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Postmodern advertising? Don’t buy it

From the slap-happy Tango man to Cadbury’s drumming gorilla, Patrick West finds today's smug and mysterious TV ads a turn-off.

Patrick West

Patrick West
Columnist

Topics Culture

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There is a rather curious advertisement featuring on television at the moment. It simply portrays a gorilla playing the drums to the tune of In The Air Tonight, by Phil Collins. Do you know what the advert is for? Of course you do: it’s for Cadbury’s Dairy Milk chocolate.

I jest. Of course you don’t. You don’t have a clue. I had to watch this advertisement several times before I could actually appreciate what on earth it was about.

Perhaps Cadbury’s were trying to be clever – in a surreal, Dadaist fashion – but in any case, the advert does symbolise our postmodern times, an era in which the signifier no longer corresponds to the signified. Cadbury’s confused message represents our confused culture.

Telly adverts used to be fairly straightforward matter. For instance, the first advert to feature on British television was for Gibbs toothpaste. It simply promised ‘tingling fresh’ toothpaste, encased in a block of ice. This kind of representational advertising has since been parodied by the fake advert on Viz comic’s ‘Billy the Fish’ strip: ‘Smoke Tabs. Drink Beer. Eat Food.’ But since the 1980s, adverts have become disjointed and surreal. Viz parodied it because this method now seems so archaic.

Part of this stemmed from expedience. Before adverts for cigarettes were banned from our screens, and then from billboards and the press, tobacco manufacturers were told they were not allowed to encourage potential consumers to smoke their products. Thus the likes of Silk Cut and Benson & Hedges resorted to bizarre imagery, with adverts simply featuring pyramids or lizards – with only the morbid health warning underneath informing you that this lovely product is probably going to kill you.

Alcohol manufacturers did likewise. Especially Guinness. Before the Eighties, we were told Guinness was good for us and that it tasted nice. Then, quite suddenly, Rutger Hauer was hawking the stuff by talking surreal gibberish. Then in the Nineties, we had the horses. The scene: surfers ride on the crest of a wave, behind them emerge – giant, silver-haired horses. That advert told us precisely nothing about the yeasty nourishment of Guinness. The link between the product and message was here absolutely arbitrary.

The turn of the millennium witnessed a breakdown elsewhere. There were the Budweiser series of adverts featuring chameleons enviously looking upon three frogs simply chanting ‘Bud-weis-er’. Again, nothing about beer. Then there was Flat Eric, a funky, street-wise puppet who, with his fugitive human companion, helped to raise the profile of Levi’s Sta-Prest jeans, while simultaneously telling us nothing about what they looked like or how comfy they were. In 1992, the soft-drink Tango started a TV campaign featuring a fat orange man who went round slapping people, with faux-football commentary and psychedelic flashbacks. Once more: nothing about the product’s fruity or refreshing content.

TV adverts used to tell us what products could do for us, or projected a fantasy of who we could become with their aid (Flake = this chocolate will gain me fellatio; Milk Tray = I could be a daredevil misogynist; Strand cigarettes = I’ve got no friends. Who cares?). But in the last 20 years – apart from adverts about car insurance or debt problems – there has been a shift towards the abstract.

This is nothing to be celebrated. Abstract art is the product of confused minds and of confused eras. It was no coincidence that the pessimistic and deliberately chaotic artistic movement Dadaism emerged after the First World War, when the world itself was confused; it was no coincidence, either, that it usurped the optimistic and forward-looking Futurist movement that preceded that conflict. We likewise live in an age of moral confusion, in which the real and the represented are increasingly blurred, and the form of our television advertisements – the most genuinely popular and innovative art form of today – mirrors this.

Realism signifies optimism, of seeking to portray the world as it is, or of how you want it to be. Parody and jokiness are signs of pessimism, of defeatism. Those who seek to distort reality do so because they are unhappy with reality. Those who laugh at life do so because they think life is a joke. Dadaism ate itself because it was a movement based on disjointed self-indulgence.

Of course, cynicism towards television can be healthy and entertaining. The Ferrero Rocher adverts at ‘the ambassador’s ball’ were revered for being utterly crap. Sprite once had the ironic slogan: ‘Image is Nothing. Obey your thirst.’ Marmite has long dined out on the fact that most people find the stuff revolting. TCP, we were told, was ‘just as disgusting as you remember it’. And my favourite was the press campaign Carlsberg had for their Special Brew brand some years back, in which a mighty, gilded Olympian figure was portrayed drinking the stuff, and underneath bore the slogan, ‘The Beer of the Gods’. This was clearly a paradoxical comment on the widely held perception that Special Brew is not the beer of the gods, but the beer of people who live in bus shelters and have arguments with cars.

And I do salute the late fashion designer Franco Moschino, a man who ruthlessly and openly laughed at his customers. ‘Beware!’ one of his adverts declared, ‘Advertising can seriously damage your brain and wallet.’ This was accompanied by slogans such as ‘waist of money’ woven into his couture pieces, with buttons spelling out ‘born to shop’ or ‘fashion victim’.

Still, the abstract or ironic nature of many TV adverts today is a cause for concern. It is smug, and smug people always make me worry – because they have usually little to be pleased about. It is an attitude that conceals inner demons and worries. I preferred the old Ronseal bloke who reminded us that it ‘does exactly what it says on the tin’ and verbally harangued us all into buying his stupid varnish.

In any case, I don’t actually like chocolate. But had Cadbury’s put out an advert saying: ‘Buy our chocolate, it’s lovely’, I might have bought some – instead of simply staring at the television, wondering what that bloody gorilla was banging his drums about.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV reviewer. Visit his blog here.

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