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Issue 1

Crossed Lines

Self-reference in modern British advertising

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BY Gavin Pinney in Profiles | 20 MAY 91

'What is the morality of playing upon hidden weaknesses and frailties - such as our anxieties, aggressive feelings, dread of non-conformity, and infantile hang-overs - to sell products?' asked Vance Packard in his 1950s book, The Hidden Persuaders. At the time, Packard alerted the world to the Orwellian schemings of the manipulating admen, invading our privacy in their search for better hooks with which to snare an unsuspecting public. Thirty years later, Steve Henry, of the ad agency Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury, believes things have changed beyond recognition. ‘I don't think we're hidden persuaders anymore. When advertisers were the hidden persuaders it was very sinister. Now the game is being played out in the open, which I'm much happier about. People are aware of the games being played. They understand what we in the industry are trying to do. We're trying to sell things to them and they know it'.

Bert Metter of JWT New York sums it up: 'Advertising's toolbox is open for all to see.' The rise over the last decade of the self-referential ad would seem to bear out their claim. In having to reach an audience as ad-literate as the British public, advertising has effectively turned inside out. Like some children's superhero, it has taken to wearing its underpants on the outside of its trousers. The rejection of underhand psychological tricks was an upshot of the optimism that characterised the Thatcher decade. A by-product of the soaring profits, pay rises and company perks was a movement which overtly celebrated the existence the ad itself: the 'buy this product - it's really great' approach, was being replaced by ads which were more important than the products they were supposed to be selling.

The zeitgeist of '80s advertising was self-reference. It began with the Milk Tray commercial for Heineken. The James Bond figure performed his now familiar heroics, jumping from helicopters and scaling snow-capped mountains, not in order to leave a box of chocolates and a mysterious calling card, but a can of Heineken and a beer mat. This case of one ad campaign feeding off another clearly refreshed the parts of Heineken's lager-swilling target audience other ads couldn't reach, for Carling followed with a parody of the famous Levis 501 Laundrette ad and then with a reference to the Old Spice campaign, while Heineken repeated the joke with a dig at the Dulux dog. The advertisers were exploiting the age-old technique of reinterpreting what has gone before - a method most obviously employed by Magritte. 'Perspective (Le balcon de Manet)', depicts a balcony identical to that in Manet's 'Le Balcon', with Manet's figures replaced by coffins in the same postures. But while the lager ads used parody to establish an in-joke with their target audience, Magritte used the technique to distance himself from Manet's scene of bourgeois wealth.

Ads for other products used parody for a similar end, here distancing themselves from the stereotypes promoted by the industry. These ads pander not to their audience's affections for well-loved campaigns, but to its dissatisfaction with advertising's ills. A press ad aimed at persuading shop owners to stock KiaOra fruit drinks sent up the miracle cure assurances often found on the front pages of newspapers. Instead of reading a certain book to win friends and influence people, the ad claimed that shopkeepers who stocked KiaOra would instantly become more attractive to women. The ad's headings included 'why women you've never met before will give you money', 'Friends and competitors will beg for your secret' and, of course, the ubiquitous 'it worked for me!' letter.

The Carling campaign, now replete with self-reference to match any that Heineken had to offer, parodied the already somewhat self-parodic style of tabloid advertising. The strapline 'I bet he drinks Carling Black Label' appears to have been sprayed onto a garish poster trumpeting X from Oswaldwistle's £l billion win on the foota pools. The use of graffiti-style writing acts as a visual device to stress the distance between Carling's campaign and the type of advertising it is parodying.

Brian Stewart (Delaney, Fletcher, Slaymaker, Delaney and Bozell), who is responsible for the current Green King IPA bitter ads, each of which sends up a different advertising stereotype, sees this type of advertising as a justified assault on the sort of work that gives the industry a bad name. 'It's like a guerrilla attack on banal things. I don't want to see advertising that's banal on my box. I'd rather be knocked sideways every time a new ad came on. But you've still got to advertise the Sun newspaper and they don't believe that there is any other way than shouting at the public and treating them like bimbos. I think that justifiably you can take the piss out of that sort of advertising.' Taking the piss seems to have developed into a central tool in British advertising's obsession with keeping the punter laughing, so much so that clients are now even prepared to subject their own campaigns to a little teasing.

Heineken demonstrated a confidence in the strength of its advertising when it admitted that the slob character Les Patterson was beyond even the magical powers of Heineken. But if Heineken demonstrated that it could laugh at itself, the last laugh was had by rival brand Castlemaine XXXX, who, jumping at the instance of a competitor's lager having no effect on an Australian, simply took a photo of Heineken's poster and added their own strapline 'because Australians wouldn't give a XXXX for anything else'.

But now that ads are quoting their contemporaries without an iota of shame, there is a feeling within the industry that the technique has become a hackneyed formula. Steve Henry wrote one of the first of the parody ads, the Carling spoof of Levi's Laundrette ad. 'Its got completely out of hand since then. I think you can rip off anything to write ads except other ads. It's become a lazy approach.' Brian Stewart describes it as '30 seconds of rather in-the-know entertainment sponsored by a lager company.' Not all ads use the sledgehammer approach to self-reference. The campaign for the Multiple Sclerosis Society used the self-referential device of a poster that looked as if it had been ripped to illustrate the way in which the subject of the poster had no control over what happened to him. Ads that make references to their context in this way, be it a poster site, TV screen or newspaper page, are using themselves as metaphors for communicating their messages. A poster for the charity Sleeping On the Streets ran 'This poster's outside 24 hours a day. So are 75,000 Londoners.' A Heineken cinema spot, made to look like an early 'talkie', has its characters suddenly realising that their voices are out of sync with their lip movements - a sip of Heineken, of course, being all they need to put this right.

The shift in audience perception when an advert focuses on its own physical structure is similar to the shift that occurs when Woody Allen turns and addresses the camera in one of his films, or Italo Calvino interrupts the narrative of his book to say 'You've now read about thirty pages and you're becoming caught up in the story'. Bringing the audience's attention to the physical properties of the ad before them suggests an attempt to forge a mental link between the audience and the ad's subject matter by stressing the physical proximity between audience and ad. But a consequence of this is a conscious acceptance by the ad that it is nothing more than a piece of advertising. Gone are the attempts to whisk the viewer off into a fantasy world of aspirational images of sun kissed beaches and beautiful people, which tried to ignore the the banalities of being sandwiched between a Persil commercial and a party political broadcast.

John Smith's Bitter used this context awareness by making their ads look as though the man with the brush and glue had given up before he had finished. Only on closer inspection do you realise that you can read across from the poster underneath to the one on top, the two forming a humourous juxtaposition. Similarly, the recent Volkswagen revolving poster ad used physical self-reference to add humour to the reliability theme. 'If only everything in life was as reliable as a Volkswagen.' laments the poster. The panels then revolve to display the next two ads, the revolving strips of which have been all jumbled up. The fact that self-referential advertising reached its height during the cocky years of the 80s suggests not so much a desperate search for new ways to communicate to a weary public, as a simple desire to show off. Nowhere is this danger of narcissistic indulgence more apparent than in the ads which focus on the difficulties of thinking up a good advert.

A recent TV campaign for Schweppes Tonic Water addressed the whole gamut of problems involved in executing an ad campaign. The 'temporary' ads at the beginning of the campaign tell of the difficulties in sorting out the contract for how much to pay John Cleese for appearing in the ads, and then the disagreement on what slogan to use in describing the tonic water. A bogus survey is set up in which the public is asked to indicate their preference for the wording by touching one of two designated areas of their TV screens. 'Vote now, and for goodness sake, let's get on with this campaign!' says Cleese. Once the slogan has been sorted out, we finally see the commercial proper. This turns out to be a slick parody of the Coke-type ad complete with pop soundtrack and sun, sea and sand. But in the end we go back to the temporary format, in which we are told how the follow-up research demonstrated what a disaster the ad was, with 22% thinking it meant Schweppes was coconut flavoured, 43% using it as a sun oil, and 27% saying they liked the commercial and where could they book the holiday. In the same vein, though addressing a product of a very different level of technical sophistication, we saw the 2CV poster, drawing on the copywriter's task of coming up with slick one-liners. 'What the 2CV needs is a snappy slogan' proclaims the ad. It then goes through a list of humourous attempts at ad straplines, each of which is a parody of the other car ads ('Once bitten, forever Citroen! At £3,980 on the road, what 2CV driver could ever afford to change?').

This process of trying out a series of possible straplines is (without the parody element) just what a copywriter might employ. The audience is being invited to spectate on the process of writing advertising copy. Presumably, the rationale behind this type of autobiographical ad is to undermine the glossy impersonal feel so prominent in corporate advertising. By coming clean with the audience about the function of the ad and the considerations that go into it, you subvert the typical sales pitch that attempts to convey confidence in the product in an ad that is highly polished and 'professional'.

From a creative point of view, the desire to signal what you are doing as you are doing it has featured frequently throughout the history of artistic endeavour. One need only look at Velasquez's masterful 'Las Meninas' depicting Velasquez himself in the process of painting a portrait of the King and Queen of Spain (seen from the Royal couple's point of view) or Vermeer's 'An Artist in His Studio' to see the processes that go into a painting's production being explored. The same approaches were commonplace in the Victorian novels in which the author made regular references to the process of telling the story. Yet, in the commercial world of advertising, when the author chooses to include references to his own role in the ad's production, the feeling that his egoism might be getting in the way of its simple communicative function is hard to ignore.

'You start wondering if they are talking to the person in the next office, rather than the man in the street.' says Kim Papworth of BMP DDB Needham. 'I mean, even if you haven't got anything to say, you should always be able to come up with something better than "Oh, let's do ourselves sitting here stumped!".' Back in the 50s, Vance Packard thought that the only way we could arm ourselves against the games being played by admen was by making ourselves aware of what they were doing. 'We still have a strong defence available against such persuaders: we can choose not to be persuaded.

In virtually all situations we still have the choice, and we cannot be too seriously manipulated if we know what is going on', he said. But does the fact that self-referential advertising plays with its cards on the table mean that we really do know what is going on? Dominic Field, of WCRS Mathews Marcantonio, argues that the ad audience of today is very different from the one Packard was addressing. 'The hidden persuaders theory was basically saying that advertisers can make people believe whatever they want about a product, which is no longer the case. It was based on the assumption that the consumer was passive and ignorant and possibly at the time they were. They really weren't very familiar with the medium. But now people aren't fed commercials any more. You can always zap it with your remote control if you want. So the audience is no longer passive. Now you know whether to accept or reject a claim because you've seen it all before.'

Overtly self-conscious advertising is nothing more than a response to the public's developed advertising scepticism. It is a way of reaching a public saturated with product claims, money-back guarantees and special offers. It would be naive to suppose that anything other than the ads' abilities to sell the products has resulted in the widespread use of self-reference as an advertising device. If the cards-on-the-table approach is what the public respond to, then that is what the agencies will give them.

Nevertheless, this is not to say that the development since the Packard 50s is not for the better. 'I think advertising showing an awareness of the game that it is playing is a healthy sign' says Steve Henry. It is just that we mustn't forget that we are not in the realm of art or literature here. It is the commercial landscape of adland that were talking about, one where selling is all. If, as Brian Stewart puts it, this modern phenomenon 'is like advertising eating itself', then we cannot be surprised when it tell us how finger lickin' good it tastes.

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