Budgets substantial enough to buy most of the clubs in the Endsleigh League have been lavished on mini-epics

Jim White ON SATURDAY
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The Independent Online
Drawing breath was hard enough at half-time on Wednesday night as Liverpool and Newcastle exhausted themselves in the scramble to hand the championship on a plate to Manchester United. But, despite the need for refreshment, only the foolish would have relinquished their seats in front of the television and disappeared kitchenwards in search of a cup of tea. To have done so would have been to miss the great new attraction of Sky's football coverage: the ad break. By chance, over the last fortnight, half a dozen glamorous, glossy and glittering commercials have made their bows on Sky. And they all have one thing in common: football.

Endless hours of creative brain-power, sufficient footage of film to envelope Wembley and budgets substantial enough to buy most of the clubs in the Endsleigh League have been expended on mini-epics so astonishing they make Braveheart appear small-time (actually the commercial for the high street tandoori at our local cinema makes Braveheart look unambitious, but that's another story.) Least effective of the new attractions is the one in which a woman, driven to fury by the manner in which her lover prefers to lavish his attention on a match on the telly rather than her, starts to throw his possessions out of the window. He's finally moved to stop her when she tries to defenestrate his new Puma boots. The plot may be more cliched than an Alan Shearer half-time analysis.

Better is Coca-Cola's unlikely claim that the entire world is as obsessed by its product as it is by football. The ad works though, if only because cunningly cut actuality footage of spectators around the world reminds those of us used to the game at home being played out in front of silent, polite family audiences that, in Turkey for instance, a vibrant, bouncing, fire-cracking crowd is all part of the spectacle. Such a documentary style is evident in Carlsberg's commercial showcasing the athletic talents of entrants to the company's pub football cup. Not since Danny Baker's much lamented series which brought us Sunday league games from Hackney Marshes have beer bellies and football been brought together with such devotion.

And then there's the two new blockbusters for boots. First off is Nike's surreal update of the old Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sketch in which good took on evil in a representative cricket match (you remember it: Adolf Hitler's bowling action should have been reported to Lord's). In the Nike version Maldini, Cantona and Wright defend the beautiful game against a useful looking squad of nasties including Beelzebub, Mephistopheles and Satan (Roy Keane was clearly busy on the day of filming). Finally there's Reebok's astonishing celeb-fest starring Vic, Bob, Sting, Sir Dickie and the rest all drooling about how they would love to be in Ryan Giggs's boots. Particularly, apparently, if the boots were stuffed in Jimmy Hill's mouth at the time.

This bloom of footie commercials is an unexpected by-product of Sky's Premier stranglehold. With the guaranteed delivery of a couple of million football fans, plus the slacker rules regulating advertising on satellite, it becomes worthwhile to spend a bit to lure this captive audience. No point, though, simply running standard sales pitches for the kind of item which might appeal to football fans. The way to the fans' pocket appears to be to hitch your product to the coat-tails of the game itself, to leech off the increasing glamour of the thing and hope that you become glamorous by association.

And the really odd thing is that it all becomes circular. A sort of arms race develops among companies seeking to out-do their rivals: spend more, look better by spending more and then tell everyone how much you have spent. A whole marketing strategy - a sort of junior Hollywood hype operation - is based around the cost and scale of the ad. Tabloid back pages become willing accomplices in delivering acres of free publicity about how expensive your new ad is in the weeks before it is unveiled. And of course the matches, crowds and most particularly the players featured in your mega-budget epic become even more glamourous as a result; the commercial for Reebok, for instance, works as much to promote the cause of Giggs as it does his boots. And as for Eric Cantona, he has become the first footballer ever to have his image entirely created by an advertising agency. Apart from the occasional court appearance, the only public utterances the player makes these days is scripted by the spin doctors at Nike.

As yet no company has been brave enough to do it, but we will soon reach the stage when an outfit will decide to promote itself via the endorsement of Iain Dowie. With the application of plenty of money, and a wonderfully lit, beautifully directed commercial played out on Sky, he could be positioned in the public imagination as a sexy player and thus the boots he wears be regarded as the ones to be seen in. Well, perhaps not Iain Dowie, but you get my drift.

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