Iain Murray: Age and experience shines in a dumbed-down world

It’s far too easy to believe that old people who say ‘in the good old days’ are past it, but the story of CDP illustrates things really were better then, says Iain Murray.

Few people will have heard of Adolf Green, the 85-year-old American lyricist who co-wrote Singin’ in the Rain, arguably the best musical film of them all.

Remarkable though it may seem to the young, a man who has reached such an impossibly great age still has the power of speech, as Mr Green demonstrated a few days ago when he delivered himself of the self-evidently true observation that the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber “lacked the effortless sophistication of Gershwin or Cole Porter”.

This truism would scarcely be worth comment were it not for the response of a spokesman for Lord Lloyd Webber, who said: “Adolf Green is an old man who was involved in some of the very great US musicals at a time that’s now gone by”.

Yet again an attempt is made to discredit a perfectly worthwhile, and in this instance authoritative, opinion on the grounds, not of its content, but of the age of its proponent. The implied logic is simple: if you are old – which today means over 40 – you are past it and your views are not worth a light.

The contempt for age is the means by which the insidious process of dumbing down is sustained. To complain of declining standards – and you have to be of a certain age to make comparisons – is to invite the rebuke that you are a mildewed relic living in the past. To be modern is to be good, and no questions asked.

And so it is that criticism of the enveloping tosh that comprises much of today’s television, literature, education, music, language, reason (these last two corroded by political correctness), and, yes, advertising, is breezily dismissed as nonsense spewed from the mouths of dotards and dribblers.

Every now and then, however, irrefutable evidence of a past superiority surfaces to confront the modern poltroon with evidence of his own inadequacy.

I was reminded of this last week, when I was sent of copy of Inside Collett Dickenson Pearce (CDP), a book produced by the agency to celebrate its 40th anniversary. To turn its pages is to revisit some wonderfully imaginative and creative work. The campaigns for Pretty Polly were both stylish and sexy, for Hovis nostalgic without being cloying, for Benson & Hedges inventive and eye-catching, and for Heineken so good that the slogan became part of the language, in a way that lesser ads could not reach. None of this remarkable body of work dates back to the ice age; it all happened within living memory. (If you count those over 35 as alive in any meaningful sense.)

Now look around you and despair. Where is the wit and style? In cor blimey bra ads? In women peering into their knickers to check their hair colour? In nipples serving as punctuation marks? (Har! Har!) In, most notoriously of all, fcuk?

CDP was able, with equal adroitness, to deploy wit – as in its campaign for Hamlet cigars – and information – as in its ads for Amnesty International.

Trevor Beattie, the creative giant behind fcuk, and a man who takes pride in what others would prefer to be hushed up, found the third way – neither witty nor informative.

His partner in this tawdry accomplishment is chairman of French Connection Stephen Marks. Since we have it on authority that there is no art to find the mind’s construction in the face, we must dismiss our first impression of Mr Marks, that he is a greasy, overweight vulgarian, and substitute that he is a learned, urbane and sophisticated fellow of refined manners and breeding.

He is certainly a man of vision. Whereas other clothiers, and not a few haberdashers, contrive to invest their wares with a distinction that seeks to elevate the taste of the buyer, Mr Marks is the first of his calling to imitate the pornographer and set out his stall for the crass and the base, a market that is large and lucrative. In a dumbed-down world they don’t come much dumber or down than the pitiable souls induced to shop at French Connection through a misspelt swear word.

One of CDP’s founding fathers John Pearce said the greatest sin in advertising was invisibility. It is a maxim that Trevor Beattie is fond of quoting. There are different ways of getting noticed. One is through style, wit and inventiveness, the other through shouting obscenities and throwing rotten fruit.

It has long been obvious that those behind the French Connection campaign are cynical and exploitative. Less plain was that they were cowardly, too. When it was announced that the company was to be banned from putting up posters without prior approval after its fcukinkybugger.com was held to be “deeply offensive and unsuitable”, a spokesman said, “I am surprised by the public response. It was not our intention to offend”.

It was the response of a schoolboy who, caught chalk in hand before a blackboard with the word “bum” scrawled on it, says, with wounded innocence, “What, me sir?”

If the intention was not to offend or upset, what was it? To delight and amuse? And where does that leave Mr Beattie’s assertion of his right to cause offence “even in the name of commerce” (whatever that means)?


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