The month of Christmas is probably the best time of year for us to look at our roots - as it is for the Christmas trees to look to their roots, and for all of us to maintain that vague pathetic hope that we still have some. And so it is at this time of year, when we all get so sensitive and sentimental and even downright maudlin, it seems so much easier for us to look fondly back at the last couple of millennia and ask ourselves “What went wrong?”
And for some unknown reason that thought leads directly and inescapably to television and to its advertisements, this being by far the best time of year to watch them.
This is the best time of year too to stop and wonder just what the relationship is between these ads and real life? Oh I know that some of them pretend to purport to show the real lives of real people who really are really fascinated by the piles, pimples and periods. And of course no one can deny that all ads show us something or someone they want us to look up to, to emulate in our real lives - people to admire. In fact they show us people of whom it can be said “In many ways they were fine people, but not in any important ways.” And all the while they are trying to force feed us real Pukey-Pops® (a Snap, a Crackle and a Retch!) or whatever.
So how do they fit in to the real? In a word (or in the interests of keeping this true, honest and accurate, several phrases) they are our folk tales, folk music, folk culture: our epics. They are our oral tradition. They are, for our age, an bulwark, set up against our cold precise written culture and the logic of writing, which reminds us of the hot vibrant glories of our ancient and illiterate past. Oh I know that ads are scripted and all, and to a remarkable degree, but it’s only the process that gets written down, how many seconds we have of the close-up of the bowl and whether we then dissolve to the Saniflush or cut to the cereal box. But the thoughts, the ideas, the very heart of the things are totally, absolutely illiterate.
This is not of course in any way a criticism. Much of the greatest of what we now call literature was born illiterate; the Iliad, the Odyssey, much of the Bible, Eskimo Nell, even in all probability Beowulf were essentially created without the aid of pen or pencil or word processor.
And then there is the slight matter of the lies. The fact that every single thing in an ad is either by implication or by down-rightness a lie. Of course the answer to this is that all great oral literature is a lie, and if in the past it was a magnificent lie but nowadays it’s a more tawdry lie, well times change, and our myths decline as each generation becomes less than its fathers. And if you don’t believe me, consider this. The heroic society of old folk tales, the Iliad, Beowulf etc. is remarkably similar and consistent. So too the society portrayed in our ads has a mythic consistency and similarity. Only the other night, for example, I took part in (by watching on the box - participation too has changed) an ad for a Community College which was indistinguishable from the following one which was for women's jeans. This is because, in true oral tradition, the individual becomes subsumed into the general. While, for instance, there might have been a real Beowulf or a real Achilles they are far less important than the the generality of heroic behaviour. And, today, while there may well be a real Toyota, a real preparation H, a real pair of jeans or even some real perfume it is not that that the ad is selling. The ad is selling our updated equivalent of what the Iliad was selling.
The Iliad sold heroism. (The Iliad also sold the fact that once you had achieved your heroic status you could then sulk in your tent, that you should always honour the Gods and that even if you did honour them the vicious selfish buggers would still screw you over... The Iliad sold the concept that sex with swans wasn't all it was cracked up to be, and that things really would be better with a decent divorce court. None of which is quite up to it's main message, but you have to make allowances, I mean they didn't even have market research)
And what, with all the benefits of modern market research, do we sell?
We sell lust.
And this is the best time of year for it.
And so..., remembering that it's still an 'Appy Advent not a Merry Christmas,
Cheerio for now
from Richard Howland-Bolton