Pouring cold water on our dreams is no way to sell

The latest campaign from Pimms tells it how it is: forget those hazy days on which to sup your tipple, summer is a washout. But who wants the truth? asks Iain Murray

These are disturbing times. First, as discussed on this page last week, market researchers discover there is no such thing as romantic love. Then, there is no such thing as romance.

The manufacturers of Pimms, that slightly odd drink associated with the English summer season, have set their latest television advertisements in the pouring rain after market research showed that the British “no longer relate to scorching temperatures and summer skies”.

A first quibble: what does this expression “relate to” mean? Almost certainly American, it probably has its origin on the psychiatrist’s couch, that bed of neurosis on which rich Transatlantic citizens seek to assuage their guilt by wrapping it in soothing poultices of meaningless jargon. When an American says, “I can relate to that” he may mean that he understands something, but more likely that he senses within himself some deeper emotional echo that allows him to feel the pain of whatever is the subject of his relating.

But whatever the phrase means – and I doubt that it has much meaning at all – it makes no sense when applied to the British and sunshine. The notion that we sun-starved Northern folk do not respond to sunlight, warmth, and cloudless skies is self-evident nonsense. For what happens when the sun shines? We instantly strip off and stretch out on the nearest available patch of grass or sand; we cannot wait to get into shorts too small for us; we wave two dismissive fingers at the health experts who warn that sunshine is a killer; we fill our media with the news that, gosh, it’s sunny. And what do we spend most of our savings on? Sunshine holidays, of course. To be chargrilled on a Barbadian beach is every Briton’s idea of heaven.

Look closer at Pimms’ research, however, and you will see there is nothing to suggest that we no longer relate to (respond to, want, need, bloody well crave) sunshine. All that it says is the reality of the English summer usually falls far short of the ideal.

Almost 70 per cent of those polled agreed that a “classic British summer day is as good as a summer day anywhere in the world”; slightly more – 73 per cent – said they would enjoy outdoor events and activities in the summer just as much if the weather were wet or overcast as if it were sunny.

What a wonderful endorsement of British stoicism. Let the tempests rage on Wimbledon and Henley, let the storm clouds gather over Epsom and Lord’s, and see if we care. Let nothing get between the English and their determination to make the most of a bad thing.

If only Pimms showed the same grit. To screen ads set in the rain – albeit humorous ones – is an admission of defeat. Worse, it is a negation of romance. We know full well that scorching summer sun is a rarity, but that is no reason to tread on our dreams. Take the romance out of advertising and you are left with nothing but dull information. Speaking for myself, I think the main function of Pimms, traditionally served in a long glass, the top third of which comprises vegetable matter such as leaves of mint, is to give women an insight into the male experience of drinking soup through a walrus moustache. The secondary purpose of the brand is to remind us of what summer ought to be like, not what it is actually like.

Aside from the critics of advertising, who would subject the accuracy of commercial messages to forensic testing, people do not want too much realism in ads. That is because almost all of consumerism is built on dreams. When we eat a Bounty bar we like the advertiser’s evocation of swaying palm trees and sun-soaked tropical pleasures, not the reality of cloying satiety and bits of desiccated coconut stuck between our molars.

When we are seduced by the prospect of driving a Porsche, what grabs us is the dream of tanking, top-down, along the open road, the wind blowing in our hair, the blur of admiring glances in our wake, not the reality of driving 100 yards around the corner and straight into a mile-long tailback of heavy goods vehicles.

When we razor our faces and apply the scented aftershave to our glowing cheek, our imagination conjures for a moment the soft, gentle touch of an admiring female hand, the murmuring of approval, the promise of sensual bliss. We don’t want the truth – the bang on the bathroom door and the raucous cry of, “What are you doing in there? Writing your will?”

When we look at the picture of the male model in the Armani suit, we briefly, in our mind’s eye, assume his being – trim, chisel-jawed, faintly sardonic, in short, a wow. For a fleeting, heaven-sent moment we are blind to the crumpled, slouch-shouldered, pigeon-chested, pot-bellied truth that is us, in Armani or out of it. So when the Pimms spokesman says: “Traditionally, our ads focused on Pimms being drunk on a hot, sunny day. The reality was something else and we wanted to convey that in the ads,” he treads on dangerous ground.

Look closely at the aura surrounding almost any product and you will find that the reality is “something else”. The wise advertiser cultivates the romance in a brand, not the grey, rain-sodden truth.

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