Peter York On Ads: The bricks are gold-plated but The Voices tell of doom

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The Independent Online

The German economy is built on metal. Metal bashed into cars and high-priced white goods. And traditional science. We don't have New Technology thoughts about Germany.

But the British economy is still built on brick. It's all made from the imputed value of millions of homes, big and small. Mostly quite old. On the extraordinarily inflated values of all that rubble is predicated most of how we feel about the world, our ability to raise money, and every other dinner party conversation. People spend more freely when their homes seem more valuable.

And the recent history of British neighbourhoods comes down to cycles of regeneration and gentrification and changing values (you always want to see those places where house prices stand still or actually go down - the hopeless dumps where you can buy a whole street for £20,000).

Making a TV series about the '80s in the '90s, I found myself interviewing people I'd always suspected existed, the semi-professional property developer - middle-class women from, say, Clapham who'd earnt more from fixing up and selling on their own homes, to exploit the gentrifying flows of big cities, than they had from their day jobs. And I couldn't help wondering what would have happened if that energy had been put to work building new businesses instead of gold-plating bricks.

What has happened at the other end of all these property manoeuvres? For the last 20 years or so, there's been something called equity release. It's a financial services weasel phrase for putting your house back in hock to pay for a jolly retirement. You stay in your home and they pay you a combination of lump sums and income. It's a big market now among retirees with high expectations, disappointing pensions and a home that seems impossibly valuable. But there's a downside, a welter of downsides - which conspire to make the long (60 seconds), ultra-conventional equity release ad from Norwich Union sound surreally conflicted.

We've got the 60-something couple in their sunlit garden going through the old photos. And coming to the blank pages. But there are lots of bright holiday snaps to fill them because they're doing equity release. Life's never been so good because the house they worked for is working for them.

That's when The Voices start. "There may be nothing left," they say (the tacit of this sentence is, "when you croak it"). "Your inheritance will be reduced." And "tax and welfare benefits may be affected" (meaning you won't get any because the taxman feels iffy about this kind of spendthrift.)

All those warnings on the soundtrack rather than the usual tiny white writing make for a very odd ad indeed. And for a nation built on Victorian brick and financial services, it's depressingly like our own Interior Monologue.