Summon up your inner Richard Burton and, assuming you’re not reading on the train, say aloud these opening lines from The War of the Worlds: “No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied..”
You know what happens next. “Slowly, and surely, they drew their plans against us.”
Darling Dickie Burton and HG Wells thought they were reading and writing about Martians. We now know that here, now, in the 21st Century, they meant the advertising industry.
We have seen it progress, insidiously, from the easy, catchy sloganizing that kept quotidian products front of mind faced, as the modern consumer is, with the tyranny of choice: “Go well, go Shell”, “Beanz Mean Heinz”.
Next, to the product USP. “If only everything in life was as reliable as a Volkswagen”. “Probably the Best Lager in the World.”
Before going the full research-based Bernays and playing on the psychology of ego. Positioning the things we want to buy not as products in themselves but as what we think they say about us and our lifestyle aspirations.
At the apex of that pyramid stands car advertising. No longer do we buy the “Best 4X4XFar”, we buy the notion that we live a life of high adventure, traffic free among canyons and wild horses and not, in fact, hoping nobody will dink the doors in the too-tight domain of a Sainsbury’s car park or parked on the zig-zag outside the school.
Its advance has been unstoppable. Algorithmic. Stealthy. Cookies to see if you buy cream.
Until now. For, like Wells’ fighting tripods, it has overreached and is stumbling into an enemy it simply cannot see and which, like politicians, it therefore underestimates. The common man and his pint.
Let me explain.
If, like me, your storm-tossed youth saw you wash up on the beach of a northern university in the mid-Eighties, you may be aware of a band called The Macc Lads.
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Out of Macclesfield in Cheshire, they were a combination of Viz self-parody and defiant defenders of the rambunctious Saturday night culture of de-industrialising northern towns, where the factories were disappearing, but the furnace thirst lived on.
The title of their second album – Beer and Sex and Chips and Gravy – sort of summed it up really. Payday anarchy. Arthur Seatons for their times; “Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not.” Saturday Night, Sunday Morning and a quote which, incidentally, Sheffield’s Arctic Monkeys later adopted as an album title.
The Macc Lads, meanwhile, developed a cult following of, unsurprisingly, northern lads determined to stay true to the spirit of a song called Barrel’s Round, the chorus of which ran:
Beer, beer we want more beer
Get the fookin’ beer in
All the boys are cheering
Get the fookin’ beers in…now!
Look it up if you will. Carefully. And not with the kids around. But if you’re a great southern, Reaction-reading jessie you can easily sing it to the chorus of With Cat Like Tread from the Pirates of Penzance and don’t say you don’t cover the cultural ground on these pages.
It was macho, it was slick-floored beer halls and tactical chunders when you hit ten pints. It was in praise of factory girls who could match you ale for ale and for sexual appetite and thought anyone who drank “fizzah” (lager) should be set on the first National Express to London with a one-way ticket and fair warning.
“I’m a fighting pit prop who wants a pint of beer.” As Seaton would have said.
A few years later, I found myself with some regularity in the bars of the north-eastern United States, particularly Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Brass rails along the mighty Susqehanna.
They would have been Stygian dark but for the fact the game was always on, the band was always playing and Bruce Springsteen was always talkin’ ‘bout Glory Days.
Stygian dark except for the illuminated Bud and Miller signs and those inexplicable neon shamrocks shining green among the Pennsylvania Dutch. Maybe it’s a Biden thing.
Either way, it was plaid shirts, blue collars, trucks with a deer on “the hood”. Steel towns, mill towns, beer and sex and chips and gravy with the stars and bars as a napkin. Not that the Macc Lads would countenance a napkin.
Antediluvian? Or the salt of the earth? Toxic masculinity or the hope Orwell expressed in “the proles”? A “basket of deplorables” or the last bastion of social conservatism only guilty of a real good time? Well, that all depends on whether you want something practical doing or need a war fighting. In either instance, handy.
And in either instance terminally resistant to the demands of commentators, politicians and corporate virtue signallers. They’ve proved it at the ballot box and they’re about to prove it again.
You see, as advertising has taken on its latest incarnation – a series of social lectures which, from the point of view of its corporate commissioners – is designed for us to think well of them is, has proven, in fact, a provocation and, in the case of beer, could be the end of the road.
Because just as the Macc Lads and Bruce Springsteen have a vote, they also have purchasing power and what they purchase a lot of, an awful lot of, is beer.
And if you’re a rigger-gloved American construction worker, your beer is almost certain to be some variant of Budweiser or Miller. Domestic, Ubiquitous. And by the pitcher. Their ad agencies once understood this, pitching their product in terms of the “people who built America”, “this Bud’s for you”, it ain’t quitting time, “It’s Miller Time”.
But back among the marketing graduates – for whom blue collar folk are an inconvenient truth who need re-educating – it was deemed a stroke of genius for Bud Lite to intrude on the working man’s “safe space” by teaming up with a transgender influencer called Dylan Mulvaney.
In so doing, they did something antithetical to the very essence of their market. Guys who watch gridiron and tailgate with a bottle of Bud. They simply are the consumer. As surely research would show.
They boycotted the product. En masse. Even prompting an app to warn of similar products that, in a poetic reversal, ‘offend their values’.
“Billions wiped off” and “screens are a sea of red” as they say in hack land.
Meanwhile, over at Miller, a golden opportunity to exploit the Bud identity crisis was missed when they doubled down and hired actress llana Glazer to denounce all that was male about Miller Time and to much the same commercial effect.
It appears American corporations – often held up as the model of self-interested and savvy capitalism – continue to fail to understand that their job is to sell stuff, not indulge in social engineering.
Gillette lost, it is rumoured over $8bn, having booked a prime time Superbowl slot to lecture its users on being toxically masculine. “The best a man can get.”
Whatever one thinks of the causes these companies profess to espouse is hardly the point. It seems a death embrace with their own customer, a long and wilful inhalation of the adage “go woke, go broke.”
What happens in America happens, with tiresome regularity, here. But fear not, NatCons, it will meet its Waterloo in Macclesfield and it’ll be nothing to do with you.
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