Peter York On Ads: Those Euro balls are back to spoil us for Christmas

Ferrero Rocher

Central to our national self-belief is the idea that we're tremendously ironic. Ironic is the catch-all generic for a certain kind of public-school joshing (and that's only the girls, Daisy Donovan and Fi Glover just can't stop themselves); for dramatic understatement in middle-aged, middle-brow theatre and TV drama and, more recently, for spoofy fun. Youngish comedians and TV directors love spoofy fun.

Channel 4 is always doing spoofy fun. There's an unknown white man with a Samuel L Jackson Afro wig, doing a spoofy Alan Partridge - in a 1970s-style chat show - in a programme every week on C4 now. I find myself pre-empting the guests, the set-ups and the jokes. We're all completely trained to do it. The modern comic ironic mode was the intellectual armoury of art schools and cult stud's courses (they've spent so long deconstructing 1970s popular culture, they can spoof it in their sleep).

This ironic, oblique approach is a godsend for British advertising. Brits, historically, haven't really liked being sold to full-on, balls-out. The whole thing was embarrassing, socially grating or emotionally off-pitch. But Americans expect it and they're comfortable with it, which is why so much domestic American advertising is still straightforward pitching - the snake-oil man from the back of the wagon, the deeply sticky emotional appeals to family and country (all the stuff we see as the first refuge of obvious scoundrels).

Big advertisers believed they had to be more oblique to make people love their brands in Britain. So we went in for comedy, far more of it than any other advertising culture on earth. And cleverer comedy too, with lots of spoofing. When advertising cultures collided, the spoofy oblique British way, the hard-sell American one and the often hugely dated sentimental/ sexy/jokey European narrative approach, then you saw culture shock and profound mutual incomprehension. And lashings of British triumphalism. British audiences trained to read the sub-texts started seeing irony when it wasn't there.

Several campaigns provoked whole pub quizzes of debate about whether they really had ironic intent or were just straight up. One crucial campaign was for Shake 'n' Vac, a carpet deodoriser advertised in the 1980s with a crazed housewife who sang as she hoovered. Was it clever - as in spoofy mnemonics - or epically dumb and old- fashioned? It had them falling on the floor in university digs; irony for the humourless.

The other debate was about the ads for Ferrero Rocher, the hazelnut-bearing Euro chocolate balls. Ferrero Rocher commercials, for as long as we've known them, were wildly kitsch aspirational affairs, set in a sort of Sixties Bond film embassy setting. There was a butler type carrying round a tray of the gold-wrapped balls, arranged in a pyramid. There was a smart crowd done up to high heaven. A whole generation can quote you the key line "You're spoiling us, Mr Ambassador". We were convinced it was a spoof; it had to be, didn't it? No British client and agency could have run anything like that straight-faced, even then (but, equally, anyone trained to recognise the ineffable corny tropes of Latin European advertising 25 years ago would know it couldn't have been more serious).

What seems to have happened - I can't swear to it - is that originally the European-made commercial was shown here, just as it was around the world, apparently going down a storm. It took some years before the Rocher people back in Alba recognised that we were laughing ourselves sick. It may have been hurtful but they then asked an agency in London to run with the theme again in the 1990s, this time ironically.

But the new Christmas 2006 Ferrero Rocher commercials have abandoned the embassy altogether, for dancing silhouettes. It's very Bond title sequences, a bit iPod and, for the more mature, a touch of Tales of the Unexpected from Anglia TV. There are people being congenial in silhouette, girls diving and swimming and flying in attractive ways. And all, of course, in Shirley Eaton molten gold. Plus Cilla singing "Something Tells Me". (Cilla hasn't really been a winner in the music stakes compared with the black American divas). The whole thing's as swirly-sweet and old ITV-world Christmas as chocolate balls, the sort of things Catherine Tate's ghastly gran character should adore, but it's redeemed for another smarter generation by the elegant composition and the Bond styling, which is, after all, classic irony.

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