In years to come it will be known as the Edinburgh Emancipation, the moment when advertising and marketing were not merely freed from the ancient opprobrium of the thinking classes but were ushered, blushing, into the warm glow of approval.
Old Labour despised advertising. To them it was the paint on the harlot face of capitalism. It was, however, a peculiarly narrow hatred. There was no evidence that the party’s working class supporters disliked advertising, or even gave it much thought. Nor did it trouble that part of Old Labour populated by gnarled and beery trade union leaders. The visceral loathing of advertising was confined to the intellectual wing of the party, the educated, middle class, dinner-partying tendency whose common ground was a profound distrust of business, commerce and markets.
It was in those very circles that Tony Blair cut his teeth, along with his monkfish and rocket salad. How extraordinary, then, that from such a seedbed of hostility to the wiles and dark arts of advertising there should spring a convert so zealous that he presumes not only to take the entire nation as his product, but also to rebrand it and, if you please, reposition it. Not even David Ogilvy at his most self-assured would have been so bold. Nor so foolish.
It is impossible to pinpoint the exact time at which the young Blair discovered advertising. His, after all, was a long Pauline road to revelation, along which he shed every last encumbrance of the old principles that slowed his progress and, happily, found newer, lighter ones in great abundance.
It would, however, be nice to think that a significant stage in the Enlightenment of Tony, a tableau worthy of Hogarth, was the moment when the sorcerer Mandelson vouchsafed the secrets of marketing into the young master’s ear. As each whispered mystery unfolded, disclosing wonders of media management, focus group and image consultancy, the beam on Blair’s face became wider and wider. And that, children, is how we come to have a prime minister whose beliefs vanished quite slowly, beginning with socialism and ending with the grin, which remains some time after the rest has gone.
But it wasn’t until last week, at the Commonwealth Conference in Edinburgh, that the true extent of Blair’s conversion became apparent. Of course, we all know that his electoral triumph earlier in the year was the consummation of a skillfully plotted and slickly executed marketing plan. But none of us could have suspected that such was the impression made by marketing upon the mind of the new prime minister that its vocabulary would form the heart of that peculiar, messianic language known as Blairspeak and its techniques the instruments of public policy.
But it is plain that, just as Blair took Old Labour and fashioned it through market research and single-minded purpose into New Labour, he is resolved to take Old Britain and shape it into something called Young Britain.
The research was done by a think tank called Demos. It revealed that “Britain is seen as a backward-looking country with bad weather, poor food and arrogant, unfriendly people.” Blair not only takes this seriously, he agrees with it. Or rather he takes it at face value because, for him, image is reality. “When I see pageantry in Britain, I think that’s great, but it does not define what Britain is today,” he says.
The answer is – what else? – a video. Britain: The Young Country, made by Spectrum Communications, had its world premiere at the Commonwealth Conference. It spread before the eyes of the assembled tin-pot dictators and Third World tyrants, a dazzling rebranded Britain, a land of fashion designers, pop stars, restaurateurs and advertising whizzkids. A land of Formula 1 cars, Canary Wharf, and the Notting Hill Carnival. A land of the solar-powered Sainsbury’s truck and the Cardiff Bay Barrage. A land, above all, of the Grin Unvanished, which lit the screen from west to east.
As many have pointed out, Britain is not a young country, either in terms of its demography or its history. But that is to miss the point. Rebranding does not concern itself with what something is, but what it should be seen as. Mr Blair believes in youth and vibrancy, in excitement and movement. And Mr Blair has discovered that what matters is not substance, but surface. Hence, Britain: The Young Country. As for the repositioning, that’s simple. The new rebranded Britain, says the PM, is to be “pivotal”. Any questions?
The whole exercise is as pointless as it is risible. But it is in one respect revealing. Mr Blair may have shed socialism but he has not rid himself of an organic view of the state. A country made up of individual men and women is not a brand to be packaged and remoulded. The last people who thought like that were followed into hell by goose-stepping marchers.
It may be flattering for marketing to find itself lauded and to hear its jargon used by government. But, as our mothers used to tell us, you are judged by the company you keep. It would be better for their health if advertising and marketing kept at arm’s length from this administration and, if at all possible, reacquired some of their old opprobrium.