Archie Bland: 'Sky may have Sean Bean doing its voice-overs, but ESPN have Steven Berkoff'

The Couch Surfer: "If it were an honest ad, it would show a tubby fella in a Liverpool shirt eating prawn sandwiches"

Sunday 23 October 2011 07:55

It's a reliable rule with adverts, as with people, that whatever they most determinedly say they are, that's what they're not. We all know a guy in accounts with fun cuff links, and a couple of spiritually alert Paulo Coelho readers. And we all "know" that Lynx deodorant means seduction, and Bacardi Breezers mean sophistication, and panty liners mean running through a fountain in white trousers is a totally viable idea.

So it is with football fans. If a sports broadcaster can reassure us that caring too much about the game is a profound expression of belonging and joy rather than a barely sublimated urge to violence, we'll buy whatever they've got on offer. For a long time, the most skilled exponents of this not-very-hard sell have been – of course – Sky Sports, who understand that the way to our wallets is to deploy an actor with a voice like gravel, a portentous script-writer, and a washed-out colour palette that imbues the whole enterprise with heft. It's not really meaning that's imparted in such, but you could definitely call it meaningfulness.

Sky has run this game for years, seeing off competitor after competitor. This year, in Setanta's place, we have Disney's ESPN going toe to toe with Rupert Murdoch's behemoth, and the ding-dong over which will best fake the authenticity with which they hope to elide their corporate roots has been fun to watch.

In the pomposity stakes, at least, the incumbent isn't going to have it all its own way, as the early-season exchanges have made clear. Sky may have Sean Bean, possessor of The Most Authentic Voice In England, but for their opening fixture ESPN had Steven Berkoff.

"This is who we are, this is what we are," he thundered, neglecting to explain exactly what the practical difference is between those two formulations; "It kicks you! Right! In the centre... Of your gut."

And ESPN had plenty more in their locker. Most notable was a promo featuring still more clunky prose poetry, this time delivered by Boys from the Black Stuff star Bernard Hill, and layered over sentimental shots of crowds, goalposts, and branded alarm clocks. "I pledge myself to the Barclays Premier League," booms Hill, in what must be one of the only oaths of allegiance ever sworn to a bank. You know the rest: the cod poetry, the sentiment, the fan cast as folk hero, "filled with pride, courage, meat and gravy". It's an impeccably executed load of old codswallop.

But Sky are not easily beaten: in two minutes, their rival ad does a remarkable job of persuading you that you count as a football fan, and that being one is a feather in your cap. It consists of a series of Ordinary People explaining how you, like them, are full of meaningfulness. "Some of you may feel the way I do," a solemn young jogger says, and he's followed by a series of others declaring a bunch of things it's hard to disagree with about how great football can be for a sense of community. Then Sean comes and Beanifies it at the end and the whole package is thoroughly satisfying.

Or it would be, at least, but for the rogue fan who comes on in the middle of the whole thing, and declares: "Some may not be there all the time, but keep the faith nevertheless." That fan is a roadie, and if his duties in Bratislava with Megadeth are keeping him from the turnstile, he can't really be blamed. But let's not lose sight of who Sky are actually talking to here, because it certainly isn't roadies. If this were an honest ad, it wouldn't feature an old geezer busting a gut backstage in some grotty arena; it would show a tubby fella in a Liverpool shirt eating prawn sandwiches in front of the telly, while his local team are locked in mortal combat in front of a few thousand five minutes down the road. "Some may never have been there, but still call themselves fans," he would say, spittle and fish bits everywhere. But this is a moral argument, rather than a commercial one, and as such is basically irrelevant. So back to reality, and the kicker. "We know how you feel about it," Sean gruffles, "because we feel the same."

Like "it's great to be here", it's a thoroughly effective line – and yet so utterly hackneyed that you just know, even as the lump of solidarity rises in your throat, that the advertising professionals behind it have a long-standing derisive nickname for the genre, probably something like The Hackneyed Twat Convincer. "We need a Hackneyed Twat Convincer for the start of the season," someone sitting on a squashy round chair at a vast glass table in the shape of a brain will have said in about July. "So start with Patrick Stewart and work down, yeah?"

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