Adverts on Netflix? Young generation may rebel even if the golden age of ads returns – Aidan Smith

The other day, driving my eldest daughter somewhere, which is of course my main role in life, the radio played a bunch of classic TV advertising jingles.

Glaikit Gregor Fisher in his classic cigar-ad incarnation as the Baldy Man
Glaikit Gregor Fisher in his classic cigar-ad incarnation as the Baldy Man

I remembered them all and was able to shout or sing the slogan just before it played. The daughter looked at me with displeasure, which is of course her main role in life.

I tried to explain that once upon a golden age of television, half of the entire output from four channels came with commercial breaks and we, that is her mum and me and everyone of our generation, just had to sit there and take it.

We couldn’t live-pause, then fast-forward once the ads were over. We couldn’t, having recorded a programme to watch later, blur right through them. The ability to act like one’s own TV scheduler, indeed act like God, was fantasy, a plotline lacking all credibility. None of us believed such powers were achievable, and nor indeed did we desire them.

Then, after the last jingle, came the reason for this megamix of sponsors’ messages with a report on how Netflix, the broadcast empire built on being ad-free, is shedding viewers at such a rate that it’s being forced to introduce a cheaper subscription which comes with commercials.

My 13-year-old, who only watches Netflix, screwed up her face. “But that won’t be us, Dad, will it?” she said and, before I could answer, groaned: “Yeah, yeah, cost-of-living crisis, suppose it will be.” Then came a strangulated squeak which Netflix fans everywhere will recognise as the signature of bratty princess Alexa from Schitt’s Creek: “Ewwww!”

Remember when ads were art? When they were better than the programmes? When showbiz careers were launched by them, or indeed stalled by them from being burned in the collective consciousness to the extent that those poor actors couldn’t walk down the street without being assailed with the punchline?

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It will be difficult to convince teenagers that such a time existed.

If my daughter, on her way to her bedroom and her self-tailored screen choices, was to even glance into the living-room at her parents watching terrestrial TV in the old-fashioned way, she might remark: “Not another generic ad depicting a bouncing family… or one where all the budget’s been spent on a knighted thespian’s mellifluous voiceover… or one which completely relies on the potency of cheap music with a choon plucked from dusty semi-obscurity whereupon its cult appeal is promptly ruined by over-exposure.” (Recent example: “I Saw the Light”. Todd Rundgren, you silly old fool, why sanction your loveliest non-smash for that bouncing family in a campervan flogging online bingo?).

It’s true that a lot of ads these days appear samey. For instance, when a couple of mature years pop up you don’t know whether the theme of their playlet is going to be bifold doors or Viagra.

Commercials were far superior when Leonard Rossiter was regularly dousing Joan Collins in Cinzano. The best ads were event TV and subsequent instalments were eagerly awaited. Collins, when she’s played her last-ever role, will be most fondly remembered for that moment, mid-flight, when she rescued her glass from a flying tray, only for Rossiter to hit the recline button on her seat.

Brilliant comic timing. Clever scripts. Artful direction. The most creative minds in advertising in the 1970s would later progress to the big screen. At least Alan Parker and Ridley Scott became movie directors. Tim Bell, on the other hand, went to work for the Conservative Party. (The slogan “Labour isn’t working” or Blade Runner – which would you rather have on your tombstone?).

But America – home of Madison Avenue, advertising’s holy sepulchre which inspired the drama Mad Men – thought Britain was crazy for making commercials which were subtle and sophisticated and didn’t simply wheel out a huckster in a shiny suit to wow a simpering housewife with a whizzo domestic wonder-product by spouting pseudo-scientific nonsense while ramming the container into the camera lens.

We used to have ads like this but then discovered irony, and was that ever more true than when Hamlet allowed a glaikit Gregor Fisher to promote their cigars having just suffered his sad photobooth humiliation, instantly conferring on him the epithet of the Baldy Man, which might have been his, er, crowning glory if he hadn’t quickly re-emerged, manky bandage on his bonce, as Rab C Nesbitt.

We also discovered innuendo and what might be called out-uendo. How on Earth did Super Soft get away with extolling the virtues of shampoo with Viking rape fantasies? Not all advertising was deserving of the industry maxim of being honest, decent and true.

Once upon that golden age, time moved so incredibly slowly, which was the case even amid the rapid-fire messaging of the ad slots. Milk Tray Man had to climb many mountains and scramble down countless gorges in order to deposit his box of chocs.

The unwrapping and first bite of a Flake happened languidly (and erotically, though who knew about that back then?). Bisto was poured carefully, though not as carefully as Guinness, and there was even less frenzy about the Gold Blend process.

JR Hartley did not race round second-hand bookshops searching for a copy of his fly-fishing tome. The Hovis boy pushing his bike up that steep cobbled hill may not be finished his bread deliveries even yet.

Eventually, in the smarmy words of the Cointreau ladykiller, “ze ice, it melts”, but this was back when the planet had sufficient quantities of the hard, wet stuff and not the Fox’s glacier mint which will soon be all that’s left, post-global warming.

My daughter’s generation, though, won’t wait for slow advertising and maybe not any advertising at all. Something for Netflix execs to ponder over their Hamlets (other brands are available).

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