From trains to cars this week. This is not, in fact, a car advert, but one for cheerful mined-by the-slab cheddar. However, watch it with the sound off and the whole thing turns into a chilly Ballardian dystopia – a grey and cheerless Britain consisting of nothing but roads, scrubby football pitches, and grimly jovial dinnerladies.
It’s an odd confection, this one. There are four basic parts to it, and at most one and a half of them work. The advert is called ‘A Slice of Britain’ (made by a company called Grey London, appropriately enough) and the visuals are, if anything, too apt. It’s true, think of Britain and you might think of motorway services and overcast, but if you are writing something in which you are trying for some kind of celebratory tone, perhaps it would best not to emphasise these things. However, add Pete Postlethwaite reciting some chipper “we’re all in this together” sounding verse over a swelling soundtrack and you have a feelgood one-minute epic. Right?
Not really. Postlethwaite does his best, but the script is a shitter, entirely reliant for what effect it does have on his voice and the knocked-up-in-five-minutes score. This is why song lyrics are not the same thing as poetry – they can rely on music to provide the emotional resonance the words themselves lack – but even music can only do so much.
The whole point of this advert is largeness – the UK is a great big happy lactose-loving family: one nation under gouda. The soundtrack strives for this, and this also explains the use of poetry in the ad. For some reason poetry, especially rhyming poetry, is associated in the public consciousness with formality and circumstance – maybe due to its popularity at occasions of state, especially solemn ones like funerals and commemorations.
But if that was all that was going on here, the visuals wouldn’t be so quotidian – we’d have big expansive shots of the Yorkshire Dales, the White Cliffs of Dover, Eamonn Holmes’s ego, rather than T-junctions and suburban houses. The advert wants to have both grandeur and a sort of friendly mundanity, sword in one hand, pint in the other – the sort of thing I imagine Nigel Farage is going for in his speeches. This is why they have Postlethwaite narrating – he lends dignity to the verse, whilst not being offputtingly posh.
They try the same trick with the poetry, but this is where things go very wrong. The problem is they don’t commit – they want to give the viewer goosebumps while still being able to have a chuckle. It’s a weird exercise in self-deprecation: the tone, setting and form all point to the poetry being intended to be genuinely rousing, but the content of the poem constantly says “Oh well, it’s just a bit of fun really… I mean it is only an advert for cheese… I don’t go in much for poetry, myself, to be honest…”
In which case, why bother? Once they had decided that they were going to use poetry for their ad, they had three options: 1) write a genuinely serious poem (probably pretty difficult, since it is only for bloody cheese); 2) write a genuinely funny poem – not a “comic” poem, or a pastiche, but an actually funny poem with, you know, jokes in it and stuff; or 3) write a proper parody – something which goes all out in illustrating the absurdity of trying to sell cheese via poetry (maybe save on copy by quoting some James McIntyre instead). What we get is a half-arsed attempt at all three which lands nowhere near any: it has no jokes, but is instead jokey; it has no point, but sounds like it ought to have if you’re not really listening.
As such, the whole thing is a patronising mess – it fails because it underestimates the intelligence of its audience: it hints at substance on the one hand and humour on the other, without bothering to display either, as if the gesture should be enough. This seems to be quite a common outcome for adverts featuring poetry. Perhaps advertisers should think about why they want to use verse to sell stuff in the first place.