Media: How we love to hate Cereal Mom

`Annie the Housewife' is more likely to put us off Somerfield than draw us in. Isn't it fun when clever, overpaid admen slip up?
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The Independent Culture
SOMERFIELD'S VERY public falling out with its advertising agency Leo Burnett over the disastrous "Annie the Housewife" campaign is just the latest in a rare but rather fascinating phenomenon: advertisements that do precisely the opposite to what was intended. Coming so swiftly after John Cleese's man-with-a-megaphone advert for Sainsbury's was similarly judged to have hindered rather than helped that particular supermarket's sales, just what is it that makes an advert not only fail, but even put customers off?

On the whole supermarket advertising, like car advertising, is always peculiarly irritating. It was ever thus. It's not really clear why the excruciating Prunella Scales mother-in-law character for Tesco or the bumptious, bottom-slapping brigades of staff at Asda are any less awful than the corporate clownery of Sainsbury's or Somerfield, but there's a thin check-out line between love and hate when it comes to kooky supermarket characters.

Not that Annie the housewife is especially kooky; quite the opposite. The bouffant-haired blonde with her creepy, owlish husband and her oddly quiet kids is supposed to be Mrs Normal herself. But like many other people I have been increasingly disturbed by Annie's curiously offhand comments, when every simple phrase she utters seems loaded with something, well, rather sinister. After a while I realised what it was. She is the new face of "Serial Mom", the bubbly John Waters Tupperware killer housewife from the film of the same name. She may well be wrapping mature cheddar for the kids or slapping her poor, benighted husband for nibbling some sad processed morsel or other, but inside that ordinary looking facade lurks a monster. Yes, the face of Somerfield has bin-liners (lemon scented/ drawstring) full of human giblets in her backyard, I'm sure of it.

There are notorious examples of adverts rebounding; the novelist and former copywriter Fay Weldon told me that "one of the first anti-drugs campaigns settled on a very glamorous young man in an alley, with the threat that this is what you would become if you took heroin, which of course all the young people thought was marvellous". Her idea for a vodka advert in the Sixties was overruled when she came up with "Get drunk quicker" - but it was put into practice when Ruddles Bitter was advertised in the late Eighties by the legendary Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band singer and, alas deceased, old soak Vivian Stanshall. It was the first and probably the last time that an advert for alcohol was clearly made and written by someone who was permanently very drunk indeed, and was furthermore filled with very drunk people enjoying their favourite tipple.

Of course, people have very personal antipathies and reactions to certain adverts but some consistently score highly in the "what on earth were they thinking when they made that?" stakes. Another drinks advert that seems utterly baffling is one for Caffreys bitter, in which some residents of a heaving Lower East Side bar in New York move as one to a hip-hop sound-track until one man has a kind of Gaelic flashback moment when he sips some of the fizzy keg bitter. Where would he rather be? Watching some muddy rugger players come hobbling round a gasworks under a grey Irish sky. Grim, rainswept Irish suburbs, over late nights in the Big Apple? Yeah, like, we believe you, dude.

Whenever I hear a particular car advert go "What would you rather have, cosmetic surgery or the safest car in its class?" I'm never entirely sure of the terms of reference; perhaps they are referring to those poor souls who has suffered hideous facial disfigurement in a road accident and require reconstructive surgery, or perhaps they are merely suggesting that the frivolity of spending money on beautification seems immoral compared with the morality of placing a titanium cage around your family. Whatever is intended, I believe cosmetic surgery is probably far more desirable than another mass-market saloon.

Such lumpen presumptions about the nature of your audience never fail to irritate, and provoke a spirit of perversity in the viewer - witness the campaign for the food chain TGI Friday earlier in the Nineties. Then we were treated to what the ad men thought was a "nightmare" restaurant, which was indeed something worthy of a Svankmejer film, with surreal, stuffed-shirt waiters serving kinds of food that you don't find outside of Bavaria. Other Alice in Wonderland diners stared cavernously into their soup. However, TGI Friday can offer something brighter, we were told; a horde of what looked like tourists from Leicester Square tucked into disgusting-looking ribs and fries - which is, of course, the true nightmare.

Then there are the ads that put you off mainly because the whole premise is so false and stupid, such as the Nescafe ads that revolve around wealthy media types in a designer kitchen serving up, erm, instant coffee at the end of the meal. I don't think so, Nescafe; your product makes rings on office memos, but any appearance in an Islington loft dinner party would be -social death, darling.

For all the money washing around ad agencies and for all the overpaid, clever people who supposedly work in them, there will always be misjudgements, and in the end it's not entirely fair to blame Cereal Mom with her Addams Family values for the performance of a supermarket chain. But there's a certain feeling of relish when an ad is just so wrong, so badly conceived and made, that it ends up alienating the viewer in a quite breathtaking way. There's an odd feeling of triumph in being able to avoid the bland presumptions of admen, and a certain amoral enjoyment to seeing them trip up. One always looks forward to the next bad ad, the next goofy grocery slip-up, the next corporate banana skin.

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