They say time is a two-way street. The further one gets from a specific period, the vaguer memories become, but simultaneously it can be brought into sharper focus. The 1980s are a case in point. By now, there’s a whole phalanx of clichés – shoulder pads, big mobile phones, ra-ra skirts, that British Gas share price unveiling ceremony on the side of a skyscraper that didn’t quite work – which enable the lazy and the half-bothered to miss the point as effortlessly as they can with any other previous decade. But similarly, little bits of ephemera float to the surface, mundane little noodles which just happen to sum up a time in thirty seconds more accurately and succinctly than a thousand Peter Yorks. And here it is.
You’ll have to bear with your ISP as you chug through that daytime telly address caption, I’m afraid. And don’t be fooled by that absurdly ostentatious Rover advert – it may look like the commercial in question, but it’s the one that comes next which holds the real riches. Let’s go!
“I’m a fashion model!
I’m right on top!”
Ooh, there’s so much going on here! Well actually there isn’t, but it looks like there is, and maybe that’s the point. The basics first – it’s the mid-’80s, and it’s fashion. First thing we hear, naturally, is the frenzied sound of the auto-wind mechanism on an Olympus Trip. Yes, it’s been a good five years since Girls on Film, but the old grams are the best. To accompany this, the visuals have gone for that Paintboxy cut-’n'-paste look, a la The Clothes Show when Selina Scott and that woman who makes belts out of Coke cans were still on it. A kind of not-quite-experimental ‘let’s make the telly look like a pace of Blitz!‘ effect, which of course never works, and thus adds to the charm.
The only appropriate musical accompaniment to a slightly aimless Paintbox wilderness is, of course, a slightly aimless Fairlight wilderness. Hence the sloppily-applied guitar chord samples. (Nearly two years before Tone Loc, ad fans! And nearly two years more rubbish, but never mind.) And over the top? A rapping model, of course. Despite the best efforts of Whose Line is it Anyway? by 1986 it was still possible to go on the telly and rap in a sort of plodding, Mr Plow way in whatever accent you liked, thus embarrassing anyone under seventeen. (Nowadays of course, you have to try your damndest to sound a bit ‘street’ and do lots of bits of business with your knuckles, thus embarrassing everybody.) The accent our model friend has chosen, of course, is Squeaky Sloane, a sort of transitionally girlish register somewhere between Anneka Rice and Toyah Willcox. This should make things all the more annoying, but actually it’s rather sweet, rendering the opening lines more in the manner of a small child plundering the dressing-up box than a haughty bitch pushing her ill-gotten career in your face.
No time to stop!”
Of course you are, dear! Never mind the fact you seem to have hit on a job that doesn’t actually require you to move a muscle. (In fact, our friend’s head, if you look closely, has been severely restrained in order to make that bit of ‘changing outfit’ telly magic work, seemingly in one of those Victorian neck-braces Henry Fox-Talbot used to screw dowagers into prior to one of his famous hour-long-exposure daguerreotypes.) But what we have here is a daintily rapped example of that great 1980s advertising innovation, The Bird’s Eye Fallacy.
Bird’s Eye, as the slogan had it, was ‘the bird of freedom’, liberating people from their busy routines by flogging square lumps of cod in unopenable bags. Of course, everyone knew that to heat up one of these tasty polythene-cocooned creatures, or indeed to pop a breeding pair of its close cousin, the Findus Crispy Pancake, under the eye-level, took as long if not longer than it would to, say, make a nice sandwich or something. The only time you would, logically, choose the former over the latter is if you just plain couldn’t be arsed making a nice sandwich, and would be happy with the relative surfeit of starch, red hot parsley sauce and guilt that came from making a pact with the Bird of Freedom as long as it let you off all that daunting business with the bread knife. So it was understood, almost from day one, that ‘your busy lifestyle’ was flattering code for ‘your lazy fat arse’, and advertisers and consumers got on with their busy lives accordingly.
“I drink Instant Bovril when my body’s on go!”
Now, you might think the incongruity of the product in this fashionable context would constitute a ‘steps back in amazement!’ reveal. Not a bit of it. There it is, plain and businesslike, in her hand (after she’s changed into a weird-looking ‘and this is me’ leotard ensemble). A lesser advertiser would make more of that incongruity: There’d be a big posh flat in Frankfurt or somewhere international like that, with all the models lounging elegantly about drinking Perrier and Moet and stuff like that. Then, in walks the Head Model (whoever she was at the time – Marie Helvin or Koo Stark or Maria Whittaker – I’m no expert) drinking openly from a mug of – shock on the untermodels’ faces! – Bovril! In fact, this was done a few years later, with Jerry Hall being all smugly contrary with her beverage (Your Mum: ‘Cuh! Bet she’s never touched a drop in her life!’), but that’s in the distant future. Here it’s just brought out – literally – of nowhere like a cow-based cousin of the Nescafe beans. There’s also a doctoral thesis to be written on the linguistics of the phrase ‘my body’s on go’, but that’s for greater minds than mine to wrestle with.
“One cup – twenty calories!
That’s real low!
And another thesis please, Doctor, on what led her to substitute the winsomely transatlantic ‘real’ for the more appropriate ‘really’. But then we are moving in a
mad and confusing world, where you could be strapped to a brace in Milan one day, and screwed to a support in New York the next. Perhaps to reflect this mind-boggling chaos, our man at the Fairlight chooses this moment to unleash his piece-de-resistance, accompanying the pack shot with a couple of bars of The Beach Boys’ Help Me Rhonda played on car horns by a performing seal. Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman and Nigel Ogden combined couldn’t have put it better, whatever ‘it’ is. Less successful is that echoey ‘yeah!’, presumably meant as a yelp of agreement from The Woman in the Street as to the product’s Bovrilly goodness, though it’s more likely to put you in mind of the poor girl who had to go on Top of the Pops, stand behind a sweater-clad Bill Withers, and mime to those ‘Hey! Hey!’ samples that plagued that ’80s Lovely Day remix. Even Kit and the Widow would have trumped that.
“It’s quick to mix, it’s the taste for me!
Instant Bovril: naturally!”
So we’ve had Point One of this advert – Bovril = slim = models! But the luckless copywriters have been given two points to get over in their allotted thirty seconds by the Beef Corporation of London (or whoever), namely the inherent naturalness of the stuff. That’s a mechanically-extracted essence of beef carcasses, a product of the industrial revolution, as repackaged into instant powdered form during the heady, nuclear-powered days of the space race. Good luck with that account, old chap! Oh, and the china cup may provide the requisite modelly glamour, but it’s breaking one of the cardinal rules of advertising, which clearly states that all homely drinks – Bovril, Horlicks, Cup-a-Soup, Lemsip – must by law be consumed on camera from a big colourful mug with the product’s name emblazoned on the front. You muck about with this sort of thing at your peril.
“Whatever the city, you’ll hear my voice!
Instant Bovril, the natural choice!”
Not so much tying things up as floundering with them for thirty seconds in the manner of Clive Dunn trying to put up a deckchair, then giving up and throwing them in a heap in the corner of the room, our model signs off before being wheeled away to the catwalks of Paris, with only her Olympus Trip and Swan jug kettle for company. It’s been special. Indeed, this ad holds its hypnotic power to this day, if the likes of this fellow
are anything to go by. Ah, those illustrious blue eyes…