TV ads used to be an art form. Now they plumb the depths of inanity

Stars are wasting their talents, and viewers are wasting their time

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One British business, at least, seems to have boomed in the recession; television advertising. The new mass of commercial satellite channels, the lengthening of ad-breaks in prime-time and the addition of “bumpers” (sponsors’ idents at either end of the break) all mean that viewers are bombarded by more sales pitches than ever before.

But as with the multiplicity of new channels, more does not mean better. British TV ads used to be the world’s cleverest, with directors like Alan Parker and Ridley Scott turning out mini-masterpieces that made us laugh, sometimes cry – and certainly buy. Now the great majority are cheap, banal and formulaic, playing on our financial insecurities, treating us like children and usually wasting the famous faces and voices they employ.

One principal on which all advertising people agree is that tiny companies generally wish to be seen as large corporations, while the larger and more faceless the corporation, the greater its desire to be seen as a friendly neighbourhood business, staffed by lovely people whose only desire is to “help”. Hence what one might call the Corner Shop Syndrome, now employed in TV ads by literally dozens of faceless utilities and mega-retailers in pursuit of our dwindling stores of cash.

It started with the compassionate Cockney voice-over for Britain’s greediest utility: “At British Gas, we understand how having your power cut off can turn your world upside-down…” A pity they didn’t “understand” how constantly jacking up their prices might have a similar effect.

Now, compassionate voice-overs feature in just about every big-company ad, all using the same formula: “At Nationwide, we…”, “At Lloyds TSB, we…”, “At Tesco, we…”, “At Burger King, we…”, “At American Express, we…”, “At Costa, we…”, “At Sainsbury’s Bank, we…”, “At Co-Op banking, we…”, “At Shell, we…”, “At Homebase, we…”, “At Asda, we…”, “At Currys/PC World, we…”, “At B&Q, we…’’, “At Halfords, we…”, “At Crown, we…”, ‘At eHarmony, we…”, “At Yakult, we…”, “At Wickes, we…”, “At Lexus, we…”, “At Esso, we…”, “At Morrisons, we…”, “At Amigo loans, we…”. Amazingly, the list still continues to grow.

Until the early1980s, there were TV commercials specifically aimed at children, which came on around tea-time and grew in intensity during the build-up to Christmas. Now such commercials are seen all around the clock, showing that – like the Government itself – the advertising industry believes the best way to control and manipulate us is to treat us like not-very-bright children.

Back in the early 1960s, the great advertising and design guru Misha Black announced that British consumers had become too grown-up for products to be sold with cartoon mascots like the Bisto Kids and Tate & Lyle sugar’s Mister Cube.  Black would be amazed by the infantilisation of today’s TV ads with their talking, dancing, singing dogs, bears, bumblebees, grasshoppers, meerkats, donkeys, hedgehogs, hippos, dinosaurs, tree-sloths, squirrels, foxes, pandas, duck-billed platypuses, goldfish, popcorn, butter-pats, frankfurters, cheese-strings, Scotch eggs, spoons, tomatoes, pepperami, hamburgers, tortilla chips, M&M’s, cupcakes, cabbages, brussels sprouts, toilet-cleaners, houses, crash-test dummies, traffic-lights, manhole-covers, parking ticket dispenser.

A latter development has been to endow even the most mundane pharmaceutical products with human emotions, as in “Nurofen understands”.

It would be hard to find greater insults to our intelligence, but TV ads have done it with the cartoon people who increasingly proliferate: the little men and women with Pinocchio noses who represent Lloyds-TSB customers; the Muppet-like crones touting odious Wonga’s pay-day loans; Dolmio sauces’ caricature Italians; worst of all, the grinning, thumbs-up minikins of the British Gas “team” who are shown abseiling into our homes within microseconds of being called and who make power-cuts and burst boilers look such jolly fun.

Advertising has traditionally been the province of young whizz kids who can mesmerise clients, Don Draper-style, into accepting the wackiest campaigns. That has not changed – only that most of today’s young whizz kids tend to be semiliterate morons puffed up with their own cleverness and badly in need of squashing by a Monty Python-sized foot.

Hence the decision by Cadbury’s to drop the “glass and a half of full cream milk” slogan which had served it well since the early 20th century and replace it by a gorilla playing drums to a Phil Collins soundtrack. That has since been trumped by the Wispa chocolate bar commercial showing five youthful morons dragging a giant inflatable figure in a bobble hat to the top of a mountain. “Wispa … time well-misspent” ran the deathless punchline.

Speaking of dud copy, there should be an annual award for the year’s most pretentious, meaningless, duplicitous (or all three together) product slogan. Current nominees: “EDF – feel better energy”; “British Gas – looking after your world”; “Peugeot 208 – let your body drive”; “Sky – believe in better”; “Lexus – we don’t stop until we create amazing”. And after a climate-gone-crazy freak blizzard or flash monsoon, who does not thrill to hear that “the weather does lots of different things … and so does the Post Office”.

As for the wasting of talent, where is one to begin? At present, our best hope of a televisual encounter with Victoria Wood, one of Britain’s true comedy greats, is in her voice-over for Dyson household-appliances. And who is going to protect the talented Martin Clunes from Churchill Insurance’s boring bulldog, or stop the brilliant Stephen Fry donning silly Chinese clobber oufits to push Virgin Media?

Whereas TV ads once used to increase a celebrity’s popularity, nowadays the opposite tends to be the case For example, Sir Michael Gambon, arguably Britain’s greatest actor, may have earned a fortune as the voice HSBC (“The world’s local bank…”; “At HSBC, we…” etc etc) but can one ever take him seriously again? Or Julie Walters again after “Lloyds TSB – for the journey”? Or laugh at Paul Whitehouse again after his leaden monologues for Aviva insurance (yet another series just begun)? Or admire Lenny Henry’s straight acting talent after the limp doggerel he recited for Premier Inns? Or listen to a word Michael Parkinson says after those creepy cheapo ads for Sun-Life’s Over Fifties insurance: “Interviewing celebrities on my chat show gave me a host of memories – but you want to leave your loved ones more than just memories…”

It isn’t all bad news in TV adland, however The surest sign of a celebrity career on the skids is for that celebrity to pop up in a downmarket commercial: Martine McCutcheon for Activia yoghurt, Patsy Kensit for Weight Watchers or Gok Wan for Bespoke Offers.com

So let’s all look forward to Jeremy Clarkson’s debut for Autotrader.

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