Thursday, 12 December 2013

Poetry in Advertising

By now you’ll have seen enough Christmas adverts to make you stick a fork in your eye. Maybe there’s one in particular which has you reaching for sharp objects. Maybe it’s the one with all the rhyming, windows and Big Macs.  

Moaning about Christmas adverts is picking low-hanging fruit, but there’s something particularly annoying about this one. Now, I like poetry. I think poetry can be fun. I think that it can do great and important things. So naturally I might've been annoyed that the emotional effect of poetry was being manipulated, whored out to sell me chips and coke. It turns out this is a little na├»ve, verse has been used in advertising since its inception. Rhythm, rhyme and cadence are the bread and butter of most copywriters, the basic idea being that if something rhymes then it’s easier to remember. It's been a rule from bards singing Beowulf to ‘A Mars a day helps you rest and play’. And yet while it may be an old technique, there's no denying that poetry in advertising has seen something of a rise in recent years.  

The 2009 advert for Cathedral City, for example, is pretty similar to the recent lot of McDonald’s adverts.  Just as in Cathedral City, where you’ve got a list of different people all united by a shared love of cheese, so too in McDonalds you’ve got a strong impression of social get-togetherness; shots of families, couples, old-people all sat behind glass windows. Here it’s not really the food being sold but a place for everyone to share, from children to the eldery, all of them to come together like a massive family dotted around a sparkly greenhouse. And the verse, mostly consisting of couplets, gives a solid backbone to both of these visions. It rocks back and forth, pleasingly rhyming, connecting A to B, C to D. 

Adverts are adverts. To criticise McDonalds for trying to convince me that the whole town is sat around in the warmth laughing over camera phones would be to have a go at it for trying to make me eat there. Of course it wants people to eat there. And if Cathedral City cheddar creates that sense of connection then I have no problem with it. I like cheese. I have friends who like cheese. If cheese is what brings people together then who’s to say there can’t be a poem about it. 

It isn’t the poetry itself that annoys me. What irritates me is the way these adverts equate the everyday public with simple rhyme. The ‘clocking off cabbies’, those returning from ‘pantomime clapping’, the poetry of their lives is meant to come across as simple, no-thrills, down to earth. Now you might argue that it succeeds, that it gets past the snobby aura a lot of poetry entails and gives us the ‘language really used by men’. And I’d agree with you in part, but I’d also argue that it can come across as massively patronising. It reduces the targeted audience to dumbed-down, unassuming rhyme. 

The line from McDonalds, ‘And behind all this glass, made of fire-blasted sand/ is a door you’ll adore when it’s pushed by your hand’, is the most tenuously put-together line ever, and it’s designed to be like that. It’s childish, it’s silly, but so what? Poetry in adverts are supposed to be cheesy, you might say. They're supposed to be easy to understand. If you want to see proper poems go read a book. Yet in the same year as the Cathedral City advert, Waitrose also used a poem. But this time there was no simple verse, for this upper-market chain it was John Keats that sold the wares.


The use of Keats can be seen as cynical for a range of reasons, but it’s the connection between an upper-middle-class supermarket and classic poetry which really stands out.  It seems to say that there’s one type of poetry for one market and one for another. It makes it painfully clear that there’re demographics to aim for, and that Keats rests more easily in one than another. No doubt it’s a view that makes sense from a marketing perspective, but I believe it’s a view that circumscribes poetry around class barriers and stereotypes both audiences and literature. 

I’m not arguing that all adverts need a resident romantic poet, nor that there is anything inherently wrong with playful verse. What annoyed me in the McDonalds advert, and what i'm arguing against, is the view that poetry needs to be associated with social demographics, that the lines between these groups can be so lazily drawn, and that the type of verse you experience should come down to how much you can spend on a hot meal.