Peter York On Ads: Ah, for the days when the smell of teen spirit was not deodorant

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The Independent Online

Do young people wash more than their predecessors? Did early Glam Rockers, for instance, just paint over the dirt? Twenty years ago young people counted themselves lucky to have access to a bathroom. There were no bathrooms at all in the North until well into the 1990s, when the new Leeds Harvey Nichols led the trend. In large families there would be a Friday night bath in a large tin on the hearth (you will have seen this in films starring Richard Harris or Tom Courtenay). So different from today when every child has his or her own bathroom or wetroom and a complete set of designer everything.

My spies among the young tell me they're fantastically keen to steam-clean every last crevice. And they use masses of products and very advanced appliances. And that's only the boys. Every four years there's a PR story that men are spending staggering sums on "grooming" products – 10p a week now and rising. Hair straighteners and eyeliner are popular and they're keen to moisturise.

Why then do the young look so amazingly dull? The answer is that they're losing their edge precisely because they've got things. Until the mid-Eighties, young English people were infinitely sharper, more focused and more interestingly dressed than their American counterparts because they didn't have all the US comforts and choices. American teenagers, products of their parents' post-war prosperity, had a prodigal dose of stuff to distract and dilute them. Young Brits with their bad teeth and ropey skin were focused on clothes, music and dancing – more like black America – because that was all they had, and they became world leaders.

The one compensation for young Brits in America – faced with that intimidating wall of money and confidence – was to clock how very behind they were in the things we knew mattered. The English would go to New York clubs and report things they'd given up years ago.

But regular washing and iPods could be blanding us out. iPod conversations are always idiotic, with two main themes, a) number of tracks and b) capability of onward transmission and amplification . What kind of conversation is that for a young person to be having? Too much soap – is that why they look so boring? Paul Weller's son, Nathaniel, who looks commendably like a cross between Pete Burns and Lara Croft, meaning nothing like his dad, seems intent on re-creating a sort of early-Eighties London club-world. But the key figures of that era lived in squats; how exactly are you going to re-create that, Nat Weller?

The new Lynx commercial seems to be focused on washing too, which is a worry. The glory of Lynx was the sheer awfulness of the product – a chemical spray just one step up from air-freshener – and its profoundly comic role in helping adolescent boys who wanted to get their legs over.

The only way was up. The Lynx commercials had vaunting ambitions because Unilever depended entirely on them to create the brand and turn the embarrassment to advantage. But now they've made a line extension – some kind of soapy shower gel thing – Snake Peel Manwash – "For when you've been filthy". The brand stretch looks painful.

The commercial is oddly dull (South American setting for a start). Young man runs naked from his lover's bed as her angry family burst in. But he escapes by washing under the lawn sprinkler with Snake Peel scrub and ends up next to a new woman on a sun-lounger. The animating Lynx theme was one of sexualising the hopeless with a quick blast of fake pheromones. But Snake Peel seems to be about atonement, which is miles less interesting. And it has affected the work. (Memo to Soho: Mexico isn't interesting and Mexican hip-hop music-overs aren't the answer to life's problems. Better to pile in behind Master Weller's home-grown initiative.)

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