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Britjunk: you can run but you can't hide

There is no escape. Britpop may be over, but, says Stephen Armstrong, adland's obsession with London, Union Jacks and the Sixties will go on and on...
It seemed innocuous enough at first. Three books landed on the desk with a thunk, all bound together in a silver cardboard case. It looked like a nice read. Then something leapt out from the shiny wrapping: "Brit Lit!" it screamed. "Made In Britain!" "Listen To The Voice of The Young Generation!" That was when I noticed the Union Jacks. Four years late, the publishing world is using Britpop to sell us books. Now, don't get me wrong. The books themselves could be contemporary masterpieces. There is Wasted by Krissy Kays, which is set around a summer of open-air festivals, there is Are You Experienced by William Sutcliffe, about London and backpacking, and there is Camden Girls by Jane Owen, which covers 48 hours in the life of Camden.

The trouble is, when they're sold to the trade and the press with the pitch: "Honest, urban, real, twentysomethings living life on the edge, being who they want to be, existing how they choose... Feel the friends, sex, music, drugs, men, women, direction, space, travel, independence and the vibe that's happening now", your first feeling is one of deep embarrassment. Brit Lit. Oh, please.

It's not really Penguin's fault. Rather like the latest ads for the Mini from the ad agency Ammirati Puritas Lintas, it's just part of the wholesale plundering of this supposed new Britishness that no-one in marketing seems to be able to avoid. If it's somehow connected with this country, particularly if Camden or the Sixties are involved, then drape it in a Union Jack and, hey presto!, instant karma.

"Our Mini ad is taken from an actual Mini in the King's Road in the Sixties, so we have more right to use this imagery than most," says Nicholas Welch of Ammirati Puris Lintas. "The Union Jack is a very powerful design and it can be used in so many ways. It may be that the new Britishness is smoke, mirrors, music, fashion and rising house prices, but it has a very strong resonance with the public right now."

Britpop-style Sixties-kitsch images have, to date, found themselves slithering into ads for (take a deep breath) Fred Perry, Wild Brew, Selfridges, GQ, Vanity Fair, Pepe Jeans, Converse, Patrick Cox and various alcopops.These days Noel Gallagher has a Union Jack guitar and David Bowie - David Bowie! - launched a dodgy jungle single with a full-length Union Jack frock-coat in a bid to bask in this reflected glory. (Thank heaven for Nicky Wire and the Manic Street Preachers, whose flaunting of the Welsh Dragon at the Brit Awards underlined the foolishness of all this Brit nonsense.)

Ironically, of course, Britpop could hardly be less relevant at the moment. Despite the hype and expectation, people are whispering that the new Oasis single just isn't quite as good as they'd hoped, and despite the huge boost of the Trainspotting soundtrack, most of the acts have failed to make any impact overseas. Acts like the Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers are doing better in the US than Pulp and Blur, while bizarre, second-grade bands like Shed 7 and Suede are almost as big as Oasis in Europe.

When the history of Britpop is written, the movement's actual death should be recorded as November 1995. That was when the sluggish heavy metal magazine Roar relaunched as a Britpop title. If that sort of switch can take place then, whatever it was that Britpop meant, it didn't mean it any longer. At that point, The Face decided to slash acres of Britpop coverage from its January 1996 issue and the editor, Richard Benson, tried to bury what little remained. These days you can buy "Fuck Britpop" T-shirts in HMV. Like they almost said in Withnail And I: "When you can buy hippie wigs in Woolworth's, the Sixties are over."

For the marketeers, however, the fun has only just started. Once something kicks off underground, it takes a certain amount of time to reach the mainstream of youth culture. Then, just when it's getting safe and recognisable, adland starts to pick up on it. Inevitably it's the fashion and youth brands that do it first. Gradually, however, the older, fatter marketing directors begin to notice what their children are doing. They begin to ponder that this might be quite jolly. Five years after it's over, they start looking at putting it in their own advertising.

"With acid house, it took about three years from the movement breaking out for advertisers such as Tango and Embassy Regal to start incorporating its images into adverts," says Mark Ratcliffe, head of adland youth consultancy Murmur. "After that, the images began to permeate ads for more conservative products, so that now, virtually everyone has a rave soundtrack and those weird, trippy visuals." As if to underline Ratcliffe's point, Gordon's Gin has launched an old-school Acid House style ad for the first time in the brand's history - and ten years after acid house happened. It will be interesting to see if they pick up on speed garage and the happy hardcore revival in 2007.

This pattern of trickle-down - from the style leaders to the early adopters to the mass market - means that we've only just begun on new British images. Mini and Penguin may be the first mainstream advertisers to pick up on it, but they certainly won't be the last. In fact, Books etc is considering a huge in-store "celebration" of new British writing complete, no doubt, with Mod targets and Union Jacks.

Of course, the tragedy is that when it started in 1993/4, Britpop took the two greatest youth movements the British had ever invented - Mod and Punk - and blended them together into something genuinely exciting. Within seconds, however, corporate rock started donning the Union Jack and it became a rockers' symbol. They seemed to think that the plodding nonsense of the Who's last gasp years were somehow Modish instead of the actual reason Punk had to blow everything away.

I suppose, though, that seeing as the movement was strangled by the lumbering corporate monstrosity of the music industry, we shouldn't be surprised that another one has picked up its Union Jack suit in the name of commercialism. As this feelgood factor continues, we'll see it everywhere. But, hey, take a risk. Be the first in your neighbourhood with a Fuck Britpop T- shirt.