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

Share

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Volunteer your expertise as Trustee for The Society of Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Promising volunteer Trustee op...

Email Designer

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Psychology Teacher

£110 - £130 per hour: Randstad Education Reading: Psychology Teacher needed fo...

Food Technology Teacher

£85 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Randstad Education are curren...

Day In a Page

Read Next
So far Ebola has caused 2,600 fatalities and infected more than 5,300 people  

To stop Ebola killing thousands more, we need doctors who are willing to put their lives on the line

Peter Popham
Palestinian students are seen through a damaged sitting in a classroom at a goverment school in the Shejaiya neighbourhood of Gaza City on September 14, 2014  

After the horrors of Operation Protective Edge, Palestine's children are finally returning to school

Yara Hawari
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week