Better Mona Lisa than Tiggywimps

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The Independent Online
Earlier this week you might have heard the suavely mischievous voice of Laurie Taylor introducing the results of a competition on Radio 4's Afternoon Shift which had been designed to find out which ads most annoyed their listeners.

I suppose this is an exercise that only the BBC could undertake, being one of the last big organisations that are not beholden to advertisers.

It isn't a new idea to make fun of advertisements, of course, but in the past it has usually been assumed that we always had to make fun of ads from abroad - as if only foreigners were capable of making crass advertising. And it was always assumed that we had to do it on TV and have the permission of some whingeing and nudging pundit such as Chris Tarrant or Clive James before we, too, were allowed to look down our noses at their ads. It took Laurie Taylor to alert me to the fact that just as many of our homegrown ads are crass and that you can say so on the radio.

You can't exactly imagine ITV or Channel 4 organising a "Which Ad Do You Hate The Most?" contest - it would be like the Radio Times organising a "Worst Delia Smith Recipe" contest or Prime Minister's Question Time having a prize for the straightest answer.

Anyway, there was a great groundswell of opinion against ads for insurance and ads for cars - the new Peugeot 406 TV commercial seemed to irritate most people - and nobody seemed much to like the new British Airways Club Class commercial in which a sleeping middle-aged businessman suddenly becomes a moustachioed baby slumbering in the arms of a caring air stewardess. (I am not sure they are right here. I have always held that air stewardesses are practically indistinguishable from nannies, and for good reason. When we get into planes and are strapped into our seats, we become like babies in high chairs and start behaving as such, waving our little arms and demanding another brandy, or asking for a rug for our knees, so it is small wonder that the stewardesses treat us like more or less endearing children. Food critics who criticise in-flight meals on gourmet grounds have missed the point - it's all nursery food, with play packs of kiddies' cutlery to help eat it. I think British Airways is to be congratulated on being the first airline to admit openly that all passengers are children and should be treated as such.)

The ad that seemed to attract the most venom was the BT commercial in which Bob Hoskins drifts round the room invisibly, smiling like a well- paid dumpling and occasionally saying "It's Good To Talk".

For some reason this had the Afternoon Shift listeners in stitches of fury. Odd, really, because the sole object of the ad - apart of course from making BT even more money - is to bring people closer together and to remind us of all those people we should be phoning.

Maybe that's why people hate it. Because of guilt. Not just because it's patronising, and twee and cosy, and sickeningly sentimental, but also because it is guilt-inducing as well, and we just hate Bob Hoskins for reminding us about it.

In which case, I don't hold out much hope for the new Royal Mail ads which do the same thing for letter-writing, and encourage us in the belief that almost everyone everywhere needs a letter from you.

I can't remember the slogan that the Royal Mail has chosen ("It's nice to write", "Use the post for the most", "Between you, me and the next post"), but I think it will take more than a slogan to revive the art of letter-writing and turn back the tide of junk mail.

When it comes to ads, anyway, we all react emotionally. I am on the side of the Royal Mail and against BT, not for any logical reason but because I think the Royal Mail's first-class greeting stamps over the past two years have had the best designs in the world (those 12 smiling designs, from Stan Laurel to the "Mona Lisa", were the best ever, though I am looking forward to the new cartoon designs due out soon) and because I hated the way Maureen Lipman's "Beatty" TV ads were so suspiciously like, but not nearly so good as, a Mike Nichols/ Elaine May Jewish-mother-on-the-phone sketch from the early Sixties.

In any case, the ads I really hate the most - and which were not even mentioned by the Afternoon Shift listeners - are those which are dreamt up by us, the public. Yes, I mean the stomach-churning Valentine's Day messages that Tiggywimps sends to Chuggerlugs this day every year.

But I had better stop there. My employer, for whom these things are very profitable, might be listening in. In which case it's bad to talk.