Twee Advertising and the Infernal Urban Village

by Nathalie Olah

The urban village. A Jane Austen vision of pastoral Britain complete with farmers’ markets and bunting projected on to high streets up and down the country. Oblivious to the green beacon of the job centre; impervious to the homeless man asleep in the shop doorway; pro-bike, anti-lorry; in short, a regression. A total refusal on behalf of those involved to accept the functional requirements of cities under the duress of population growth. I could go on, citing the relationship between this and our present housing crisis, yet that very fact – that all I can think to do in reaction to a system that is severely stifling all of our future prospects – is more relevant to my purposes in writing this.

We are without question the most reasonable young people to have existed since the 1950s. The irresponsibility of previous generations has landed us in a reality whose confines are oppressively small. We understand the economic circumstances that led to our being collectively adrift, tossed eternally between bent landlords and zero-hours contractors. We read the papers, looked to Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy and counted our losses. It is not political apathy that we are suffering from (as so many self-proclaimed social commentators like to accuse), but the opposite. If anything, we are suffering from an all too academic reading of the world. After all, we’re the generation whose parents bought in to Tony Blair’s ‘Education, Education, Education’ reforms; who paid £20,000 to bat hypothetical ideas around for three years and wound up in a knot of rhetoric: debating, tweeting, op-eding ourselves into oblivion, without any thought for how it could affect real world change.

Plenty has been written about the protracted adolescence of today’s twenty and – as time goes by – thirty-year-olds – the effect of financial incapacity preventing us from acting out and the detrimental impact, perhaps, of too much education. What’s less well documented, however, is the way in which our collective psychological framework has been irrevocably altered at the hands of contemporary advertising techniques.

I’m talking about Spotify’s Jack Whitehall soundalikes, interrupting the Young Thug mixtape every five minutes with a, “Hello mate, have you heard about the new Kopparberg-sponsored burrito van opening up on South Bank?” I’m talking about the meme-inspired phone company billboard campaigns; the Clean Bandit-sounding jingles on ads for internet dating apps and the handwritten scrawl on the rustic packaging of your tampons. I’m talking about every single blackboard resting outside of one-time gnarly boozers, emblazoned with cheese puns and references to the Great British Bake Off. These brands, services and everything in between are swaddling us in the patchwork comfort of a new consumerism, one that’s warm, reassuring and unintimidating. Gone is the religion of the Nike logo, the heady addiction to Macdonald’s burger relish and Eva Herzigová’s cleavage. Label shaming and cutthroat capitalism has been suffocated in the fleshly, nurturing bosom of Kirsty Allsopp advertising. And yet, our spending habits continue apace.

Having completed that liberal arts degree you never found any use for, you’ll know that in 1999 Naomi Klein wrote a seminal text on the contemporary advertising climate, No Logo. I’ll spare you the first-year lecture, but suffice to say its global phenomenon was down to the fact that it pointed to something that had otherwise been ignored: namely, that advertisers were using all kinds of manipulative ploys to appeal to a youth market, breeding anxiety to be ‘cool’ and whipping everyone into a consumer craze.

These tactics involved doggedly trying to court black people, jumping aboard protests like the AIDS movement and, finally, trying to seem playful in the shape of, say, Diesel’s ‘Be Stupid’ ads. For a time, it worked: kids begging their parents to buy them FCUK T-shirts; teenagers sticking it to the stuffy ways of old by throwing on a pair of Levi’s Twisted jeans. Yet over time, consumers grew cynical to these acts of apparent self-rebellion, wised up to the double play of irony, the advertising ploys behind the so-called ‘non-advertising’, and eventually brands were forced to change tack.

Cue the arrival of ‘candid’ advertising. Tesco ads comparing products with nothing but a ‘ping’ and Graham Norton’s quaint Irish accent telling us that the supermarket offers cheaper products than it competitors. Simple. No grandiose ideas needed. Except, of course it was always advertising and we’d simply arrived at a point of apparent simplicity concealing a tangled mess of psychological manoeuvring.

The fact was: an inherently manipulative industry had tried to present itself as honest and trustworthy. And it succeeded. This is where the psychological disarmament begins to take root. With advertisers concealing their motives so well, we were left more exposed to them than ever before. At the same time, the industries that had always existed to counter the corporate machine – namely, independent music and publishing – were beginning to falter due to the recession. Beacons of anti-corporate messaging flickered to little more than a burning ember in the economic typhoon of 2008 and they have yet to be reignited. Struggling to survive, magazines and record labels were at the mercy of big brands and gave their best journalists and musicians over to promoting the latest products. Aspiring journalists went from reporting on regional subcultures to writing thinly veiled PR material for trainers.

“An ad that pretends to be art is – at absolute best – like somebody who smiles warmly at you only because he wants something from you.” Wrote David Foster Wallace in his 1997 essay, ‘A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never do Again’, unwittingly describing every one of the bunting-choked high street window displays up and down the country in 2014.

“This is dishonest,” he goes on, “but what’s sinister is the cumulative effect that such dishonesty has on us: since it offers a perfect facsimile or simulacrum of goodwill without goodwill’s real spirit, it messes with our heads and eventually starts upping our defences even in cases of genuine smiles and real art and true goodwill. It makes us feel confused and lonely and impotent and angry and scared. It causes despair.”

When I hear people criticising VICE and its pretenders for promoting irony or cynicism, I think back to this statement. As Foster Wallace states, cynicism is the natural reaction of sensitive people to the deeply deceitful language of contemporary advertising. Rather than being the invention of any one person or institution, cynicism really is the most obvious way of railing against the chintzy zeitgeist, and it is right that outlets exist for young people to express that.

Going back to Foster Wallace’s theory, by definition an advertorial is an ad masquerading as art. The infernal coffee shop chalkboard makes an earthy, grassroots community feeling out of spending £3.50 on coffee imported at the cost of the environment. There are only two alternatives. You either buy into it or you remain sceptical and neither leaves much room for improvement. Plump for the latter and you find yourself adrift in a world built entirely on lies.

How can I trust someone else if I can’t trust my own instincts when deciphering the line between legitimate sentiment and advertising? Who’s telling the truth and who’s courting me for their own gains? These are the questions that run deep in the psyche of young people living in close and competitive confines in cities across the western world. Rivalry between peers has always existed, yet what has always united young people is a collective resistance to clearly identifiable corporate machines. Those machines still exist of course, and still perpetuate inadequacy and insecurity, only now their parameters and mechanisms are much less easily identified.

In this paranoid frame of mind, it is impossible to act. Rebellion, protest and cultural change are borne out of belief and blind faith in a better way. The astute might drop the odd tweet acknowledging the situation. Might get their tits out for a #freethenipple Insty opportunity. If you’re really dedicated you might write a blog post, before stepping out on to your terrace and into the dim glow of your Habitat fairy light garland and rewarding yourself with a raspberry cider. And even then, how can you be sure you’re not just doing it all for self promotion? Much easier not to ask yourself those questions, much easier to wile away you time listening to the dulcet tones of Mr Spotify while the smell of burned pig fat rolls in from your friendly, neighbourhood farmers’ market.

If you speak out, who will join you? Who will trust your intentions? How to cut through the irony that we have come to rely on to conceal the fact that actually, in a world facing many imminent crises, we are paralysed? So much so that we can’t do anything besides eat pulled pork sandwiches.

While magazines depend on advertorials to survive, so their kudos diminishes and the very incentive for securing an advertorial disappears. Perhaps the phenomenon will meet its end in this way, with both sides of the advertising equation throwing in the towel and deciding to go back to the old ways. Perhaps unyielding, inhuman capitalist slogans will reign once more, and once more young people will have something to throw paint over and tear down. Perhaps we’ll never find a sustainable solution to capitalism. Perhaps capitalism that makes no attempt to conceal its intentions is the best we can hope for because at least in that climate the distinction between life and advertising can be felt. It’s not ideal, but when the alternative is a form of marketing masquerading as a piece of hand-painted earthenware on the bric-a-brac stall of a local fête, it’s got to be an improvement.


Photograph by Creative Commons

Share on Twitter