Hermione Eyre: Tossertastic! But they have a point ...

Everyone my age knows someone who spends more than they should on clothes, bags and other fripperies
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The Independent Online

The sight of a political party getting down with the kids is always embarrassing. Instead of staying true to themselves and doing a gentle little waltz round the dancefloor, they try desperately hard to keep up with the times by heading to the mosh pit and crowd surfing. It is all a bit unbecoming. Labour did it before the last election when they circulated, via text message, the loutish slogan: "Don't give a xxxx for last orders? Vote Labour."

And the Conservative Party has just done it with its new viral campaign, which uses an allegorical character to warn against personal debt. Nothing wrong with that: Prudence, an elegant lady often pictured looking sagely in the mirror, has personified financial forbearance since classical times. The only problem is that in the new modern Tories' allegory, Prudence has been replaced by a nasty, greedy little man called "Tosser".

Yes, you had it right: "Tosser" is the key word in a Conservative-funded personal debt-minimising initiative aimed at young people - presumably young people who can't keep their wallets in their trousers. Or can't stop whacking their plastic. I don't know what kind of subliminal level Karmarama, the ad agency that created the initiative, was working on - but it sure hasn't made the Tory faithful happy. On the Conservative Home website, a blogger called "Winchester Whisperer" piped up: "Surely they could have thought of a less offensive name?"

The naughty word is all over the interactive campaign (at www.sort-it.co.uk) like a rash: in the video where "Tosser" persuades a young man to spend money he doesn't have on trainers. On the bit where it invites you to "Take the Tosser test", to see how vulnerable you are to overspending. And on the "Tosser Map" of the UK - which simply shows that there are "Tossers" in pretty every much county you can think of. Slightly baffling, that one. Perhaps it will come into its own further down the line; there are five more instalments of the ad coming, you know. Tossertastic!

The red flag of vulgarity is flying high all over the website, in other words. Presumably they think it is the only thing we young folk respond to. We are famously impenetrable, after all, with our caps and our hoodies and our iPods welded into our ears. We notice nothing, but nothing, unless it is rude. Preferably as rude as possible, but a slightly weedy, third-division rude word like "tosser" will still do the trick. Oh them Conservatives. They got us kids all worked out.

Looking beyond the style of the initiative, though, its content has something to be said for it. The issue of personal debt is crucially important to young people, many of whom are crippled by expensive repayments for things they frankly could have done without.

Everyone my age knows someone who spends more than they should on clothes, bags, and other fripperies. A university acquaintance had a weakness for finery that cost her dear. Every time we saw her she was wearing more splendid clothes. We knew third-hand that she was struggling financially, but it was hard to broach the subject. "Are you sure you can afford that?" is not considered an appropriate way to greet someone at a party. "You look fabulous" is generally thought to be more the thing to say. In the end, with debts of over £30,000, she couldn't afford her rent and had to move back in with her parents, aged 26.

The "Tosser" campaign aims, by personifying material greed as a naff yuppie, to stigmatise needless spending. If it helps just one person to avoid the fate of my acquaintance, it will have been worthwhile. But the people who will be saved by the inane "jargon buster" section, which helpfully informs you that "a percentage" means "one in a hundred", are few and far between. Far more people will be turned off by its grating jollity: "The geezers (and geezerettes) at uSwitch will help you compare prices on a whole range of goods and services ... the National Debtline posse live and breathe helpfulness..."

The financial services industry has never been keener to recruit new customers. Every week, I receive letters from banks congratulating me because I have been approved for this or that credit card. I once even received a mocked-up blank cheque which, I was assured, I could spend exactly as I wished. With such a strong tide of debt, a marketing campaign that goes the other way is welcome.

There's no doubt that this is a self-serving Conservative enterprise. Vilifying big-spending yuppies allows the party to break with its past; while telling people that it is up to them to control their own spending reinforces the core Tory value of personal responsibility. When a party spokesman said "This is not a political campaign", I decided it was just that. But, as with so many things in life, two things can be true at once: it can do the Tories good, but it can also do the spendaholics some good too; it may be a cynical exercise, and an altruistic one as well.

h.eyre@independent.co.uk

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