Crap Verse in Ads – We have seen the Queen of Cheese (and this is a poor imitation)

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.

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Crap Verse in Ads: Mission Statement

Like many people who live in London, I spend most of my commuting time in a state of perpetual rage. And like most people who live in London, that has nothing to do with overcrowding, delays or any of the other inconveniences of urban travel. It is entirely due to this:

Last year Transport for London decided that, rather than having simple signs representing the stern voice of the establishment saying things like ‘Keep Your Feet Off The Seats’, ‘Give Up Your Seat To Those Who Need It More Than You Do’, or ‘For God’s Sake Just Show Some Basic Human Decency, Will You?’ commuters instead needed to be jollied into standard civility through the combined media of cartoons and verse.

There were so many things about these adverts that were an affront to the sensibilities of any thinking person that it was hard to know where to start. The pettiness of many of the injunctions? The patronising tone? The fact that some of the posters appeared to blame the passenger if they had the temerity to feel sick on the Tube (maybe because they were in a sweltering, speeding tinned meat container half a mile under the ground in the middle of July)? The contribution to the continuing matey-fication of public discourse (matey-fication: when everything from food packaging to arrears statements wants to be your mate rather than just conveying the information it set out to convey in the most straightforward way possible)?

Faced with all these competing insults, I did the only thing any rational person would do under the circumstances: I wrote a poem. Unfortunately, most of the poem’s effect relies on shouting, so there’s little point in reproducing it here.

But even that wasn’t enough, so I did the next thing any rational person would do under the circumstances: I started a tumblr. And like most people who start tumblrs I posted three or four entries and then promptly forgot all about it.

The account was called Crap Verse in Ads. It asked the question: if poetry doesn’t sell (and, being in the process of trying to open a poetry bookshop, I am continually being told it doesn’t), why does poetry sell… stuff?

It turns out I am not alone in wondering this, but over the next few Thursdays I will try to dig a bit further into the adverse effects of verse in ads.

In the meantime, here’s one of my entries for the TFL’s poster competition (realising they weren’t very good at producing the stuff themselves, they decided to outsource their copywriting for free):

I didn’t win.