A life in eight ads
Sam Delaney measures out his days in iconic adverts
What could possibly be more rational than living your life devoted to consumerism? It’s instinctive and entirely logical to pursue material goods and services that will make tangible and often immediate improvements to your life. And unlike most religions, consumerism doesn’t ask you to put any blind faith in it. It doesn’t make you any empty promises about the rewards you may or may not get in return for your devotion. It sets out a much more straightforward deal than that: buy this stuff and you will be happier. Not years down the line. Not in some imagined afterlife. Not in some cryptic, subliminal sense. You will genuinely feel a bit happier the moment you purchase that food mixer or cashmere jumper or jumbo Tobelerone.
I know all this because the ad-break told me. Consumerism doesn’t rely on spooky men in dresses yelling about damnation to do its marketing; it has sophisticated men in expensive suits conjuring Technicolour fantasies on our TV screens every night, seducing us into its warm yet exhilarating bosom. I have had my face nuzzled into that bosom throughout my entire life: wilfully suspending my disbelief and allowing the ad-break to dictate my every hope and aspiration and define my notions of happiness and fulfillment. It’s embarrassing, but there it is. Here are the 30-second chunks of consumerist evangelism that have navigated me through my first 36 years.
1. Um Bongo
When I was in primary school, there were still only four TV channels, two of which transmitted the same set of commercials. That meant that everyone knew every ad off by heart. Especially those with awesomely catchy, hypnotically rhythmic and lyrically absurd jingles like the one for Um Bongo. “Um Bongo, Um Bongo, they drink it in the Congo!” we would sing at each other in the playground. Even then, I knew it was unlikely that they actually did drink this lurid, industrially produced hi-juice in the Congo. I was also sceptical about the ad's claims that a hippo conceived of the recipe, a rhino named it and a parrot took care of the packaging design. But none of that mattered. Um Bongo just seemed fun – and by painstakingly learning every word of the signature tune, I was able to temporarily make myself something of a schoolyard celebrity.
Milk is disgusting. I was as sure of that aged 12 as I am now. The difference back then was that I wanted only one thing out of life and that was to be a professional footballer. The Milk Marketing Board (remember them?) knew that was what I wanted (and not just me), hence this seminal commercial featuring a conversation between one muddy-faced Scouser and his unseen friend that convinced me that a glass of milk a day could somehow help me to overcome my technical and athletic shortcomings and turn me into a genius goalscorer: “It’s what Ian Rush drinks!”. After all, these kids were from Liverpool – and in the eighties, it was only teams from Liverpool who seemed to win anything. I took to downing a pint of the stuff every day before school. Strangely it didn’t bring me a professional football contract - just bad breath and a tummy ache.
3. Cadbury’s Caramel
Adolescence dawns. As sexual awakenings go, this seemed fairly innocent. It was hard to know what stirred my lustful thoughts towards this animated rabbit the most: her sultry vowels, her attractively laid back demeanour or her curvaceous figure. I didn’t know it at the time, but I suppose I wanted to have sex with that rabbit. The next best – and more realistic – option was to eat one of the chocolate bars she was promoting. Golden, smooth and all oozy, the Cadbury’s Caramel is truly the most sexual of all chocolate bars – a notion that had obviously occurred to whichever well-paid ad man responsible on the day he conceived the bunny. Years later I learned that it was the rotund, middle-aged and rather less conventionally attractive actress Miriam Margolyes who’d provided the rabbit’s voice - a discovery that, needless to say, impacted permanently on my emotional health and sexual performance.
A Yuppie wakes up in a Thatcherite dream flat: old bikes hang from the ceiling; the walls are all exposed brick; he’s even got a trendy red fridge. Realising he’s out of milk, he grabs his wallet only to find there’s no cash inside. But that doesn’t matter because '80s-dude has a Halifax cash card! He nips out, dressed like one of Curiosity Killed The Cat, and withdraws a collection of jumbo-sized fivers from a hole in the wall, as if by magic. Then he buys a paper, goes home and sits on his balcony reading about the miners' strike while stroking his cat. The whole thing was set to a soundtrack of "Easy Like Sunday Morning" by The Commodores. Inside my adolescent brain, this was all I wanted out of adult life. A flat, a cat and a special card that produced money on demand. It took a few years for me to understand how lonely and depressing '80s-dude, doubtless up to his eyes in unmanageable debt, really had it.
There was a more famous jeans commercial than this at the time, featuring Nick Camen removing his Levis in a '50s launderette to the strains of Marvin Gaye’s "I Heard It Through The Grapevine". It was good but it seemed to endorse a mainstream, conventional idea of cool. By contrast Pepe was continental and moody. The ad featured a hip young couple whose eyes meet in a shop doorway as they shelter from the rain. A jagged guitar riff from The Smiths’ "How Soon Is Now" provided the soundtrack. It was all so modern, edgy and alternative. Maybe there really was more to life than sitting around eating crisps and watching Neighbours? I’d been seeking a way to infiltrate my school’s mysterious arty crowd for a while – after all, they seemed to have all the prettiest girls. Perhaps Pepe jeans could be my way in.
Trouble was, there were always strict territorial boundaries between the arty crowd and the football crowd back in the '80s. If I wanted to listen to their cool music and get off with their pretty girls, I had to guard my weekend West Ham habit like a dirty little secret. In the age of Hillsborough and Heysel, football had an image problem and admitting to being a fan was almost like admitting to being a racist. Then, in the '90s, thanks in no small part to ads like this one, it was suddenly okay to out yourself as a football fanatic. To the accompaniment of Blur’s "Parklife", brilliantly authentic scenes from the frontline of Sunday League football are peppered with cameos from Eric Cantona, Ian Wright and Robbie Fowler. It was football as we had never seen it before. Once again, a devilish marketing exec had harnessed my dreams, set them to some credible indie music and convinced me that they were available in the shops at reasonable prices.
Just as some ads helped show me who I wanted to be, others showed me who I didn’t. This Vauxhall campaign came out when I was in my late twenties, still living under the sneering delusion that I was somehow above the suburban family dream. The ads star two children behaving as if they were dads, vacuuming out their people carriers in their driveways and moaning about the unruly behaviour of their parents. I wrote a mean-spirited critique in a newspaper, deriding the miserable domestic lifestyle the ads portrayed. I thought I was too rock 'n' roll for that sort of stuff; in fact, I was immersed in a pointless, self-indulgent existence of binge drinking and video games. But things were about to change…
A young boy jumps excitedly on his sleeping dad in bed. The two get up and share pancakes for breakfast. Then they dress and head out for a day at the seaside. Playing on the pier, hotdogs on the beach, then home for tea. By the time mum gets home from work, father and son are cuddled up on the sofa having a contented kip. Yes, it’s corny. Yes, it’s a tiny bit smug. But, to me, it’s life (kind of, I’ve actually got a daughter, but you get the point). The happy simplicity, tiny joys and daily comforts of family life are brought to life so vividly in this new Sainsbury’s ad that, to me at least, it’s a life-affirming thing of beauty. The ad break is full of crap that often distorts reality, manipulates perceptions and encourages unrealistic aspirations. But at it’s most powerful, it can hold a mirror up to your own life and tell you it’s not so bad after all.