Both Guinness and The Labour Party relaunched their brands this week with a heartfelt pitch for the higher ground.
It was Richard Branson, I think, who first observed that British Airways could be said to be the world’s favourite airline only in the same sense that rice is the world’s favourite food. Or indeed that David Cameron is now Britain’s favourite Prime Minister.
In the last dying decades of the twentieth century when people like me enjoyed generously salaried employment as advertising copywriters and art directors such semantics afforded us all comfortable lives. Content with our extra legroom, fully flat beds as yet undreamed of, we strolled the souks of a saner, gentler global village on a smile and a shoeshine.
Fairground barkers of our time, turning a phrase for the marvels of the age: ‘Vorsprung Durch Technik’, ‘The World’s Local Bank’, ‘Labour Isn’t Working’, ‘Good Things Come To Those Who Wait.’ Selling the world rose tinted glasses as the Medici picked its pockets.
But as just as the invention of the internal combustion engine pretty much did for the village blacksmith’s business so us wandering minstrels have found thin pickings in the age of social media and the time of the 1% No. In so much as today’s Medici, or anyone else for that matter, ever find any real need for the turning of a phrase it can now be satisfied online for as little as 25 cents a word. A bit more than many of the other needs that can be satisfied online, but unless you’re Tolstoy, I suppose, it’s a rate that’s unlikely ever to amount to a living wage.
It is still possible to find the odd advertising agency who among their digital influencers and holding company apparatchiks still allow themselves the luxury of the odd copywriter or art director on staff and on salary. But it’s rare and becoming ever rarer. One very senior client, I can think of few more so, actually, told me only the other day that they looked to their agencies now to provide only ‘leadership‘ and actively encouraged them to freelance, or to put it another way, to forcibly casualise, the manual work and the manual workers. I only wish I’d had the courage to ask which of those equally sad states of affairs was cause and which effect. But unless you are, or more likely, were, a copywriter or an art director does any of this matter? Isn’t it just our old friend the guiding hand of the market working in its mysterious ways its wonders to perform?
Watching the Ryder Cup what most struck me, apart from the splendidly ‘what goes around comes around’ outcome and the bizarrely counter intuitive sight of middle aged home counties tories wrapping themselves in the european flag was the content of the all to frequent advertising breaks. For the first time in my life I’ll admit to muting the sound the minute we went to the adverts. The relentless parade of men looking like gangsters and shouting at me was at first just irritating. But it didn’t take long for it to become unpleasant. And ultimately actually quite menacing. ‘Bet Now’. ‘Upload Your CV’. ‘Stop Moaning’. It was like ‘Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels’ had come to life in my living room.
Betting Shops? Employment Agencies? Pay Day Loans? Are these then the marvels of the age? And if they are then surely there’s a pressing need for a phrase or two to be turned in their defence. And a little bit of a smile and a shoeshine wouldn’t go amiss either.
I’m not suggesting that such advertising can only result from being sourced online or from a forcibly casualised payroll. And at least we were spared anything crowd sourced or flash mobbed. But even neanderthal cave paintings recognised that how you tell your story is every bit as important as which story you chose to tell.
All of which brings me, rather more circuitously than I’d intended, to Guinness. And, by way of Guinness, ultimately to Ed Miliband.
Because whatever its form, advertising isn’t just turning a phrase or even expressing an idea. At it’s minimal best it can and should stand as a defining, compelling truth: ‘Good Things Come To Those Who Wait’. ‘Labour Isn’t Working’, capable of igniting the fortunes of a brand. Or a movement. Or a moment in history.
Guinness’s new global positioning: ‘Made of More’ is certainly minimal. And it may even, like the popularity of rice, be in some sense true. But as a compelling definition I’m afraid it’s little more, sorry, than a barely turned cliche which somehow manages to be both pompous and bland in the same breath.
In its first expression, and to be fair there may well be better to come, it’s also the pay off to a pretty, though ultimately vapid, commercial in which the score from Edward Scissorhands sits inexplicably under images of the character building experiences of a lonely cloud. While Brian Cox reads some sixth form poetry by way of explanation.
And if you think I’m maybe being over critical with the writing here or harking back to some mythical golden age, compare and contrast please with the lines in Puma’s ‘After Hours Athlete‘ or Chrysler’s ‘Half Time in America’. Good writing is good writing I’m afraid. And it’s as difficult as it is timeless.
In choosing to dramatise the well focus grouped and no doubt self declared character of its drinkers over and quite apart from the self evidently unique character of its product, Guinness joins Emirates and others in the currently fashionable trap of believing that advertising your consumers is somehow more interesting than advertising your product.
But even as a metaphor for the independent character of the Guinness drinker though it’s all a bit laboured. And more of an illustration of the ‘keeping apart from the Joneses’ oven ready strategy of choice than an original execution of it. What it seems to be going for, and if it is then I’m only thankful that it has missed, is a rejection of the the inherent conviviality of both the drinker and the drink in favour of, and forgive me for pushing it a bit here, a not terribly well thought through eulogy to some sort of Ayn Rand/Tea Party cult of the fearlessly benevolent individual. And we all know where that sort of thinking has got us.
For all its faults ‘Cloud’ is still a good deal better than being shouted at by gangsters. No doubt in the commercial break of a game of golf it’ll look like ‘Gone With the Wind’ but it’s neither definitive nor compelling and that’s not really good enough for Guinness. Or for its agency, the once peerless AMV.BBDO. Whose original brief on winning the business some twenty years ago was, by the way, to connect its advertising more closely to its product.
‘One Nation Labour’, launched the very same day, is fortunately, miraculously, just about the polar opposite of ‘Made Of More’ in every respect. Convivial, social, whisper it, socialist, it feels far from, pardon the pun, laboured. Apart from managing the ‘with one leap our hero was free’ trick of banishing both ‘New Labour’ and ‘Old Labour’ at the same stroke it’s a compelling enough truth, faith even, to allow Ed Miliband of all people to talk to it with intelligence, fluency, wit, charm, and yes, even honesty for an hour or more live on TV. And without any notes, far less an autocue.
There was a lot about his consumers in Miliband’s speech too of course. But there was a lot more about the product: There was ‘one nation education’ and ‘one nation finance’. Well, libor isn’t working, is it? There was ‘one nation business’, ‘one nation unionism’ of course, and even something that sounded a bit like ‘one nation immigration’.
And was it just me or was there also maybe the suggestion that there might just be an alternative to the ritual slaughter of societies to appease the gods of the markets? A better future than picking each others pockets and forcibly casualising our livelihoods. A hint of a saner, gentler global village maybe.
A sort of ‘One Nation Legroom’ perhaps? And why not? Wasn’t it Marx’s ambition, after all, that come the revolution we would all get to travel first class.
Good things come to those who wait.