Media: Welcome to the glum world of advertising

Doom, gloom and the mundane qualities of life sell as a recession looms
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The Independent Culture
YOU WON'T laugh and nor will you fancy the actors. No, you won't do either of those things if you watch the new advertisements for Pearl insurance, but you may feel deep depression coming on.

In one advertisement, an overweight woman with bags under her eyes asks her father: "Do you want to be buried or cremated?" In another, a man whose wife has left him is warned by his teenage daughter that "the kitty is almost empty". And in a third, a boy tells his mother that she should marry her rich boyfriend. The reason? He needs the cash to go to college.

Each advertisement ends with at least one of the characters gazing - horrified - into the distance. And that's presumably what the viewers at home are doing, too.

But Pearl is not alone. Plenty of other advertisements these days feature hapless characters with a miserable future. Death - if not in fact present in all the glum ads - looms large. It all fits neatly alongside the increasingly gloomy newspaper and television forecasts of imminent recession.

Virginia Valentine, head of cultural analysts Semiotic Solutions, believes the trend towards gloom represents a backlash against last summer's rosy glow of New Labour and the cult of Diana which gripped the country soon after it. "We started thinking about ourselves as warm and loving, and being in touch with our feelings. But now there's a cold, hard edge of cynicism coming out."

But hang on. Even if that's true, shouldn't advertising steer clear of doom? Commercials aren't the same as editorial and they should keep us entertained - shouldn't they? Not according to the men behind Pearl's campaign. "Advertising doesn't have any duty other than to put the client's case in the most effective way," says Rupert Howell, of Pearl's advertising agency Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury. It does not have to cheer them up in bad times.

His partner Chris Satterthwaite expands: "Recession is bound to have an impact on the way people look at the world." But the ads are "not more gritty than life itself", he adds.

Adverts for Sony Playstation provide another startling example of the glum approach. One kicks off with a shot of a scrawny, malnourished youth going to work. "In the day I do my job," he says, the corners of his mouth turned down. But at night, he reveals, his world changes - and at this point, we see him lying on a bed in his underpants - because at night he can happily play computer games.

Other characters in the Playstation ads include a fat man surrounded by takeaway cartons, two small-time crooks and a glum transvestite. In each case, the only thing that makes life worth living is the Sony Playstation. "At least I can say I have lived," proclaims the scrawny youth.

The advertisements were masterminded by one of advertising's most famous creatives, Trevor Beattie of TBWA - the man who shot to fame with an altogether jollier campaign, the "Hello boys" poster for Wonderbra. Why has he turned so miserable?

"Our ad is about the mundane quality of everyday life," he says. You can escape from that with Playstation. If we had shown a glamorous life there would have been no need to escape from it. Life can be dull."

Volkswagen, too, has subscribed to the gloom, with stark press advertisements featuring dissatisfied women whose only security in life is their VW Golf. Their mood is sombre - the weather is terrible, the women are far from glamorous.

"American gloss is wearing a bit thin. It's a backlash," says Ed Edwards of BMP DDB, the agency behind the VW ads. "Look at the television documentaries about traffic wardens or the Lakeside shopping centre. That's what viewers want - real people."

And the trend seems set to continue. Levi's turned its back on a decade of glamorous advertising last month to produce an advert in which Kevin the hamster keeled over, dead.

But it can't go on for ever. Sue Keane, a cultural psychologist, reckons that adverts are bound to brighten up sooner or later: "If we move into recession advertisers will have to switch to a more optimistic approach. In deep recession brands have to provide a constant ray of sunlight, or people will trade down to own labels which are cheaper."

So if glamour has disappeared from our screens, you can be sure it will return when real life becomes too depressing. Now there's something to cheer you up.