Patronising the patrons

Why do companies insist on offering condescending advice on everything from skincare to gardening? Credit us all with a little more common sense, says Virginia Matthews

Remember that prolonged sunbathing is now considered bad for your skin. Use a good sun cream for protection, particularly on children, who can burn as easily in a garden as on the beach.” Those precious pearls of wisdom, carefully crafted to combine maximum blandness with minimum information – what is a good sun-cream? how often should it be applied? – are clearly aimed at the three people in Britain who haven’t yet heard that sun-bathing, far from being a harmless pleasure, can kill.

Yet the guidance notes don’t come from a sun protection manufacturer, nor a travel agent, but a supermarket turned DIY store whose prime purpose is to persuade us punters to buy more garden furniture – in this case parasols.

Because as anyone can see, or at least anyone who fears the damage that the midday sun will inflict on their epidermis: “It makes sense to create shade by investing in a beautiful big parasol from Homebase.” Presumably a beautiful big parasol from Texas Homecare doesn’t have quite the same sun-shielding properties.

The newly-minted Homebase “At Home In Your Garden” sales brochure, delivered to my door last week, follows a host of other retailers offering “good advice whether you like it or not”.

But I fear that if they cannot pitch their wise words at anyone with an IQ of more than ten – or at least drop the outrageously patronising “we know best” attitude – the best advice from consumers may be that the board of directors goes into the nearest garden incinerator.

And never mind the grave danger of self-combusting household matches. OK, there’s probably nothing inherently wrong with such worthy advice as: “To make the most of your garden furniture, consider some form of outdoor lighting so that you can eat, drink and relax far into the night…Outdoor flares are a quicker, cheap option for that spur-of-the-moment summer supper party… Alternatively, consider permanent outside lighting connected to the mains electricity supply… This must be installed by a qualified electrician in accordance with relevant safety regulations.”

But why? Because Homebase says so? Or because it’s less effort to quote the “Electrician’s Guide to Not Killing Yourself”, than to find a new way to sell outdoor living. The very fact that this Noddy guide to unseemly electrocution during one of those spur-of-the-moment supper parties comes from a retailer of outdoor lights – “you’ll find plenty of ideas to light up your nights if you treat yourself to a long browse around Homebase” – is both heavy-handed and condescending.

After all, if I want to blow the lights for miles around with an entire string of non-safety regulation fairy lights, then I don’t see what it’s got to do with my local DIY store.

For me, there is a distinction to be drawn between the food safety advice that Sainsbury’s and others have proved so adept at in the past and the sort of mindless, off-the-cuff household homilies that appear to litter every other contemporary mailshot.

When I was virtually ordered last month by a local nursery to “plant bigger shrubs at the back of borders, while always allowing smaller plants to take pride of place in the front”, I dismissed the squirm-makingly obvious advice as a bit of amateurish marketing by a tiny company up against it. But the unsolicited hints, tips and downright instructions haven’t stopped there.

In the past four weeks, the local building society has insisted that I “investigate better pensions deals with the help of one of their financial advisers”; a nearby sports complex has demanded that I “take extreme care when exercising in cold water”; and the local neighbourhood watch has instructed me to “asertain (sic) at least three new quotations for car insurance”.

I have felt so cajoled and bullied in recent weeks that I have pledged to boycott any firm that patronises me, any newspaper that hectors me and any TV programme that has the bare-faced cheek to order me to do something from the safety of its box. Which at last count left me with the Co-op and the weather bulletins.

While there’s an argument for saying that pointers to staying alive are right and proper when they come from HM Government they are downright insulting when they come from high street traders and marketers.

Another “good idea” from Homebase is this: “As the summer gets into full swing, it’s a good idea to check your old garden furniture over carefully, before it has to cope with another season, looking for wear and tear on both furniture and fabrics.” And leaving aside the small matter of a split infinitive, what are we to do, pray, when we discover that last season’s rattan love-seat does indeed look ready for the mulch-heap? Why, “it may be time to choose something new from Homebase, as the range and value has never been so good”.

Like those “advertising features” in local newspapers, the ones where the local chamber of commerce gets together to fund a shockingly biased “report” on the shopping opportunities of

No-news village, these retailer sales brochures are, I suppose, in-tended to blur the division between paid-for advertising and unsolicited, glowing editorial. Yet by dressing up what we all know are honest-to-goodness sales pitches in the skirts of Mrs Beeton, they are beginning to irritate rather than genuinely inform.

Sainsbury’s, for example, isn’t just a self-appointed expert on fire risk, electrocution and skin cancer; it also wants to do Dr Spock and Penelope Leach out of a job: “It’s a good idea,” says yet another column headed ‘Good Ideas,’ to “keep toddlers and young children under constant supervision when they are playing outside.” Why’s that then? “A garden provides a challenging and exciting environment for children, who are naturally programmed to explore.

“Make sure that garden gates are firmly shut, ponds and pools are covered or cordoned off and remember to teach your children never to eat any leaves or berries around the garden as some are highly poisonous. It’s all a matter of common sense really.”

Yes, precisely. So what on earth is it doing in a slick marketing mailshot that doesn’t need batty advice to hold it together? We like your furniture, Homebase. But please, leave the common sense to us.