The Big Lie – the complete book online - 18 Deconstruction

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Chapter 18

The Ironic Age


We tend to be subjected day after day to the most all-pervading cynicism about almost every aspect of our national life. Nothing ever seems right. There is a persistent current that flows along undermining the integrity and motives of individuals, organisations and institutions.

Prince Charles, 1994

“Advertising is legalised lying. This statement, a quotation from H. G. Wells, appeared in bold black-and-white on posters all over British high streets in 1996. A warning from a government watchdog? A protest by a concerned civic group? No, it was a new advertising campaign for Guinness. Like modern art, self-critical and absorbed with sensation, advertising appeared to have finally self-destructed in a tailspin of irony.

Verbal irony is saying the opposite of what you mean, for humorous or emphatic effect. Procedural irony is an action which achieves the opposite of what you intended. Irony is a noun commonly qualified as “bitter” or “cutting”. Among its many synonyms are satire, sarcasm, ridicule, derision, mockery, scoffing, and sniggering. Irony does not create, it carps. It is the scold of aspiration, the scion of disappointment. Its ungenerous handmaiden is cynicism. All in all, it seems a strange attitude for a salesman.

Many have recognised a special British sense of ironic humour. It has a distinguished pedigree, with forebears such as Dean Swift and Charles Dickens, and modern exemplars such as the deadpan deliveries of characters in plays by Harold Pinter. Conservative writers have dedicated many passionate paragraphs to deploring the British penchant for mockery. Auberon Waugh has described his countrymen as “mean, envious, full of rancour, hatred, and bogus self-righteousness”, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, in his 1992 Christmas morning sermon, lamented, “We are becoming a people ready to scoff . . . [known for] an uncharacteristic meanness of spirit”. Martin Amis ascribed this unpleasant national trait to “the sullenness of post-greatness”.

According to most critics of this savour, the rot set in during the permissive 1960s, when genuine heroes of the past began to be supplanted by role models thrown up by popular culture. With the Beatles, a Great Cult of Youth emerged. Ignorance and lack of qualification were no longer an obstacle to success and immediate satisfactions replaced deferred achievement. And so, in the mid-20th-century social revolution the weapon of the disenfranchised was not the pikestaff but mockery. It was used to assault the traditional totems of civilised authority: intellect, epistemology, aestheticism, mores, and standards and the institutions behind them – the government, the Church, the Establishment.

British advertising agencies began to produce arch, self-aware, and often very funny advertisements which attracted the admiration of their peers throughout Europe at international prize festivals, and were often ineptly imitated by advertising agencies on the Continent. The view widely maintained in British advertising circles was that the mentality of the British audience is somehow especially attuned to cynicism: through heavy exposure to media, consumers have become as sophisticated as the practitioners are themselves about advertising. Claims of superiority can be advanced to this hip constituency only if they are expressed tongue-in-cheek. Even factual statements will be rejected without this knowing gloss. Advertisers who show they share viewers’ disillusionment with hackneyed advertising techniques break through the TV screen to the real world. Consumers, the logic goes, will reward them by becoming involved with the brand.

Ironical statement, the British “cultural mass”1 believe, is lost on gauche Americans. This is a shallow judgement of the nation which produced Ambrose Bierce and Mark Twain as well as the caustic television show Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, extremely popular in Britain in the late 1960s. A more likely analysis is that Americans are more at ease with commerce. They have no hang-ups about selling or being sold to. They make funny commercials too, but the humour does not generally depend on denigrating the practice of salesmanship. In the lexicon of free enterprise, with its emphasis on thrift, self-reliance, perseverance, innovation, and ruthlessness, there is no entry for bemused irony. British advertising, because it abandons classic principles of persuasion for the limp, knowing gibe, simply bewilders most American professionals.

The young Britons who create advertisements are well attuned to popular culture, and, like the young designers who dragged street cred onto the catwalk, they have opened advertising agency doors to the irreverence of alternative comedy. In both industries, what began as pavement movements were adopted by mainstream commerce. During the 1990s sarcasm spread well beyond its natural home in the youth market. Advertisements addressed to every kind of target group now delivered their messages with a nudge and a wink; there was a mocking smirk in every voice-over, the pot at the end of every rainbow had to turn out to be a crock of shit.

Advertising for British lagers became almost incomprehensible. Holsten Pils introduced American film star Jeff Goldblum to make gnomic statements directly to camera. Carlsberg deconstructed advertising with enigmatic posters depicting rhubarb, a red herring, and a bull. A commercial for Tennent’s Pilsner showed two men walking into a pub with an odd gait and ordering beers in weird, tape-manipulated voices. “It tastes a bit different”, said one. The barman replied, in a demoniac manner, “But do you know why? Czechoslovakian yeast!” This was an adman’s insider joke – sending up the traditional “Unique Selling Proposition”. “It’s almost meaningless”, admitted the creative director of the advertising agency, “But you cannot be didactic. You can’t say: ‘drink this, it’s good.’”

Postmodernism ransacked the past to recycle old ideas, dipped in irony, as new. This requires a lot less creative energy; familiarity provides an easy hook to audience involvement, and the author is absolved of the risk and responsibility of proposing a new idea. The term art critics like to use for re-presenting old images in new arrangements is “recontextualising”. The art lies in why the artist made his choices, a joke or insight which the viewer is challenged to share. Originality became deeply unfashionable. Given Salvador Dali’s generous legacy of whimsical juxtapositions, there was little more originality to be expressed in any case. Postmodern artists have continued with variations on the themes, extending the techniques of the meaningful collage with the aid of photocopying machines, videos, CD-ROMs and facilities for exploring their own bodily functions and memorialising their own emissions. The formula is that of the spin doctor: wrest the element out of its original setting, then change its meaning by inserting it into another which is absurd, anachronistic, or personalised. The content is irrelevant; attitude is everything. But is a Union Jack on a Carnaby Street wastebasket daring and provocative art, or simply a predictable joke in poor taste?

Television viewing, reinforced by the relentless preoccupation of the popular press with the medium, is the most widely shared cultural experience, and so many recycled advertising ideas were drawn from the medium in which commercials appeared. In 1988 Guinness refreshed its enigmatic series of commercials featuring the Dutch actor Rutger Hauer with a pastiche of the 1960s science-fiction programme The Twilight Zone, then enjoying revived trash cult status. In 1994 an imported Australian lager, Tooheys, lampooned chat-show formats. Continuing media introspection led to parodies of parodies: a 1994 TV campaign for the News of the World featured a deranged news reader delivering mock bulletins in a take-off of a BBC satirical programme called The Day Today.

Feature films were appropriated for every type of product, not just those aimed at children, youth, or consumers, but also those appealing to investors, opinion-leaders, and the City. In a late 1980s commercial for the soft drink Tango, a childlike figure in a red plastic mackintosh turned out be a female dwarf who assaulted another character with a knife, mimicking the climax of Nicholas Roeg’s 1970s film Don’t Look Now. In 1996 Findus Lean Cuisine borrowed the leading character from the film Shirley Valentine, the Nissan Micra did a take-off of 91/2 Weeks, and Peugeot reprised both Thelma and Louise, whose heroines drive off a cliff, and The Great Escape, in which Steve McQueen bounces his motorbike over the barbed wire of a concentration camp. That year’s model of the Ford Fiesta was presented as the vehicle in which to break free from the pastel lollipop world of suburbia drawn from the film Edward Scissorhands, because the car was “not for the small-minded”. Even the repellent images of the ruthless gangsters in Reservoir Dogs and the cannibal murderer Hannibal Lecter of Silence of the Lambs were invoked to promote products as unlikely as margarine spread and tampons. To make sense of a 1994 commercial promoting the conglomerate Hanson, shot in black-and-white, you would have to know that in the coda of Orson Welles’s 53-year-old cinema masterpiece, Citizen Kane, the dying newspaper magnate uttered a last word, “Rosebud”. In this case, it was a dying investor, and the word was “Hanson”, the company he wished he’d owned.

From its earliest days, long before the practice was known as “deconstructing”, broadcast advertising was prone to poke fun at itself: the announcer fluffing his lines, the slide-show appearing upside down. The strategy behind such japes was flattery: by taking the audience behind the scenes and showing the magic tricks, the advertiser deferred to its cleverness. In the time-honoured ploy of the hustler, the “mark” could be taken in by suggesting he was too smart to be taken in. Top celebrities such as the renowned American radio comics Bob & Ray could even assume the privilege of gently mocking the product. Bob Hope made a career of it. But such personalities were well established as product spokesmen. High priests in the temple of commerce were permitted to make irreverent remarks, because their audiences knew they were only kidding. Deep down, they belonged to the company store, heart and soul. When British ironists turned their attention to debunking the style of advertising presentations, they, too, began by gently poking fun. The 1970s advertisements for “Vladivar Vodka brewed in (V)Warrington” were based on the conceit of a non-Russian vodka. Phileas Fogg snacks, from the same era, were “manufactured in Consett” (a British No-wheresville) and admonished viewers to “Pay attention”. When British comedian Bob Monkhouse declared in his commercial for Sekonda Watches that “time is money” because he was being paid £1,000 a second for his endorsement, and when his fellow comic Jack Dee, infuriated by clichés of advertising production, stalked off the set of his commercial only to be lured back by a bag of gold, they were following the script of the old-time American radio trouper Jack Benny, charming consumers with their venality.

However, the British were soon dismantling conventional advertising root and branch. In 1991 a new telephone company, Mercury, launched a massive multimedia campaign featuring an invented spokesperson called Mr Grayson and his chum Cholmondley-Warner, both played by the popular television comedian Harry Enfield. The black and white television commercials were painstaking spoofs of the wooden style of 1940s Ministry of Information films, including, on television, the deliberate simulation of scratched old film, and on radio, scratchy sound. Although the ads nominally attempted to put across specific information, e.g. how to use the curious new pastel-coloured telephone boxes which had suddenly sprouted on British pavements, the faux-authoritarian characterisation of the spokesman dominated the presentation. The campaign won plaudits from the advertising industry and gained loads of free press publicity. Yet Mr Grayson habitually represented attitudes not necessarily beneficial to multinational companies, e.g. xenophobia. To get across the idea that you could use Mercury services from abroad, his foil was a French artist wearing a beret in Montmartre. Mr Grayson’s message: “Beware. Johnnies abroad often can’t speak English . . . Yes, leave improvements in telecommunications to us at Mercury, Gaston, while you get on with making your excellent range of 365 cheeses for which your country is justly famous”.

Imprisoned in a sardonic, unsympathetic characterisation, Mercury’s flexibility of presentation was compromised. When British Telecom dropped its rates, Mercury could only reply by carping, through Mr Grayson’s press ads: “WARNING! DON’T BE BAMBOOZLED by a rival’s befuddling statistics – which cause FROWNS. MERCURY are the kind company who gentlemanly GUARANTEE better savings on UK long distance and international calls from your home. Which makes them SMART as PAINT”. Or smartass, threatened, and unsporting, perhaps, in the view of their audience.

Mercury’s payphones never made money, and in 1994 its 2,700 post-modern phone boxes were uprooted. At the end of that year, Mercury announced 2,500 job losses. Mr Grayson and his pal Cholmondley-Warner were among them. In noting the dismissal, a company spokesman gave this clue to the campaign’s objectives: “Harry Enfield was tremendously successful in getting a lot of people to take notice. What we have achieved has been done with a fifth of BT’s ad budget. His ads won a lot of awards”. But had they influenced consumer behaviour?

From parodies of presentation styles, advertising “creatives” went on to poke fun at specific commercials. A series of Daz commercials used the comedian Danny Baker to send up traditional expectations of laundry detergent advertising. A Hamlet cigar ad spoofed the famous Andrews toilet tissue puppy. In a celebrated 1980s commercial for Levi’s, a young lad had flouted propriety and influenced fashion trends by taking his jeans off in a launderette. A decade later, the scene was replayed in a lager commercial, to illustrate the punchline, “I bet he drinks Carling Black Label”. The campaign for this beer guyed a whole series of well-known advertisements, including the Christmas perennial, the Old Spice aftershave surfer, and even presented its own compilations of “those commercials you liked best”. In 1994 it took aim at another lager, Foster’s “Mad Max” campaign, itself derived from a 1970s film. Foster’s sidestepped by sending up the sensuous advertising for Häagen-Dazs ice-cream.

In 1994 British Rail Intercity ran a commercial which was a pastiche of a clutch of current commercials for cars such as Vauxhall, Renault, Peugeot, and Citroën, using the same characters and situations, with gags about the lower fuel consumption of train transport. Was this a serious attempt to stop people driving or just an irresistible joke? In the creaky 1995 advertisements for Wrigley’s Doublemint chewing gum, girls still wondered where their clean-cut beaux might be taking them on a date, and worried about onions on their breath. A contemporaneous campaign by Haitai gum sent up the dated all-American image of its competitor. Its countercultural scenario simulated a 1950s public information film in which “straight arrow” FBI agents rounded up bankers, soldiers and cheerleaders – because they were chewing Haitai, promoted as “thoroughly un-American gum”. A milestone down this cul-de-sac was reached in 1994 when Holsten Pils lager commercials employed Denis Leary, a misogynist American comedian, to trample advertising clichés and then sweep away a selection of bottled lagers for being “full of shit”.

Advertising’s progress from aspiration to denigration is neatly encapsulated by comparing the 1990s ads for Martini with those of the 1960s and 1970s. The earlier commercials showed aspirational images of beautiful young people cavorting on ski-slopes and wafting aloft in hot-air balloons. In 1995 a Martini commercial lampooned its own heritage. When a moody Jean-Paul Belmondo lookalike who had been eyeing a blonde sexpot left a café she rose to follow him, snagging her tight knitted dress, which unravelled as she walked to show us she wasn’t wearing any knickers. There is a second agenda to advertising like this: the likelihood that this controversial shot will be publicised in the tabloid newspapers and that the sardonic script will be guyed in television comedy routines. But it’s a short term strategy. While it makes a big splash, it will be unlikely to have the staying power of the original themes of success, played straight, which lasted for two decades.

Had consumers stopped having aspirations? In 1996 the sports shoe company Nike was claiming in its advertisements, “We don’t sell dreams, we sell shoes”. And a laid-back press ad for Sprite was saying, “It’s not an image, it’s a drink”. These campaigns appeared in hip magazines aimed at young people under 30, who are assumed to be cynical and media-wise, and were created by cynical and media-wise advertising people, mostly under 30. Richard Benson, editor of The Face, reckoned his cool readers could be swayed only by underground cultural movements: “The 1990s has seen the death of aspiration. Rather than pick products that are sold to them, the youth market seeks out trash pop culture. Advertising has to work with this . . . [through] appeals to the antipathy of the enlightened consumer”.

This is the strategy of exclusion. Those who share the gnosis are permitted to feel superior and privileged. This is intended to form a bond between the advertiser and consumer. It is the same strategy as that of a group of nine-year-olds banding together to form a club with secret passwords, or of Freemasonry, with its occult rituals. But elitism is a dangerous attitude for a mass-marketed product. To decode counter-cultural advertisements requires an intimacy with pop culture which may not be as widespread as their creators assume. It can become a closed world if you’ve not been paying a great deal of attention. Practitioners of the ironic strategy have a difficult line to tread. Their advertising has to be dumb enough not to exclude any potential buyer, but wise enough not to make its audience ashamed of the dumbness. For those of us who have not attended the creative briefing, the line between advertising cliché and excoriating irony is sometimes difficult to detect.

A full-page ad from the usually staid advertiser the Halifax Building Society, with the headline, “Our mortgages are as individual as you are”, showed a rather odd-looking young couple wearing 1970s gear in their home, which was decorated in the same style. Was it taking the mickey out of them or not? In 1998, women in a focus group were perplexed by a Salon Selectives shampoo commercial which parodied the genre. “The women took it literally”, regretted the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency; “they didn’t realise that the absurd big hair was a joke”. There was industry disagreement about a Ferrero Rocher commercial, a laboured portrayal of glamorous Eurotrash society stereotypes at an ambassadorial party. Devised by the manufacturer’s in-house advertising agency, it was shot in England in 1987 for use on the Continent and not released on British television screens until 1993. UK advertising critics found it hard to decide whether it was a serious presentation of sophisticated tastes for the masses or a knowing send-up aimed at the cognoscenti of media culture. (The chocolate itself takes itself very seriously – gold-foil wrapped at a premium price for special gift occasions.) In the advertising trade press, respected advertising professionals described it as a brilliant ironic pastiche. John Lloyd, who had produced a previous campaign for Ferrero, disagreed: “We might think the ad is a joke, but for an Italian audience it looks genuinely sophisticated . . . We have a serious ad culture over here. People understand all the genres . . . they [Ferrero] do this ludicrous stuff at a cocktail party, which I’m sure they think people are meant to take seriously – and people laugh at it for the wrong reasons. They think it’s utterly naff”. In these appraisals, whether the audience could tell the difference was never at issue.

It’s all great fun for the creatives who fall about at their cleverness in the viewing rooms and the “cultural mass”, fattened by the 30,000 young Britons who graduate with a degree in media studies each year. They conjecture that the television commercial which successfully introduced a product called Shake and Vac in 1983, in which a singing housewife pranced about her home maniacally deodorising her carpet, was not serious, but artful parody. They gleefully deconstruct advertising clichés in presentations such as the 1999 television campaign for the new Egg credit card, which showed a stereotypical young family on a storybook village green. Aspirational illusions were systematically trashed. The wife said, “Of course, we’re not really the ideal married couple – in fact in real life I can’t stand him”. The husband replied, “I tell you, if I was straight, I wouldn’t touch her with a bargepole”, before flinging the baby to the ground because it’s only a “hideous doll”. But does the family in the shellsuits on the cross-Channel ferry share the same perspective? And if they buy the joke, will they buy the brand? Is irony a sales technique?

The American reaction to anti-aspirational attitudes was to defuse them by wrapping them, like a fractious child, in a warm comfort blanket. A 1998 press ad for a new Volvo carried the headline “We don’t believe in conspicuous consumption. But it’s sure going to be hard to hide this”. Beneath was the usual voluptuous shot of a luxurious interior swathed in white leather.

Irony ridicules aspiration, limits expectation. Cynicism may have been the mood of sections of the British public under the austerity government of Clement Atlee, but does it hold true in today’s society, which apes so many American ambitions, from upward mobility to out-of-town shopping? You don’t see irony in perfume ads. And can you imagine the Japanese, who flock to buy Aquascutum mackintoshes and Gucci hand-bags, going for it? The Broadway playwright George S. Kaufman once observed, “Satire is what closes Saturday night”. Is advertising parody what flops on Saturday morning at the checkout?


Irony is the armour of the insecure, who fear being exposed to ridicule. It is not surprising, therefore, that the young, who are the least experienced with and therefore most threatened by life, are the most desperate to conform to what their peer group thinks is “cool”. Rejecting the values of their elders and not yet having had the opportunity to learn from life experience, they borrow attitudes from the media, which may be obtained without involvement and at no personal risk. Being “cool” is an expression of solidarity which is beyond criticism; anyone who tries to think originally is ostracised. It converts the weaknesses of youth – ignorance, inability and isolation – into anti-social expressions of power.Its price is the anxiety of constant vigilance, to keep abreast of the blurring pace of shifting fashions.

As an exploitation of dissidence, advertising irony cleverly penetrates the tinplate armour of some youthful target groups to manipulate their craving for conformity. But in the tail-chasing way of the industry, it has been widely misapplied against less appropriate targets. Corporate irony, which ridicules the very thing that it is selling – and ridicules the act of selling, too – is self-defeating.

Irony requires no self-exposure, no manifesto, no commitment. It scorns principles of any kind. It’s the nihilist ethos of the trenches, making sardonic wisecracks as a shield against fear. There’s a difference between scepticism, a natural and healthy consumer attitude, and cynicism, which is funking emotional commitment. Detachment is easy. What is difficult is to defend something you believe in, even at the risk of being uncool. Emotion takes this risk. It grows out of belief in an idea or a person. It creates involvement. Without it, the consumer remains outside the message, untouched and uninvolved.


To summarise this section, once brands were built on “Unique Selling Propositions”; now they seek to distinguish themselves through expressions of common attitudes, striking poses they believe will resonate with their intended consumer. But the self-referential nature of those who create advertising leads them into self-deception. Assuming that the attitudes of their target groups are much like their own, they talk to themselves, and succumb to self-indulgent distractions such as puns, sexual allusions, or irony. Being camp places them beyond criticism.

Advertising techniques are thus often widely misapplied; yet artfully employed they can exploit our deepest anxieties. Over the decades, the flawed apparatus of advertising has fostered the growth of entire industries based firmly on falsehood. Five of these edifices are examined in the next section.

1 The American sociologist Daniel Bell uses the term “cultural mass” to describe the elitist, self-referential group of people who work in the media and are thus in a position to influence cultural trends (The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, BasicBooks, 1976).


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