Peter York On Ads: How to put your money where your mouth is

Click to follow
The Independent Online

We North London bien pensant types do our best, we really do. And what thanks do we get? The everlasting enmity of sarky tabloid journalists who talk about Hampstead's bleeding hearts and Primrose Hill's showbiz liberals. In America, liberal is now an official McCarthyite word for people who do unAmerican activities. Just watch Fox News or listen to the shock jocks. They're all liberal-bashing, painting an imaginary world of hypocrites with more money than sense who are soft on terrorists and delinquents and want to steal the petrol out of decent Americans' SUVs. And we know how the right-wing front organisations and their websites work on high-profile Iraq invasion opponents like The Dixie Chicks or Sarandon and Robbins.

The implication is always that posh perverse pointy heads run the show and that Middle America and Middle Britain - the 1970s "silent majority" - don't get a look in. It's all down to the 1960s, when those people were off on the hippie trail and decent folk were down mines or apprentice accountants.

But anyone who's had the faintest sniff of serious money or political power will tell you that both are dominated - here and everywhere - by people who aren't remotely liberal or bien pensant. The ardent tree-huggers, Africa savers, underclass arts foundations and the rest remain a minority everywhere. But increasingly visible. Look at the world's Rich Lists and ask who here has Hampstead sentiments? Russian oligarchs? American bankers? European car and pharmaceutical families? China's New Rich? I don't think so.

The world's richest man, Bill Gates (and his Microsoft partner Paul Allen) go about philanthropy in interesting ways. He has big ideas and you live in hope. But for the most part rich liberals, comfortably off and funny as any contradictory people are - and I love making fun of their clothes and houses and language - mostly remain on the nursery slopes of serious money and power. We may think the cause-loving Sting's terribly rich but there are thousands of utterly unknown bankers and German Mittelstand business inheritors way richer than him. The American 1990s bestseller Bobos in Paradise was underneath it all, a book with a political agenda, to sustain the idea of liberal dominance and tell you you lived in an oppressive climate of political correctness.

In advertising, lots of brands and campaigns use the style of liberal luvvie-dom and conflate it with Cool (which is morally blank, so long as the art direction is OK). But there are very few built around an ethical principle.

John Lewis is one, because of its ownership principle. The Co-op is another. In last week's TV coverage of accelerated global warming the Co-op got massive credits for its eco-friendly offices in Manchester. It was heated and cooled by solar panels, it had low-energy screens and, according to the spokesman, it barely emitted a trace of CO2.

The Co-op is a curious thing. That 19th-century history, its role as part of the working-class movement, the food shops with their divvies, the undertakers and the building society. All part of a mostly vanished world of class solidarity that belongs with, say, the Workers' Educational Association. And certainly not luvvie liberals.

But then there's the bank and the various Co-op ethical funds whose statements come on re-cycled paper. The Co-op bank sells itself to a new, wider audience through big ideas, not class identification. In the new Co-op commercial, a variety of types tell you about their preoccupations - human rights; the destruction of nature - and their feeling that they can make a difference. They've obviously keen to play against type. There's not a whiff of Sting or Bianca Jagger, of triumphant or luvvie-dom showing. There's a sweetly dippy-looking girl in a mac saying she wants to change the world, a Ray Winstone-ish Essex Costa del Crime type with a gold neckchain and beardlet; a sort of Bet Lynch old-showgirl type; a lived-in woman in a caravan and a mixed-race boy in sports kit. And what they're all saying is "I'm only one person but I can make a difference, all it takes is to stand up". And then of course, they all do. "The only high street bank with a customer-led ethical policy" is the sign-off for this gallery of citizen activists. The whole thing - and here's the bit that'll be remembered - involves these principled types standing in painterly silhouette against delicious English countryside of precisely the kind the Diggers and Levellers were on about, and all those anonymous bankers actually own.