The debate about bodies, naked or clothed, rages on – with exciting implications for advertising and marketing.
As is usually the way, government and medical opinion are united in simultaneously pulling in two different directions. Proposition one holds that people – and let us never forget that includes women – are far too fat and are becoming ever more so, risking diabetes and heart disease in the process, and should be thinner. Proposition two maintains that women are haunted by the “tyranny” of feeling they must be thin, and are suffering accordingly. Taken together the two propositions form a third, namely that it is none of the Government’s business whether people are fat or thin, tall or short, hairy or bald.
But if you do something silly, such as forming a ministry for women and putting Tessa Jowell in charge of it, you must accept that the consequence will be silliness. And so it came to pass. Ms Jowell, for lack of anything better to do, mounted a “body image summit” attended by various harpies from the world of women’s magazines. Later that day, her department announced that the Broadcasting Standards Authority had agreed to count the number of fat and thin women on television, and that fashion editors were entering into a self-regulatory arrangement to ban anorexic models from their pages. Officials let it be known that Ms Jowell was “thrilled” at these accomplishments.
Within 24 hours she was less thrilled when it became clear that no one – not the magazine editors, nor the broadcasting authority – had agreed to anything. The message, of course, is that the human frame does not lend itself to state regulation and is best left to private enterprise. Fortunately there is ample evidence that rugged individualism is asserting itself in this sphere, albeit at a terrible price to onlookers of a sensitive disposition. Semi-nudity and public exhibitionism are the dominant passions of New Britain, and they cut across old class divides with an ease that must please that dour egalitarian and son of the manse, Gordon Brown.
Last week, for example, the papers were full of pictures of Lee “Oat Head” Owens, a 20-stone soccer hooligan who deployed his craft with aplomb in Brussels. His chief characteristic is a vast belly adorned with tattoos, which he displays with the aid of an artful fashion device, the crop-top T-shirt.
Meanwhile, at Royal Ascot, Pookie Camroux-Oliver wore a Paul & Zoe dress and a hat by madcap milliner Cosmos Jenks, but was comprehensively upstaged by Melissa Hartman, whose red dress had a hole in the middle, to display her navel tattoo of cannabis leaves, a coup d’esprit perfectly complemented by an idiotic grin.
Put together public nudity and a craze for tattooing, and what do you get? The new billboard. The opportunities for advertising are enormous: in the case of Oat Head literally so. In this demotic age, it would be a foolish advertiser who passed up the opportunity to see his slogan or logo on a 16-sheet belly flanked by riot police. But as we now know, soccer hooligans are in the main drawn from the ranks of professionals – barristers and engineers – thus broadening the possibilities of the new medium. For instance, lawyers deftly hurling plastic bar furniture at passing Turks might drum up some useful business were their navels tattooed with the scales of justice and the slogan “No win, no fee”. Engineers photographed naked and comatose in the gutters of Europe might profit were their buttocks to bear the slogan “Cadcam ‘R’ Us”.
Placing commercial messages on naked beer bellies, buttocks, breasts, and thighs not only makes sense, it is also the natural culmination of modern developments in advertising. Not so long ago, when the world was still precious and simpering, advertising was often witty, warm, engaging, and even life-enhancing.
None of that has a place in Oat Head’s New Britain. The evidence is all around us in advertising that shouts messages such as, “Go on, sing with your mouth full”, “Surprise your girlfriend. Take her sister to Paris”, “No nurse, I said prick his boil”, and, of course, that pinnacle of the art that so captures the zeitgeist, FCUK. (One of our football hooligans – and let’s not be mealy-mouthed about this: they are the best in world – photographed giving a Nazi salute in Brussels, bore on his chest the tattooed legend “Britian”, a clever, post-modern misspelling that might have preceded advertising’s seminal work on behalf of French Connection.)
For too long advertising was the monopoly of a privileged few. These were people hidebound by notions of convention and taste, often educated in elite institutions, and affecting to be professionals. Sexist, ageist, and worse, they pandered to middle class morality. In thrall to regulators, they spoke of standards and values and sought to elevate both. Now all that has been swept away, freeing advertisers to talk in the authentic tones of the football terraces. Oat Head shall speak unto Oat Head. It is the People’s advertising.