut off can turn your world upside-down…’ A pity they didn’t ‘understand’ how constantly jacking up their prices might have a similar effect. Now, compassionate voice-overs feature in just about every big-company ad, using exactly the same formula: ‘At Nationwide, we…’ ‘At Lloyds TSB, we…’ ‘At Tesco, we…’ ‘At Burger King, we…’ ‘At American Express, we…’ ‘At Costa, we…’ ‘At Sainsbury’s Bank, we…’ ‘At Co-Op banking, we…’ ‘At Shell, we…’ ‘At Homebase, we…’ ‘At Asda, we…’ ‘At Currys/PC World, we…’ ‘At B&Q, we…’’At Halfords, we…’ ‘At Crown, we…’ ‘At eHarmony, we…’ ‘At Yakult, we… ‘At Wickes, we…’ ‘At Lexus, we…’ ‘At Esso, we…’
The list continues to grow.
How can they lower themselves?
Sir Michael Gambon, arguably Britain’s greatest actor, is the voice of HSBC (‘At HSBC, we…’) which, bizarrely, calls itself ‘the world’s local bank’. (Does that mean special rates for neighbourhood money-launderers?)
The almost-as-distinguished John Hurt became the voice of Sky Movies, declaiming their nonsensical slogan ‘Believe in better.’ Can either of these two mighty thesps ever be taken seriously in a classic role again?
We’re all infants now.
Back in the 1960s, the great advertising and design guru Misha Black announced that British consumers had become too grown-up for products to be sold with cartoon mascots like Tate & Lyle sugar’s ‘Mister Cube’.
Black would be amazed by all cartoon figures that frolic through modern TV ads, suggesting a national average age of about seven. There are talking, dancing, singing cartoon dogs, bears, meerkats, bumblebees, grasshoppers, donkeys, hedgehogs, hippos, dinosaurs, tree-sloths,foxes, pandas popcorn, butter-pats, frankfurters, cheese-strings, Scotch eggs, spoons, tomatoes, pepperami, tortilla chips, toilet-cleaner cartons, mouth-ulcer remedies, houses, crash-test dummies, traffic-lights, manhole-covers – even parking ticket dispensers.
Only an addle-brained British advertising ‘creative’ could try to make one of those cute and lovable.
And even worse: the cartoon people who increasingly proliferate … the little men and women with Pinocchio noses who represent Lloyds-TSB customers … the Muppet-like crones touting Wonga pay-day loans … Dolmio sauces’ foam rubber caricature Italians worst of all, the British Gas ‘team’ who are said to turn up on our doorsteps within minutes of being called, and make power-cuts and burst boilers look such jolly fun.
What the f-does it have to do with the product?
Until now, the most stupefyingly pointless TV ad was the gorilla playing drums to a Phil Collins soundtrack that was supposed to make us buy more Cadbury’s Dairy Milk. This has since been trumped by the Wispa chocolate bar commercial showing five youthful idiots hauling a giant inflatable figure in a bobble hat to the top of a mountain. ‘Wispa … time well-misspent’ ran the punchline. But an ad-budget just plain misspent.
Why is it that when even the best comedians make TV ads, they become achingly unfunny? Paul Whitehouse used to be one of the most inspired; now his clunky monologues for Aviva insurance have turned diving for the off-button into a near-Olympic event.
Chris Addison’s appearances for Directline.com (fey, curly-haired bloke talks to customers like super-smug Alexander Armstrong) used to be the most tiresome. Now trumped by Robert Webb and his Noel Coward routine about Comparethemarket/com’s pesky meerkats.
Ain’t Life Wonderful?
Christmas has become the peak-time for hugely expensive multi-star ads, running at marathon length. Lately they’ve had a definite air of mid-Recession desperation, with the camera lingering voyeuristically on turkeys and mince-pies almost like a new form of porn.
Waitrose’s have been the most boastful, putting Delia Smith and Heston Blumenthal together onscreen, smiling at each other with the ferocity of rival Third World despots forced to the negotiating-table.
However, Marks & Spencer (otherwise known as ‘your’ M&S) do these ain’t-life-wonderful epics in other seasons, too. They must be regretting the one at the start of the last washed-out summer which ended with Gary Barlow singing the Beatles’ Here Comes The Sun.
Who writes this stuff?
There should be an award for the year’s most pretentious and meaningless product slogan. Current nominees: ‘EDF – feel better energy’; ‘British Gas – look after your world; ‘Guinness – made of more’; ’Peugeot 208 – Let your body drive’; ‘Lexus – we don’t stop until we create amazing.’
Go Compare yourself
You wouldn’t think a joke Italian tenor warbling a jingle for car insurance to the tune of Over There, an American soldiers’ song from the 1914-18 War, could possibly work as a TV ad. And you’d be right: it didn’t.
Yet it’s gone through numerous versions, each more nerve-janglingly futile than the last. The latest series - in which celebrities, including Sue Barker and Dr Stephen Hawking, fulfil the whole nation’s desire and whack the tenor - is somehow the moswt annoying of all.
Such a wicked waste.
At present, our best hope of an encounter with Victoria Wood, one of Britain’s true comedy greats, is in her voice-over for Dyson household-appliances. And who is going to rescue the talented Martin Clunes from his incarceration with the boring Churchill Insurance bulldog, or stop the brilliant Stephen Fry donning silly Chinese clobber oufits to push Virgin Media?
When Britain’s single, cheap telephone directory-inquiries service was abolished in favour of many different expensive ones – the illusion of ‘choice’ at its most glaring – the most mystifying ad-campaign from the new services was 118-118’s, featuring two identical curly-haired men with moustaches, rather like Harry Enfield’s Scousers.
No one (except the ‘creatives’) saw the point of them, everyone (except the ‘creatives’) was infuriated by them – indeed, they seemed to channel the public fury over what had happened to directory-inquiries. And yet all these years later they are still there on the screen.
The new tha’ noo.
Why are Scots voice-overs are supposed to have an extra dimension of sincerity and persuasiveness to English ears? The Scots aren’t that well-disposed to us after all; they want their independence and they sent us the Today programme’s James Naughtie. Now they’ve added a voice almost as maddening over displays of Co-Op groceries:‘The Co-Op … gud with fud’.
Kindly leave the stage.
The cheapest, creepiest TV ads of all are those that urge older people to take out life insurance – but are too mealy-mouthed ever to mention the D-word.
Instead, we get Michael Parkinson peddling Sun-Life’s Over-Fifties Plan with ‘interviewing celebrities on my chat-show gave me a host of memories - but you want to leave your loved ones more than just memories…’
And, he adds, you get a free pen just for applying. Bit of a comedown from interviewing Liz Taylor and Muhammad Ali, eh Michael?
Old Boots behaving badly.
Boots the chemists +have built a long-running campaign about ladies of – er - a certain age, strutting their stuff to Ernie K. Doe’s classic rock ‘n’ roll track Here Come The Girls.
Do I really have to spell out to those word-blind creatives the alternative sexist and ageist meaning of ‘boots’?