The old chestnut, the received idea, the hackneyed phrase: these are not just verbal phenomena. The world has become less word-led, and the visual cliches are piling up. Peter York presses the pause button on some standard images of the electronic age
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The Independent Culture
OH, THE acres of commercials, of undead film and TV programming circuiting from cinema to cable and satellite to Mr Patel's grocery and video-hire centre. Sky Movies, Patel movies, UK Gold and Bravo. The stuff goes round forever. However omnivorou s and insomniac, however eclectic and determinedly populist you are, it doesn't take long before deja vu sets in. So this is choice? All those empty American desert roads seem startlingly similar. Shanghai 1929 looks very like Manila 1937. That felt hat that Monsieur Poirot is wearing: switch over and there it is in Cold Comfort Farm. You've seen it all before.

It's lovely, seeing the days and weeks tear off the calendar and flutter away like leaves; it's marvellous to watch the newspaper headlines spinning round ("O'Neil opens in St Louis/Pittsburgh/NEW YORK"). However often you see them in pre-war films, these visual devices never fail to please. Until, that is, someone - let's say Dawn and Jennifer - spoofs them. Then an ad spoofs them too, and suddenly you find you're unaccountably irritated by it all, by the image itself, by the writers who put it in their ad, and by the attitude - we're superior to this naive, hokey, cliche'd old stuff. But in fact it's the spoof that's the cliche.

You need a while to get your eye in with the new visual cliches. But every 18 months or so brings a crop, travelling the cycle from recognition to denunciation. Every period brings its characteristic enthusiasms, the wisdoms that dumb directors express in their visual one-liners. There's a whole trainload coming into focus from the past couple of years - early-Nineties ways of seeing.

Visual cliches are absolutely not what they were. There are so many more of them, because there's so much more media output, put out by people raised on output, REWD-ing and FFing away, pausing and freezing and inching the image forward. And there's the danger, among the My Little Ponytail classes, of simultaneous "recovered memory" syndrome (you don't remember when or where you saw it but it was awful being abused by Blue Peter). Something provokes all those commercials directors, pop promo sexualists and almost-auteurs to dredge up the same bit of media memory, all at the same moment - and all in the name of originality.

The other problem is just how hard these new cliches try, what a lot they think of themselves. Instead of a narrative device or a lovely cliche-on-legs (another would-be Garbo or Dietrich, wreathed in smoke) you get cliches built from attitude, sensibility and reference. Cliches that are meant to be oblique, enigmatic, contradictory or funny-brutalist.

And the rules of the game have changed for the cliche-monger: reference, quotation, irony; there's the cop-out and the killer. The deliberate cliche, the obvious steal can be toughed out now we all speak Post-Modern. You can claim to be doing it for every kind of reason.

It doesn't wash for long. Cliches, like ministerial indiscretions, get found out faster now, and more cruelly. They get spoofed in cliche'd spoofs, or Victoria Wood puts them in a routine ("Have you ever noticed how all the women in tampon ads . . . ?").We're all watching for it now, that gorgeous Trivial Pursuit moment - REWD, hold, pause . . .

THE NAKED MAN AND THE BABY This is the visual cliche of the early Nineties. It's got to be in black and white and the man's got to be a big model type with big tits and the baby's got to be a pretty one. And it says New Man, man at ease with his emotions, with the "feminine side of his nature", and with taking his clothes off at all times. A man who can relate to children and do his share of the affect side of parenting. And it says, skin to skin, from the strong shall come forth sweetness, and being intouch with your feelings doesn't make you an ugly wimp. And it says soft, strong and very, very long. It's been seen in that poster and the shoe ad where the big strong hand holds the tiny baby's foot.

This little idea is a development of one of the major advertising changes of the decade: from girls undressing to boys undressing. Advertising is full of men taking their clothes off without much artistic justification. Men's-fragrance ads are full of Greek statues, but more surprising is the amount of indistinguishable over-the-counter pharmaceutical advertising - for body rubs and cough syrups - featuring bare chests and Rodin poses.

SAX`N`JAZZ, NOT ROCK'N'ROLL Jazzmen and bluesmen are used constantly in advertising as shorthand for sophistication and authenticity. Classier and less obvious than pop, goes the thinking. The image of the saxophonist, a virtuoso with a nice-looking horn, crops up more than most to show this is a product meant for people with taste, discrimination and heart. For heart was the key factor in a thousand advertising-client pitches circa 1990. The Zeitgeist, the agency frontmen said, was moving from stylish and selfish to open and authentic. (Translation: we've read all about Court-ney Pine in Arena.) Thus in the old Red Stripe commercial our hero is a young, white would-be jazz-man, a saxophonist who hero-worships an old, black real jazz-man and wins his respect eventually in that real world of smoky jazz clubs.

The saxophonist in 1930s style silhouette - in a window - is the central image of the St Laurent Jazz campaign. But we've seen saxophones everywhere, including L'Oreal's long-running series of Studio Line commercials.

20 words extra copy please extra copy extra copy extra copy extra extra copy exextra copy extra copy extra copy extra copy extra extra copy ex THE SWIMMING BABY And talking of babies, they're doing a lot of swimming these days - into space, underwater, in blue. The swimming baby spells responsibility, trust, a vote of confidence in the future.

But it's also the womb, because science has shown us babies swimming there and science has told us babies can swim around in other places, like test tubes. Other scientists again have suggested to some women that they should have their babies in watery surroundings or that they should take them swimming at three months. And these images register with the Visual chaps, involved as they unashamedly are in that side of life nowadays.

Swimming babies came to our notice in the opening sequence of George Roy Hill's film of John Irving's World According to Garp. There's a blue one in the Orange telecoms ad, and a spoof of it in the Energis one. And one on the cover of Nirvana's Nevermind, with that cynical little dollar bill. Nirvana was all about the idea of people so throroughly disconnected they couldn't take responsibility for a rubber plant. But one doesn't know whether this figured consciously in the designer's thinking.

BIG HAIR Let's not move from this business of objectifying bits of people yet because women's hair-treatment ads - particularly shampoos - are quite gloriously, spectacularly and uncomplicatedly cliche'd in a way that's getting rare elsewhere.

The "let down your hair" shot recurs endlessly. Gorgeous thick shiny bouncy hair is let down in Rapunzel slo-mo like bungee ropes. Research-driven directors' contracts from haircare companies must specify one such shot per commercial. The research must demonstrate that intelligent women can no more resist this particular image than dogs can resist aniseed. It must, or else why would advertisers expose themselves to universal sniggers?

The variant on this is the "wet hair arc" - a girl in a stream shakes her head with such energy as to create a huge arc of hair dispersing drops in a post-hippie, late Pre-Raphaelite image.

We've seen the hair from L'Oreal, at its most aggressively and absurdly bouncy in last year's Elseve Care Mousse Conditioner commercial, and the arc started, I think, with Timotei.

THE BODY AS LANDSCAPE And while we're on the flesh side of life - and there's an enormous amount of it about - there's the widespread tendency to be oblique, arty, and generally non-obvious by using bits of flesh as landscapes, as sculpture - ie, you can't tell at first which rounded, curved part exactly you're seeing. It's Abstract titillation and everybody involved feels they're present at the making of Art - and one up on Pirelli.

It is odd, however, this emphasis on disaggregated parts. To use the smart Channel 4 documentary word, it could be seen as a bit "paraphiliac". You see these images in those photographs framed in thin steel some men have instead of pictures and in the Dune ad.

Then there's Natrelle, the curious organic deodorant whose advertising features a fair bit of body as vegetation, blending in like camouflage with the trees in the original garden. (There's also an army of commercials that start you off with a close-up of a mouth, an attendant ear or a reflective eye before proceeding to the wide shot.)

THE AMERICAN CITY BY NIGHT We're in a helicopter flying over those American Cities of Light that are so dark and huge and tall with such sheer drops to those lines of ant cars. Big, anonymous, cruel and glamorous. I'm a complete sucker for this particular shot - not because it's so meaningful and menacing, but because it is so meaninglessly beautiful - and I'm glad to observe there's no shortage yet. It's in Sleepless in Seattle, presumably to express the state of Tom Hanks' mind, and it's in The Fugitive.

There are a million stories in the Naked City is one reading of this image. It could be you. The notion, beloved of American fantasy film-makers, of something coming from the sky down to ordinary Americans, is one way of finessing that little thought. But an altogether cooler suggestion is the idea of crime, conspiracy and control; someone runs this city and strange forces are at work. But since so much of American is increasingly up itself, my own feeling is that glorying in sheer scale/Master of the Universe/Superman is what's behind this shot.

BEAUTIFUL GIRL, UGLY FACE This is a staple of advertising in "younger-oriented" drink and beauty products addressed at mainstream young people who are thought to need some reassurance on their cool factor. So gorgeous girls being wacky shows the target market isn't "plastic". It shows attitude as clearly as if they'd had it tattooed. It's an easy way of expressing the differences between 16-19s and thirtysomethings. They think silly faces lend character.

Models go along with it because they affect to despise what they do and want to move into being celebrity models who can do so much more. Those Smirnoff ads (Vladi Ada and Vladi Nora) had a bit of female violence. So did the Boots No 7 ads where models roared. The nursery slopes of this posture lie in those hair ads where a girl pulls a strand of hair over her face then grimaces ("Don't be so mean to your hair").

This is a line of descent from the girls who took their cues from Shirley Maclaine rather than Natalie Wood. They dem-anded to be seen as interesting or funny, rather than cute. They wore big berets in the 60s and wanted respect for their art.

DECONSTRUCTING THE MEDIUM Otherwise known as "Tapping the Camera". "Deconstructing the medium" is Media Studies language for exposing the intents and devices of media that present themselves as "natural" and transparent. It's become a convention in its own right. Young men who like to feel a teensy bit subversive are in the habit of tapping the camera lens to show it's there, and/or making funny faces close-up. Carlton, being the bold, leading-edge company it is, uses this device in its station ident toshow that it's a live, participative, innovative and thoroughly regional medium. Channel 4, however, did it first.

It is in a direct line of descent from what John Lennon used to do in interviews in the Sixties. He ribbed interviewers, talked through them to an audience of younger, hipper folk in an apparent conspiracy against what Cultural Studies (Cult Studs) people now call "the agenda of the medium". The younger viewers then would call the process Fat Keith Fordyce and His Home Counties Question. Now the circle is complete. The gesture has "been completely appropriated and codified".

BLACK SUITS, THIN TIES This is what passes in Hollywood as a young male outerwear statement, something with the beat of the street and the heat of the meat. It's the way people grounded in the late-1970s response to punk show they've kept the faith and it had its first and most influential American expression in The Blues Brothers where ex-college - some later to be dead - boys took off earlier black styles using the wardrobe of English Midland proles.

The other element in all this is the stylistic convention of Crims Who Always Dress Smart - tight suits, narrow lapels, narrow ties. If The Blues Brothers was one key version, then GoodFellas and later Reservoir Dogs were important examples of showing you understood the heroic qualities, codes of honour or internally consistent logic of other breeds without the law.

It's typical of Mr Tarantino, the rewind boy from the video shop, that he should have this thing about dress codes expressing dumb-thug comrades-in-arms. People he knows all about but has never met. It's a curious consequence of media delivering up prolelifestyles in lifelike detail as middle-class fashion.

PEOPLES OF THE WORLD The origins of this kind of ad lie in part in the kind of proto-PC Unicef Christmas cards I remember from childhood. They showed children of all races united in Christmas niceness. The other root, of course, is that massive initiative, Teaching the World to Sing, introduced by Coke in the 1970s. And yet another contribution comes from the middlebrow cod-anthropology of Desmond Morris and his ceaseless efforts to show people are both very like animals and very like each other, the world over.

United Colours of Benetton is the key example - delicious children with lovely art-directed skin-tone juxtapositions. The same themes crop up in the Norwich Union ad that explains, via a range of exotic shots combined in a profound way, that we are indeed all the same under the skin because our desire is for protection (best supplied by East Anglian actuaries). Mastercard is doing it too with a range of polite foreigners - shot in black and white - saying Mastercard is a great civilising influence on 200 million of us family-of-man types the world over. !