John, Paul, George and Jingo

When you think of Britain does a wave of images, sentimental, yet faintly militaristic, rush through your brain? Do soldiers, barrel-rolling Spitfires, smiling farmers and Eric Morecambe pass in tight formation before your mind’s eye? And tell me, these pictures, where did they come from?

Don’t worry I’m not recruiting for the bnp, I just have very neat hair for a copywriter. And if a man can’t don lederhosen and goose-step around a flaming cross in the privacy of his own home then what, I ask you, is this once great nation coming to?

Sorry. I merely wish to demonstrate that if anyone is responsible for the manufacture of our national identity then, as creators of advertising, we are. We have within our power the one element of British culture that is, properly speaking, shared. I think we should be more careful with it.

A really good advertising idea should be surprising, simple and also true. The complex of denial and nostalgia that has grown up around the symbols of British nationalism mean that they have an effect not unlike that of a good idea. Nationalism has been strictly verboten for so long that it has become shocking. Yet its iconography is still instantly recog­nisable; it was designed to inspire respect in the illiterate, so nothing could be simpler. And because inside every Creative Review-reading, millennial Englishman is a vastly overweight football hooligan with the Union Jack painted on his stomach, dying to get out and chant racist abuse in your earhole, it feels true. In fact, because this shameful lodger has been so long denied, to see him reflected in the roaring face of Wayne Rooney, daubed in the blood of the French, feels like something of an affirmation.

And if a direct appeal to your inner chauvinist seems too unsubtle, too, well, American, there’s always irony. What, after all, could be more British than the absurd customs of heraldry, applied to punks and pearly kings. John Lydon in three-piece tweeds. The Union Jack in a palette by Paul Smith. Sarcasm makes jingoism sophisticated.

Everyone knows what Samuel Johnson said about patriotism. Personally, I reckon Boswell made that one up because what Johnson wrote was that a true patriot had “one single motive, the love of his country”. No second motive, notice, not the desire to sell football boots, a tv channel, oven chips, or bread. If the idea of a brand ‘caring about the environment’ is absurd, the idea of a brand caring about Britain is either a denial of that brand’s employees’ right to political self-determination, or an insulting lie.

If there was ever a time when advertisers could behave patriotically then it’s during a massive economic downturn. To quote Churchill, the country’s finest copywriter, “now we are the masters of our fate”. This is the chance we’ve been waiting for: to prove advertising’s worth by doing the one thing that it’s really meant to do – selling product.

Or was that not what you meant when you said British advertising was the best in the world?

Gordon Comstock is an advert­ising copywriter basedin London. He also writes the Not Voodoo blog at notvoodoo.blogspot.com

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