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They don’t make them like this any more

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Sit down, if you dare, with someone of a certain age (such as me) and get them to talk about TV programmes. They’ll tell you tales that forty or fifty years ago, TV was so much better, with Porridge, Monty Python, Cathy Come Home and a dozen other classics. And if you’re not careful, you’ll go away a believer.

The truth is that, for every great show, there were fifty Crossroads, with dodgy sets, dodgy acting, dodgy storylines and even dodgy names (was there ever a real person called Amy Turtle?). In truth, the Golden Age of British TV was closer to iron pyrites.

It’s a thought I couldn’t get out of my head the other week when I visited the IPA 100 Years of British Advertising exhibition in Brick Lane. As I walked in, I faced an array of buzzing, electronic snow-heavy pictures on ancient TV screens, a fridge freezer, a few shelves in an ill-stocked larder… Was the Golden Age of British Advertising mis-remembered too?

But what was this? The snow drifted. Settled. And formed the shape of the Smash aliens. Then came the Guinness horses. The Tango man. The Cadbury’s gorilla. The Secret Lemonade Drin— I stood transfixed, and so did my family, dragged along to spend some “quality time” with Dad.

We tore ourselves away, and walked down a corridor with a batch of patriotic posters. “Be like Dad. Keep Mum.” “Dig for Victory” and “Come into the Factories” rubbed shoulders somewhat incongruously with ads promoting other conflicts: “The Doctor can’t see you now” and “New Labour New Danger” election ads. Next room, and a recreation of a restaurant. It had been the stamping ground where creatives tossed around a few “back of a fag-packet” concepts over a wicker-basketed Chianti, before buffing and honing the rough cuts into classic form. On each table, there stood a place card that told you a few facts about the ads. Did you know, for example, that the Smash alien that falls over laughing was a happy accident?

But there was something nagging at the back of my mind. I couldn’t put my finger on it. Nor, to mix the metaphor even further, was it on the tip of my tongue. My son and I ambled into the digital room, where stories told of the good old days of ten years ago when social was a new gleam in a few eyes. YouTube’s “Tell a Story in Six Seconds” campaign looped on one wall. We queued for what turned out to be a pretty dire VR demonstration. A few children cried as men in red glasses said “Time’s up” and whipped off the goggles. A few men grumbled as the VR didn’t really take off. I was one of them.

The last room. A chance for my whole family to appear on screen in front of an audience as we presented a Channel 4 news programme. A VR opportunity to interact with the Xmas 2016 John Lewis ad. And a sudden moment of epiphany as I realised what was missing.

Most of the last thirty years.

Almost all the ads, posters and TV spots were from the 60s through to the 80s, with only the gorilla and Guinness to represent the (almost) present day. Sure, there was a brilliant updating of old ads to create a new ad for the event – but even that was c20th-heavy. In the new millennium, as far as I could see, pretty much the only thing that still existed was social. With, ironically, printed information sheets to put its point across.

No Adidas Forever Sport. No Honda Grrr. No O2 Be more dog. It didn’t seem a lot.

Still, there’s a positive side to all this. There’s still the chance for us all to make an impact on future memories and, who knows, maybe even appear in the 2117 retrospective of the new Golden Age of British Advertising. Time to start thinking.

Paul OBrien

About the author

Senior copywriter and former fencer who loves things he can’t understand. Which means he loves lots of things.

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