Peter York On Ads: Cherry-lipped boy mountain takes us to the Edge of prejudice

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The Independent Online

Cruel Victorians had their Facebook too – terrible studies of physiognomy based on the wicked – and completely disproven – notion that you could reliably predict character from looks. Early photographs and engravings showed the phizes of lower class and foreign types, pointing out the infallible clues to every kind of moral turpitude.

The fecklessness of the undeserving poor showed up in their "coarse" features and crazed eyes. The acquisitiveness of some racial groups was demonstrated by the nose, the sexual appetites of others by big lips. You'd go to prison now for publishing any of this rubbish. But 19th-century pub bores loved it. "Your typical Irishman," they'd say, "shows his love of stout by the shortness/length/ absence of an upper lip."

This stuff belongs with those 19th-century china phrenology heads showing where key functions are located in the brain. Vicky collectors love them precisely because the science is so comic.

We usually think we're above all that now – not just the duff science thing but for those American sentimental reasons – everybody's beautiful, in their own way. Americans are completely hypocritical about all this, of course. There's no group more body-fascist or lookist than the ambitious US classes. Chubby Brits with wonky teeth – however clever, hard-working or even God-fearing – regularly get monstered by Americans.

Every US self-help book has a section on presentation which trots out research showing that on TV or on a conference platform, it's how you present that matters, not what you actually say. Content isn't king.

The modern equivalent of the 19th-century phiz book is Jerry Springer and his under-powered Brit equivalents Trisha and Jeremy Kyle. The unacknowledged point of these shows is the exotic underclassness of the guests. Most viewers will feel themselves several notches up from them and voyeuristic viewers from the educated, comfortable classes – who never meet people like this unless they do social work – are thoroughly jaw-dropped.

In the '90s, Jerry had freakish characters and freakish themes. There were extraordinary love triangles, battling transsexuals and cartoon-ish hookers. They looked luridly trashy. The Brits just looked sad – skinny, toothless husbands with weepy woman-mountain wives who complained of wife-beating. What combination of diet and drink made a man look like his grandfather in his 30s? And why were all the women so huge? What clues to the life and character could the middle-class voyeur read into their looks?

TV still casts for obvious physical indicators of character and history, and nowhere more than in commercials, where you have to establish characters and roles very fast.

The new advert for Edge – a resource centre for vocational education – is utterly focused on the sad, fat, terrified loser face of a teenage boy being taught to drive by his dad.

Here's somebody who looks like a natural victim, a big baby, with a pale, hairless face, premature double chin and startlingly red lips. Every decision is clearly hell and leaves him wanting to cry. And he ends up driving their little blue car the wrong way up a motorway to the sound of 'King of the Road'. "Are you pushing your kids in the wrong direction?" asks the voiceover.

The idea is that if you think the academic route is wrong for your little darling, can help you. But the sub-text is that if your lad is a cherry-lipped suet mountain, he hasn't got a hope.