The Proper Gander column from the March 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
‘Advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket’ wrote George Orwell in Keep The Aspidistra Flying. In the seventy years since then, advertisers have found ever-more sophisticated sticks and swill buckets to grab our attention. The slogans which Orwell satirised look twee compared with today’s barrage of commercials jumping out at us from websites, billboards, newspapers, magazines, and at fifteen minute intervals during the dross we watch on telly. From the girl in the Flake advert to the Go Compare opera singer, TV commercials remain the most striking, even in our world of targeted online ads. However annoying, manipulative or offensive the rattling is, what’s important is how much it gets noticed and talked about. They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, so even a mention in the Socialist Standard might count as a small win for the ad agencies. In honour of this, Proper Gander presents the Golden Swill Bucket Awards for excellence in TV advertising.
The award for Most Rose-Tinted Depiction Of Driving is a tie between the ads for the Peugeot 208, the Infiniti Q30, the Mercedes Benz A-Class, and no doubt a load of other top-end cars. They glide silently through empty, shiny city streets, driven by the kind of attractive, confident businessperson we’re supposed to aspire to be. But if you fork out the £20,000+ for one, you’ll still end up stressed out in the same motorway traffic jams and suburban rat-runs as anyone in a clapped-out second-hand Ford KA.
Bisto Best gravy granules win the award for the Most Brazen Attempt To Manipulate Good Intentions. Their ‘Together Project’ campaign is an appeal for us to invite a lonely elderly neighbour round for a Sunday roast dinner (as long as it involves gravy). Yes, that’s a nice thing to do, but we could have a beef with Bisto’s implied emotional blackmail. Why should we put any stock into what a gravy company tells us?
The award for Most Crass Celebrity Endorsement goes to John Cleese for lowering himself to collaborate with Specsavers. For years, their adverts’ myopia-based misunderstandings have been desperately trying to make the phrase ‘should’ve gone to Specsavers’ part of the national lexicon. Having apparently run out of their own ideas, they’ve now turned to regurgitating other people’s. So they’ve decided to taint the memory of that scene in Fawlty Towers when Basil attacks his car with a branch by remaking it with Cleese as a short-sighted older version mistakenly whacking a police car instead of his own. The policemen inside are surprisingly nonchalant, whereas in real life Basil would have been tasered and restrained before falling down the stairs on his way to the cells.
The award for Most Depressing Visual Metaphor goes to Experian credit checking. A pretend-couple falling onto a settee laughing isn’t the most original scene to include in an advert, but the Experian couple’s laughter seems a bit deranged considering that they’re cuddling an upholstered number representing their credit rating. Having your life’s worth reduced to some digits isn’t made more palatable by making them out of stripy fabric.
The award for Most Blatant Use Of Spin goes to the government, who paint themselves as saviours of the working class in their commercial for the National Living Wage. Parliament doesn’t usually promote its law-changes on the gogglebox. We didn’t see their decision to bomb Syria advertised with a glossy campaign showing Tornado jets zooming towards their targets, apart from the latest RAF recruitment drive. The National Living Wage advert’s ‘step up’ slogan is illustrated by cleaners and waitresses walking up stairs, telling us that from April, the minimum wage rises by 50p to £7.20 an hour for workers aged over 25. Rebranding the minimum wage as the ‘living wage’ is presumably intended to side-step claims by the Living Wage Foundation that £7.85 an hour is the lowest for an ‘acceptable standard of living’. And cuts to child and working tax credits will undo some of the increase in income for many of those paid at the new minimum. However the minimum wage is calculated and advertised, it still just represents a rate at which we get exploited. It’s more like getting stepped on than a step up.
Our final award goes to First Direct bank for the Most Self-Consciously Wacky Campaign. Banking has suffered an image problem since sky-high bonuses and bail-outs hit the headlines. So what better way to rebrand a bank than with a monochrome CGI duck-billed platypus with a northern accent? This platypus – apparently called ‘Barry’ – hangs out with beat-boxing sparrows and shops in second-hand record stores while he’s eulogising First Direct bank. Barry likes ‘things a bit off-beat’, although considering how hard he’s trying to be hip, he could have thought of something more outré to promote than financial services.