Francis Showering, who has died aged 83, was, along with Bernard Matthews, one of the marketing giants of the 20th century.
Both men in their different ways transformed the nation’s habits and in turn found the fortunes of their products influenced by social change. Though Matthews’ achievement has proved the more enduring – we now eat turkey all the year round rather than solely as a Christmas treat, just as he intended all those years ago – Showering’s was the more remarkable.
To make fermented fizzy pear juice drinkable is no mean accomplishment, but to persuade an entire generation of women that to sip a “genuine champagne perry” from a saucer shaped glass is the very essence of smart sophistication, that’s the work of a marketing genius.
True, Babycham was launched in the Forties and enjoyed its greatest success in the Fifties, so Showering was a man of his time. In those decades it was not common for women to go into pubs, although, English being a wonderful complex language, it was thought a highly common thing for a woman to do. In the South, only tarts frequented licensed premises, and they drank port and lemon, leaving great lipstick smears on the glass. Up North, the only females in bars, other than those pulling the pints, were grizzled matrons, and they drank milk stout in the dark recesses of a snug.
Whether Showering sensed that a social revolution was about to break and in the process engulf the masculine retreats of Dog & Duck and Pig & Whistle we shall never know. But more than any other man he was responsible for ushering in the age of the female bar fly.
I suspect that it happened more by accident than design. Showering was born into a West Country family of brewers and cidermakers and, as an early ambition to be an engineer suggested, he had a creative turn of mind. He was not content merely to preside over production, he wanted to invent, and Babycham was the result. In this instance, necessity was not the mother of invention. Nothing in that golden age of sweating artisan and foaming ale suggested a huge pent-up demand for fizzy pear juice. Showering’s stroke of genius was to invest his product with cuteness and aim it at women.
Everything from the tiny, well-packaged bottle to the Bambi-like creature in the advertisements was cunningly designed to appeal to a female population which, as luck would have it, was teetering at the pub threshold. Any young woman uncertain of what to do in the strange forbidding surroundings of the Old Dun Cow could with a surge of glad confidence declare “I’d love a Babycham”. It broke the ice, it broke the barriers, and it broke the hearts of gnarled traditionalists.
Babycham’s success did not survive the Sixties. By then women were freely accepted in saloon bars, though less so in public bars, which encouraged the brewers, in the interest of profit rather than social engineering, to do away with the latter. Sixties woman, liberated by the Pill and urged on by Germaine Greer, rejected the simpering manipulation behind a drink designed specially for the fair sex, and opted instead for gin and tonic. Babycham made the transition from sweet sophistication into a bad taste joke.
But, as an agent of social change, the winsome little water deer with the huge bow tie and the bubbles springing from its hooves was as influential as Stalin and its achievements more lasting. Russian communism has gone, but the women are still in the pubs. And how. Today, the transformation for which Showering was perhaps in part unwittingly responsible has neared completion. From seldom stepping into licensed premises, to doing so with a contrived air of sophistication and a well-preserved sense of femininity, to sinking pint after pint of strong lager with back-slapping gusto, the British woman drinker has come a long way.
It will be for future social historians to judge the effects of such sweeping change. Contemporary writers, however, evince unease, citing a “frightening escalation of female alcoholism” and questioning the kind of public house female bonding that manifests itself in “foul jokes, big belches, and threatening looks”.
Showering’s revolution will be complete when pubs become the preserves of females, and men, resentful and alienated, stay away. The time will be right for a marketing genius to come along and design a drink just for men. She might call it Bass.
Fate has been kinder to Bernard Matthews. Whereas feminism did for Babycham, that other social obsession of the age, health faddism, has ensured the continuing sale of turkey, which, being a white meat, is one of the keys to immortality.
Our social historian will also ponder the capricious nature of a health propaganda, which, while “getting home the message” that red meat is as dangerous as rat poison, fails to make stick the warnings that more women are taking up smoking than men, and that women are more liable to injury by alcohol than men. Could it be that advice selectively given to women is rejected on the ground that to discriminate in this way is inherently sexist?
It would not be the first time that the claims of science were denied because they failed to accord with human wishes. Charles Darwin had a dreadful time trying to convince his contemporaries that men were descended from apes. Curiously, 100 years later Germaine Greer conveyed the same message to a rapturously receptive audience. Now, at last, thanks to her and Francis Showering, we are all, man and woman alike, belching into the same pint pot. Only contentment remains elusive.
MARKETING WEEK SEPTEMBER 15 1995