The Parable of the Sewer – Mark Greene reflects on bangers and trash and poikilothermia.
No more Mr Nice Guy.
In my case, it wasn’t the straw but the sausage that broke the camel’s back.
But first I need to tell you that I’ve been reading a book about how and why some ideas, some products, some trends catch on in society and others don’t. The conclusion is that little things really can make a big difference. The knack is working out which little things. So, for example, if you want to stamp out violent crime in a rough neighbourhood in a city like New York, you fix the broken windows and focus your policing not on the violent crime but on petty crimes like pickpocketing. The surprising logic goes like this: environment makes a subliminal but powerful effect on behaviour. If a potential criminal thinks that this looks like an a neighbourhood that nobody cares about because the windows don’t get fixed, then they will conclude that no one is likely to care much if they mug a middle-aged man in broad daylight. Subliminally, the environment sends a signal… you can get away with this. Or alternatively you might not.
The book is called Tipping Point and it’s written by Malcolm Gladwell. The term ‘tipping point’ describes the moment at which some idea, product or behaviour ‘tips’ from a minority interest into an epidemic. Now obviously, this make interesting reading for people who would like to find a way to make Christianity ‘tip’ again in Britain. In fact, the book doesn’t present an overall theory of social change or Seven Steps to Marketing Success but the case histories provide much grist for the strategic thinker’s mill.
Well, in one area Britain has ‘tipped’.
And so have I. And, as I mentioned, it took a sausage to do it.
I’m driving along in my car and up there on a billboard is a 48-sheet poster of a couple of Walls sausages and a couple of frying eggs in a pan. The whites of the egg are extending finger-like towards the sausages. The caption reads “Why eggs want to get laid.” Well, we’ve become used to seeing pornographic images to sell perfume but, oh, Lord, now we’re using sex to sell simple family food like sausages.
So I write to the Chairman of Bird’s Eye-Walls:
Chairman, Bird’s Eye-Walls
PO Box 68
London EC4P 4BQ
Bangers & Trash
Your recent poster campaign for your sausages, “Why eggs want to get laid” is a small-minded, strategically flawed, tawdry little concept which has no coherent role for a company selling ‘family’ foods and is entirely out of line with your perceived company values. Furthermore, it is one more nasty little addition to the pollution of public space with messages that not only demean sex but increasingly rob children of their innocence. How do you suggest I explain this ad to my 5, 7 and 10 year olds as we drive along in our car?
Of course, you might say that in the grand scheme of things this smutty little pun is not the end of the world. And besides, isn’t everyone doing it? Of course they are. Like unrestrained dogs round lampposts. In advertising terms, the sheer commonness of the approach might be deemed reason enough not to pursue it. After all, if there are all kinds of ways to skin a cat there are surely just as many approaches to sell a pig. Your agency hasn’t updated your company’s image, they’ve smeared it in pigswill.
As a former Management Supervisor in the New York office of the fourth largest ad agency in the world I am only too familiar with all the rhetorical acrobatics that might have gone into the selling of such a creatively predictable approach to your marketing team: “Contemporary image, repositioning sausages for a new generation, blah, blah, macho creative humbug.” And all this followed perhaps by self-congratulatory drinks back at the agency. “Ah,” goes the burble, “People will write in about this one. The Grocer will give us some column inches.”
Well, maybe you got some PR. Maybe you’re selling a few more sausages but truly great companies find socially positive ways to sell their products..
I hope you’ll do something about this.
And I’d like to know what you think.
Wishing you all wisdom in all you do.
Well, so much for sausages.
But sausages were just the tip of the smut-mountain.
I’m watching the tele and on comes an ad for Alpen. There’s a normal looking woman having breakfast in bed extolling the virtues of Alpen. “Does it taste like cat litter? No. Is it worth giving up a Sunday morning roll for? No,” she says as her semi-comatose man emerges from under the duvet. “Come here then,” she says. The commercial cuts to a pack shot as we hear her say, “Is that it then?”
Was any of this necessary or even helpful? Why does sex have to be introduced into the sale of a breakfast cereal? Why does the direct allusion to a disappointing male sexual performance have to be part of the ad at all? And before the 9 o’clock watershed. Well, you could write to the manufacturer of a well-known snack food and ask them. They, in an attempt to illustrate just how little time it takes to prepare one of their products, compare it directly to the length of time a man takes to make love to his wife/girlfriend/mistress/partner.
But this isn’t just about ads.
It’s about the whole tone of popular culture.
Far, far too much is sexualised and, as such, the cultural guardians themselves become de-sensitised to the nature of the material they are presenting. So, at the Jubilee Pop Concert Tom Jones chose to sing Sex Bomb at 7.30 at night in front of a mass family audience. My three under elevens were much amused by the constant repetition of the ‘s’ word but what kind of total insensitivity leads to the choice of such explicitly sexual material at such a concert at such an hour of the evening. Later Jones and Blue sang the Full Monty pre-coital song “You can leave your hat on” whilst Ben Elton talked about “farts” and “pubic hair in the bath plughole of a student bedsit” Yah, well that’s nice.
And then I’m listening to daytime radio and there’s a croony little tune called ‘Insatiable’ which is clearly, explicitly about endless copulation. Well, now, I do want my 5 year old daughter singing along to that one. Then an ad comes on for Hamlet cigars. Now, Hamlet TV and cinema advertising was once marked by great wit and insight into a whole range of human disappointments and disasters. In this ad, the characters recount memories of their teen years but the gaff before the famous Bach air begins was about ‘Remember dressing up in your mother’s bra and knickers to discover what it would feel like to be a girl.” In a second ad a man is telling his wife/girlfriend/mistress/partner/potential lover that her knickers are wrinkling up and making her look somewhat corrugated. To which the reply comes, “I’m not wearing any knickers.” Well, do we really need this in daytime radio?
And, by this time, you might well ask do we really need all this in the pages of Christianity and Renewal?
Well, indeed. The main point is that the obsession with human sexuality has become the default mode for much of popular culture. If you can’t think of anything interesting to ask a celebrity in an interview, ask about their private lives; if you can’t get a way of getting people to watch your programme, get members of the general public to talk about their sexual experiences; if you can’t think of a way of selling a product, add smut.
I know I’m sounding as if I’m one blue rinse away from turning into Mary Whitehouse but there are worse fates and she did turn out to be right about a great many things. The problem about the ubiquity of smut is that pretty soon we don’t notice it. We shrug our shoulders and move on. Life is too short. But Tipping Point reveals that one of the ways to clean up the neighbourhood is to go for the little things. So perhaps we shouldn’t let companies and broadcasters carry on adding to the smut-mountain because, quite apart from anything else, if we do, things will only get worse. And they have, haven’t they?
Still, this is not just about tutting at smut, it’s about the wider question of what those in authority permit in public space, on air and in the cinema. It’s clear that commercial interests increasingly seem to rule. On what other grounds could The Lord of the Rings have possibly been given a PG 8 Certificate? Indeed, I’ve yet to meet anyone who has seen that very fine film who thinks it would be suitable for young children on the big screen. And when the British Board of Film Censors do give a film like Spiderman a 12 Certificate, their recommendation is promptly overruled by local authorities. In whose interest was such a decision? Warner Brothers? Odeon Cinemas? Not my kids, for sure. One 20-something friend even called me on the day after the opening to advise me not to take my kids to it. Can we trust those who give films certificates any more? Can we trust daytime radio stations? Can we trust the BBC? Can we trust the Advertising Standards Authority? They are reeds swaying in the prevailing fumes. Britain has tipped. Britain is a tip.
You probably know this.
And you probably also know this: the nervous systems of frogs doesn’t register slow increases in temperature very well. This accounts for the fact that you can pop a frog in a pot of cold water , turn on the gas and it will happily sit there not noticing that it’s being boiled to death. The condition is called poikilothermia.
We’re boiling to death.
Oh, and we don’t live in a pond we live in a sewer.