Do you ever get the feeling that the hand of progress is weighing too heavily upon your shoulder? Do you find all this talk of the pursuit of excellence burdensome? Do you want to scream when you hear marketing managers urge the need to deliver not merely customer satisfaction, but customer delight?
Well, let me reassure you: contrary to received wisdom, there is nothing to fear in the notion of progress. All that it connotes is some sense of onward movement, and that need be no more than the passage of time. True, it is commonly supposed that progress means some kind of advancement or betterment, but this need not be so.
Much of the problem lies in the restlessness of the American psyche. Ever since the opening up of the West, Americans have been obsessed by new frontiers, goals and missions; inspired by unattainable visions such as Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill”.
On this side of the Atlantic, we too have succumbed to the same delusion. Years ago, Dr Jacob Bronowski wrote and presented a BBC series, The Ascent of Man. The implication was clear: that it is the destiny of mankind to rise ever higher to new levels of attainment, cultural, scientific, artistic, and economic. It all sounds extremely demanding and wearisome, and, thank heaven, is not true.
For instance, were the BBC to make The Ascent of Man today, it would be presented not by some ancient academic and illustrated by archive footage of industrial machinery, it would feature exciting computer graphics and be fronted by Graham Norton, Lorraine Heggessey’s departing gift to the BBC. (During her spell as controller of BBC1 she did a great deal to scotch the notion that progress is inevitable.)
Of course, there will always be scientific discoveries, not all of them marking an achievement. While few would question that indoor lavatories improved the human condition, not everyone would think the same of, say, designer babies or dirty bombs.
Indeed, there is much all around us to console those who are troubled by the pressures of relentless advancement. For instance, the growing number of children who leave school unable to read or write is one in the eye for the ascent of man. And who can doubt that, as we grow ever richer and live ever longer, our contentment diminishes accordingly?
What we eat is another example of the myth of progress. To judge from the popularity of television cooking programmes, the advent of celebrity chefs, the plethora of restaurants across the land, the sale of recipe books, and the demand for huge, well-equipped kitchens in our homes, you would think that we had never eaten better or with greater discrimination. In truth, we seldom cook for ourselves; we prefer prepared meals with ingredients that are the modern equivalent of a witch’s brew; and we stand back and watch our children grow not just upwards, but outwards.
And whom do we blame for this lamentable lack of progress? Advertisers. What nonsense! Britain is fortunate in having advertising talent that is in every way equal to the challenges put before it. Take just one example: Pot Noodle. Now here is a product that exemplifies counter-progress. It serves no benefit whatsoever, other than to meet the financial requirements of shareholders in its manufacturer, Unilever. Though nominally a foodstuff, Pot Noodle is without nutritional benefit. It is synthetic in both taste and texture, and in a foolish world that took the pursuit of excellence literally, it would be used as landfill.
Mercifully, we are not led by the mantra of excellence. To its credit Unilever recognises that in Pot Noodle it has a product that is awful in the literal sense of being solemnly impressive. To contemplate a container of Pot Noodles is to realise that the achievements of man are as dust. Cleverly, Unilever realises that a rubbish product requires advertising of a similar quality, and is exceptionally fortunate in being able to call upon the services of creative brains equal to the task.
The latest result of this happy union is a TV execution featuring the “Pot Noodle Horn”. It features a young man who appears at first sight to be hiding a large erection behind a briefcase, but is later seen to have in his trouser pocket a brass trumpet. “Tom, have you got the Pot Noodle horn?” asks a young woman. At first he denies it, but then says, “Yes, it’s big and brassy and I am going to blow it.”
There is more, but you get the gist. The ad is a reassuring corrective to pompous and inflated pronouncements about progress and excellence. Years ago, it was thought that humour in advertising might aspire to wit, irony, understatement and allusion. Elitist cant, of course.
Unilever and its advertisers are to be congratulated for demonstrating the fallacy of progress and lifting from us the burden of ever-growing expectations. Jokes about erections have a universal appeal: they are obvious, undemanding, explicit and basic. They have no pretensions: they make no claims on intellect, assume nothing in the way of mental or emotional maturity, and delight people with learning difficulties. Above all, they are a joyous celebration of counter-progress – a comforting reminder that what is really meant by the ascent of man is a nudging reference to sexual arousal. Thank heaven for that.v