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The first commercial to be shown on British television was for Gibbs SR toothpaste, transmitted at 20.12 on 22 September, 1955. Back then, according to Lord Thomson, the founder of Scottish Television, commercial television was “a licence to print money”.
The first ad I remember was from around 1960. A bloke in a trenchcoat and hat – not cause for suspicion in 1960 – was hanging around on a street corner, clearly waiting for a girl. She stood him up so he lit a cigarette, and the voiceover ruined Cliff Adams’ wonderfully moody music with the tagline “you’re never alone with a Strand”.
Which would have been fine, but the audience interpreted the commercial as meaning Strand is the cigarette of choice for sad loners. The brand bombed and the ad was pulled. 50 years on, it seems that not much has been learnt.
If you accept what you see in commercials then the cause of the banking crisis is crystal clear. Instead of maintaining fiscal prudence bankers have been pretending to run a radio station. You can never get any sort of service in electrical stores because the staff are too busy taking all the blenders out of their boxes, stacking them up and filling them with radioactive-coloured fruit smoothies.
Next to the electrical store on your local trading estate you are sure to find the motor accessories and cycle shop. The soundtrack of its current commercial consists exclusively of a small girl screaming. How is this going to sell me something? If I go into the store will she be there?
There is a series of television commercials for an online travel agency – in itself a slightly bizarre concept – whose staff are people who really should not be issued with passports. Would you book a flight with someone who locks the combination of his suitcase inside the suitcase?
The ones that really get me going, though, are the idiot advertisers who take a previously unblemished piece of music and trash it. Surprisingly, classical music comes out of this quite well: play the Air on a G String to most people and they will still remember the masterful Hamlet commercials. British Airways spent millions creating a face with a winking eye on a desert island, and the Flower Duet from Lakme seemed like the perfect accompaniment.
No, it is popular song which is massively maltreated by advertisers eager to implant an ear worm. I will pass over as just too horrific John Lewis’s use of a Smiths song for its trite Christmas special, and Tesco using a prettified version of The Pogues’ greatest hit is just plain weird.
UPS has taken the crooners’ favourite Amore and turned it into “logistics”. Not only does it make the song unbearable for ever more, it perpetuates the myth that logistics has anything to do with lorry drivers. A few years back Honda tried to persuade us to consider its diesel cars with Garrison Keillor – not a natural singer, it must be said – urging us to hate something.
My Fair Lady is a pretty good adaptation of a social satire on Britain’s class system. So McDonalds probably should not appropriate it to persuade us to have a burger for lunch, even if their restaurant is on the street where you live. Incidentally, am I the only one who longed to be able to tell Alan Jay Lerner that in England we say we are “in” a street, not “on” it?
I’ve already mentioned The Pogues. The other song that cements this time of year for me is Driving Home for Christmas. It really only works with Chris Rea’s distinctive growl, though. Iceland has some bimbo (apparently an X Factor reject, although I had to look that up) finishing a stadium gig without apparently breaking sweat or getting her carefully coiffed hair disturbed – she really gave it her all, then – and heading straight off without thanking the band to enjoy frozen vol au vents with her extended family.
The success of The Beach Boys came not just from their rich harmonies but the ballsy way they sang them. I’m sure the young man who doodles on music paper and sings Wouldn’t It Be Nice is being amply rewarded by Volkswagen but Brian Wilson is probably sticking pins in his effigy. Debbie Harry would have the same reaction if she heard what has been done to Sunday Girl in an effort to flog scented water.
But this all pales in comparison to the worst television campaign ever, in which George M Cohan’s admittedly jingoistic Over There has been appropriated by a succession of idiots in false moustaches trying to make car insurance fun. If there is anyone who, despite these appalling commercials, has actually gone and compared, please let me know. I can assure you I did not, and I have the cuddly meerkat to prove it.
I hope you survive the Christmas season, and may all your productions in 2012 be creative and stimulating not derivative and irritating. And if you work in advertising: for all of our sakes get it right. Were counting on you to keep us afloat.

Tags: iss060 | commercial television | N/A
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