Peter York On Ads: Don't stand and bleat, look for your inner wolf
Royal Bank Of Scotland
Sunday 25 March 2007
Where d'you stand on bourgeois individualism? I think it's a juvenile disorder myself. More than that, I think the ruling classes encourage it in the young - rather in the way vaccines encourage early modest infections - so that most of them are ready for practical conformity on everything that matters by the age of 30. Wealth redistri- bution ("the market will decide"), equal opportunities ("talent will out"), positive discrimination ("deeply patronising") and so forth.
But the glorious imagery of bourgeois individualism and polite, safe bohemias remains. Not least because it helps sell goods and services to Western youth. In The Conquest of Cool, the brilliant Thomas Frank describes how, far from appropriating "subversive" youth culture after the event, Madison Avenue actually manufactured great tranches of its symbolism and rhetoric in the 1960s. Rebellion was the best-selling tool ever invented.
And on and on advertising goes in the 21st century, helping you locate your immortal soul, your glorious spark of difference - because you're worth it. How many commercials have you seen lauding your ability to zig when they say zag, to think the errant unthinkable thought and to wear something singular, yet gorgeous, which shows off your youthful advantages? When Dove tells bigger women they're special and brave, defying norms of beauty, they're appealing to the same needs. You're special, so special.
Amazing then that in the real new world - the extraordinary double-digit growth economies of Asia - young people aren't bothered about all that. Those appeals to individualism and nursery rebellion don't cut very deep in those shiny, new cities.
When I first went to Japan in the 1980s, a standard tourist attraction was the nice girls and boys who'd gather to put on Western rebellion outfits - panto punks and Goths and so forth - have a ritual dance and an even more ritualised bloodless fight in a public square, then put their school uniforms back on and go home. The clothes were fun, the underlying ideas were utterly meaningless, lost in translation. What mattered was education and ambition: getting ahead.
Now there are New Econo- mies across Asia blazing away, you see Asian family values translated into the modern world without much evidence that any of them will ever produce a new generation of, say, Joe Strummer types. Was there ever an Asian local parallel to Mockneyism or Shoreditch? That's why advertising in Asia has to catch the glorious moment of achievement in a different, altogether less perverse, way.
When Western advertising creatives want to make a point about individualism they usually reach for the sheep. We all know sheep are mindless bundles of wool. They follow the flock, untroubled by diversity issues and thousands have been sacrificed to make a point.
RBS, the dynamically resolute Scottish bank, has marshalled a few hundred more for its latest current account spectacular. There they are, getting off buses, crossing Big City streets, padding along office corridors and getting into lifts, looking at baggage carousels and contemporary art exhibitions. It's hugely clichéd, but with high production values, so it's fun to watch. (In one office they stare at a whiteboard with an Orwellian injunction "Follow, don't lead".)
The music track rattles away with a jazzy version of "Who's afraid of the big bad wolf?" and then the voiceover gets going. I'd love to say he sounded like Taggart, but he's an altogether milder kind of Scot. The general drift is that current account customers are altogether sheep-like. They wait. They put up with things. And the banks - the bad banks - reckon on their inertia.
Stop bleating, he says. And a brave, divergent sheep makes a break for it. He trots along a corridor to salvation. The answer is to switch to RBS, the No 1 Customer Service, and they'll welcome you with £100.
Marvellous then that this should be the week when Lord Turnbull accuses the Chancellor of Stalinism. And marvellous, too, that RBS can show its innate sense of fun by insisting that all its employees bank at RBS as a condition of employment.
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