The stock market is often justly accused of short-termism, of putting quick profit before the longer-term interests of corporate planning. But there are times when the world of marketing makes the City look like a model of far-sighted design and patient cultivation.
Blame for the decline of the British pub, for example, can be laid at the gaudy door of marketing. It began with the discovery of the youth market. When icy post-war austerity melted away and sun-dappled affluence stole across the land, spotted youth came blinking out of the shadows and found there was money in his pocket. With no responsibilities, no mortgage, and no thought beyond the present, he spent as quickly as he earned. The world of marketing was instantly besotted and has been ever since.
How could it be otherwise? When kindly fate delivers a new breed of consumer who is impressionable, gullible, imitative, in thrall to fashion, and hell bent on spending, it is as if the gates of paradise have been flung open and the rivers of milk and honey undammed. The brewers with their marketing minions in obedient attendance were among the first to pay homage to youth and go all out for the spotted pound. Pubs that had evolved over centuries and to which access had been granted as one of life’s rites of passage were gutted and refitted to please the taste of youth. Anything that could be condemned as old-fashioned was junked in favour of the contemporary, the noisy, the colourful, the garish, and the restless.
Once young punters tired of one theme, out it went and in came another. And so it does to this day, the current vogue being for ersatz Irish pubs with names such as Scruffy Murphy’s.
When there are quick returns to be made in a market so competitive that if you don’t move fast the competition will, what price an ancient institution? Under the old order, youth discovered pubs and there was continuity. Under the new, pubs discovered youth and there was a turmoil of destructive change.
Once let out of the bottle, the bewitching power of youth proved inexhaustible. To the brewers it is still the headiest of concoctions, hence the suicidal short-termism of the alcopop business. Perhaps because marketing is condemned ever to look forward and never back, it has no memory of a Labour government and of the desire to regulate and circumscribe. Of all industries, the alcohol business should be mindful of just how close it treads to the borders of official approbation.
And by the sweetest of ironies, those who would proscribe and suffocate with rules are driven, or so they claim, by the interests of youth. Even those whose instincts do not favour trammels and constraints are easily silenced when the spotted tendency is said to be at risk. So the brewers who have spiked lemonade, packaged it with youthful appeal, and prospered in the short-term will have no cause to wail when the bludgeon of regulation falls. When you are so busy picking daisies on the downtrack that you don’t notice the approach of the express to your rear, you have, as they say, only yourself to blame.
Television, of course, except for a false Reithian dawn, has always been enslaved by the demands of youth. Programme makers, like brewers, would rather face death at the hands of Choctaw squaws than the disgrace of being shunned by the 18- to 35-year-olds. They need not worry. For a largely unremarked phenomenon ensures that the appetite for televised rubbish extends far beyond the narrow demographics envisaged by the TV companies.
The proletariat, like youth before it, today enjoys more disposable income than at any time in history. And, by a happy coincidence, the ageing proletarian shares, or imitates, marketing’s passion for youth. Why else should middle-aged men wear baseball caps, grow ponytails, and flaunt shirt tails? And by yet another happenstance, the proletarian, irrespective of years, has the tastes, judgement and mental development of a juvenile. So you can fill the screens from morn till night with Noel Edmonds, and Reeves & Mortimer, and Ruby Wax, and a thousand other things as grisly and flesh-creeping and know that a vast audience will grin and burble and dribble its delight.
With pubs a lost cause, and television a cause that never was, the educated middle class had but two sanctuaries, Radio 4 and the quality press. Both are now under threat from what the Americans call “dumbing down”. And yet again an obsession with youth is the mainspring of change.
The BBC has announced that after the election is over it will begin a review of its news coverage by seeking the opinions of “focus groups” made up of the young and members of the C1 and C2 socio-economic groups. No matter that the young already have Radios 1, 2 and 5, all of which broadcast news at breakneck speed and in easily digestible bite-sized chunks.
But whereas the BBC is motivated by class hatred and political correctness, the quality press is driven by the short-termism of marketing. Like the brewers, it can no longer wait for young people to grow up. It must go a-courting. And that, boys and girls, is how the Spice Girls, Paula Yates, Twiggy’s hairdresser, Mrs Tom Cruise, Roddy Llewellyn, Julia Carling and many more besides come to strut the once august pages of The Daily Telegraph.