The anti-ad and the very, very cheap pitch

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The Independent Online
FOR A profession that specialises in selling and persuading, the advertising industry has done a famously terrible job on itself. Ad agencies are rather like a hugely successful dating agency run by someone with halitosis who has made no friends.

Last week, they made more enemies. The viewers' complaints body, the Independent Television Commission, criticised a commercial for Carling Black Label, in which a stout Brit on holiday beats the Krauts to the sun- loungers while the Dambusters theme booms out.

Meanwhile, Lord Healey, the former Labour Chancellor, was raising eyebrows by participating in a jokey advertisement for a new debit card. And it has also just been announced that Nanette Newman will no longer be the public face of Fairy Liquid, in favour of more socially progressive commercials showing men washing up.

In the Black Label, Fairy Liquid and Lord Healey examples, the three standard controversies about advertising - apart from lying, which we will take as read - are conveniently represented: racism, sexism and celebrity endorsement. So, for a few days, I switched off the television programmes, and concentrated on the messages of the bits in between.

The first category I examined was personality peddling. And, here, the Lord Healey commercial does emerge as one of the most fascinating for many years. After demonstrating the charm of the new bank card, the socialist baron passes a branch of Threshers, outside which he raises his eyebrows, in comic tribute to the wine shop controversy involving Norman Lamont.

Discussion has so far centred on the fact that the politician felt able to accept the assignment, but the real point is what the advertiser has felt it prudent to do. A commercial for financial services with a former Labour chancellor as pundit, and an ex-Tory chancellor as butt, is surely an illustration of the collapse of standard political prejudices. Think what Thatcherite ministers might have made in the Eighties of the man who called in the IMF selling bank cards. But now they would be laughed at if they tried. Whether or not he finds it funny, John Smith should smile every time he sees Lord Healey's ad.

Another intriguing famous-face commercial is Paul Merton's for Imperial Leather soap. Sending up a regular soap powder pitch, Merton, in white coat, washes the face of one twin in ordinary soap and her sister's in that of the manufacturer whose fee he is taking. The latter comes up looking years younger, until a public-spirited whistle-blower in the laboratory points out that the demonstration is a trick.

I would guess that, at the agency which dreamt it up, the Merton commercial was described as an 'anti-advertisement'. A performer associated with one of television's edgiest satirical shows, Have I Got News For You, would send up the whole business.

Yet there is something weird about this idea. Earlier pioneers of anti-art - in fiction, theatre, painting - were not worried if they alienated audiences. Indeed, most practitioners hoped to. But this anti-ad is presumably not intended to stop us buying the soap. The calculation is that the participation of the young comedian will somehow make the venerable bathroom bar seem hip and satirical by association.

Whether such commercial excursions undermine the satirical edge of the performers when they return to their main arena is a matter for the conscience of Mr Merton and, indeed, for those of Jonathan Ross ('Loads of Value' Lenor), Helen Lederer (Finish dish- washer tablets), Angus Deayton (everything), and other once-counter-cultural figures who now cheerfully lean over the counter.

Apart from star barkers, the other set of ad characters I collected was stereotypes. In a historic breakthrough, the beachball comedian Mike McShane, plugging Air Canada's in- flight cuisine, becomes the first fat person ever to advertise food, even if tangentially. But this lead seems unlikely to be followed. The characters in chocolate ads will remain thin and clear-skinned.

If Fairy Liquid does replace Nanette Newman with male dish-washers - although the world may not yet be ready for 'Daddy, why do you have such soft hands?' - then it will be joining Oxo in exploding the myth of the nuclear family. A recent pitch for the stock cube showed a working mum coming home to find her family had eaten all the meat. But, generally, the British ad family is the one you hear about in speeches at the Tory party conference. 'I think they liked them,' breathes a relieved mum, watching anxiously as her charges wolf down new Nestle Multi Cheerios.

The British ad family is also routinely Caucasian. Non-white characters feature only in those 'life's rich tapestry' films - currently much-favoured by building societies, insurance companies and airlines - in which the point being made is one of diversity. A woman in a sari is among those falling through the air on to symbolic bounce-mats in the Halifax ad. A Hispanic tap-dancer features in the sell for Standard Life, which stresses that there is no such thing as a standard life. The bottom line of these commercials is, in fact, 'We'd take money from anyone', but the message is made to seem more spiritually edifying.

The racial controversy over the Carling Black Label Dambusters spoof seems very odd given the current campaign for the Churchill insurance company, which includes a slavering bulldog and a military march on the soundtrack. If it is wrong to fan anti-German feeling to sell lager, then surely it is equally incorrect to use jingoism to sell insurance, given that it is only an accident of nomenclature that links the company with Britain's war leader.

Roaring snobbery has always been a feature of British advertising: the suggestion that social uplift will follow if you pick a certain packet. For example, Croft Original, along with the After Eight and Bendick's brands of thin mints, have rarely run a commercial without a butler in it. Despite the alleged social leavening of recent years, Ferrero Rocher still considers it worthwhile to present itself as a very nobby chocolate. 'The ambassador's receptions are noted in society for the host's exquisite taste,' murmurs the voiceover, as plates of the sweets are handed around among the Euro elite. When the sales line speaks of 'good taste', it means not flavour but breeding.

Finally, I looked for indications of economic recovery. In general, the more sophisticated the advertising, the more buoyant the market: campaigns can risk cleverness. So, if I were Kenneth Clarke, I would worry about the number of shrill and simple ads, screaming about cheapness. 'Really really great prices at Going Places,' pleads one travel company. 'The prices are so low, you'll think we've gone MAD,' shouts the discount store Makro. Both Ariel Ultra and Daz White are spending money on urging customers that it is worth paying more for famous names rather than 'supermarket's own brands'.

Still, Kenneth Clarke has the comfort of the example of Lord Healey. If he can't sort out the economy, he might be asked to advertise a credit card in 15 years' time.