Spotting social trends in advertisements is like watching ER, the TV series, in the hope of learning first aid. Advertising tells us nothing about how we are, only about what we want.
So it is intriguing that TV campaigns for two wildly different products – male scent and financial services – are pushing the same brand of wish-fulfilment. Ads for a fragrance called Pulse, and for the troubled bank Abbey National, feature lead characters who are inept, embarrassing and painful to watch. Losers, in other words: and yet they both win.
It seems that men no longer have to pretend what they rub on their faces is medicinal: something you apply after shaving to prevent damage to your newly opened pores. Pulse is brought to you by Lever Fabergé, makers of Lynx and Impulse. Three million men use Lynx, not including those who took one sniff in 1985 and thrust it to the back of the cupboard, behind the foot deodorant.
Male grooming ads are full of scented sophisticates. Not this one. It features a lonely bloke with receding hair, a crumpled shirt and a sports jacket. He has a mournful expression and he's on his own at the bar, drinking coffee. He might as well have "no mates" tatooed on his forehead. But then he gets up, walks to a space in front of the bar and begins to dance. He's on his own, but this is not the usual barely perceptible three-pint shuffle. It's a performance: imaginary drum-breaks, simulated plank-spanking, moonwalks, failing to escape from glass boxes and much more.
Then comes the wish-fulfilment. Mr Pulse is joined by a couple of gorgeous women, who can really dance. And what's this? As they're going through the routine, they're checking him out! The loser is the winner. And all because of "Pulse, the noo fragrance from Lynx", as the sarf Landan voiceover puts it.
The Abbey National is on the other side of the sexual divide. A girl in a restaurant waits for her blind date. It's Martin Kemp, and she's very pleased. Incredibly, this mahogany-stained length of 4 x 2 is widely considered a hunk. And how does it go? Well, she's nervous, inept and desperate: she knocks over drinks, drops food and dances like a lunatic. At the end of the date you see her emerge, cursing her ineptitude, from Kemp's car. But then he invites himself in for a cup of tea, and she leaps on him. Score two to the losers.
Pulse's message is common to most perfume ads. They can't exactly say: "Buy this: get laid", thanks to those nit-picking rules about truth and decency. But they can imply it. Women's perfumes promise the same, except that the goal there is romance, reminding us of the old saw that men use love to get sex, while women use sex to get love.
Abbey National is not suggesting that opening an account will get you a date with a dodgy soap star. If it is, I'm closing mine before that Martine McCutcheon gets on the phone. It's just dressing up a dull offer: £50 if you can find better terms in a comparable account. (You won't get it, by the way: the personal finance experts tell us there are no comparable accounts.)
But a bigger, better idea lurks underneath both ads. It's about attractiveness. What makes one person attract others – as potential mates, colleagues or friends? Well, we are programmed to find health, beauty and strength attractive.
Females seek out males of power and status: it is a fact that both leading tribal hunters and top businessmen enjoy a high rate of adultery. Females want males with confidence, social ease and a commanding way: all the things you get leading a hunting band, or from public school, whether or not you also go to Bristol University. And males seek ... well, they're not so fussy.
In tough times, life turns difficult for those without those advantages. It won't be the safe, reliable people bringing a cardboard box home filled with a P45 and few Biros from the office. It might well be those who spill their drinks, drop their food and dance as badly as David Brent, without being the boss.
What these ads say is: forgive yourself; you don't have to be perfect. You can spill your drink, and at the end of the date he'll still come in for a cup of tea. You can wear the same shirt you had all day in the accounts department, dance like a lunatic, and still be catnip for the chicks. But don't forget, this is advertising. It's not real life.
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