Walking down the street on my lunch break, I sometimes pass a delivery man wheeling a large handcart of Japanese food. The cart bears a striking message: ‘Creating a world where everyone believes in their own authenticity.’ It raises some immediate questions: for instance, what does it mean to believe in your own authenticity? How would you go about creating a world where everyone does? And what’s it got to do with Japanese food?
It’s unfair to single out the delivery service. Today, brands big and small have a Profound Statement to make. On my way home I pass a 30ft electronic billboard which displays a young couple embracing beneath a glowing night sky. The left side is filled with a portentous message: ‘Your time in the universe is finite. Don’t waste a second. Breathe it all in.’ The logo in the bottom right corner gently hints that you can begin by taking out a phone contract with O2.
Other campaigns are less existentially fraught, more utopian: Heineken has been campaigning for ‘an open world’, where people listen to each other and realise ‘that there is more that unites us than divides us’.
It wasn’t always like this. The successful slogans of the 20th century tended to be pragmatic (‘Go to work on an egg’), catchy (‘Beanz meanz Heinz’) or flattering (‘Because you’re worth it’). Now, advertising tries to address the meaning of life.
From 1974 to 2014, Burger King used the tagline ‘Have it your way’ — a straightforward promise that you could customise your burger order. Four years ago they switched to ‘Be your way’, with a senior executive explaining that they wanted something less ‘functional’. Now Burger King was ‘trying to elevate “Have it your way” to a state that’s much more emotional and centred around self-expression’. More recently, the company has shortened the slogan to the ambiguous ‘Your way’, keeping on board both those who want to express their true selves and those who just want extra onions on their bacon double cheeseburger.
In selling ‘self-expression’, Burger King was ahead of the curve. This year, the Toyota Aygo has been advertised in a series of short films about drag queens, with the slogan ‘Go your own way’. Bacardi went with ‘Do what moves you’, aiming to ‘shine a spotlight on the brand’s belief in the power of self-expression’. It seems to be a pretty widely held belief. ‘My style is who I am’, the new Ellesse sportswear ads on the Tube inform us. As it happens, sportswear brands were early adopters of the Profound Statement. Adidas has long claimed that ‘Impossible is nothing’, while Nike has urged ‘Just do it’ since 1988. Nike’s new campaign goes further, advising: ‘Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.’ You can only hope nobody takes it literally.
Even if nobody does, these empty phrases still have a quiet influence. A society lives by aphorisms. In his memoir The Scent of Dried Roses, Tim Lott remembers the common sayings of his childhood home in 1960s Southall: ‘Worse things happen at sea’, ‘Might as well look on the bright side’, ‘These things are sent to try us’. That stoical resolve summed up a generation; their children, Lott writes, were to live by different aphorisms, those of seizing the moment — ‘Today is the first day of the rest of your life’, ‘Go for it’, ‘Why worry? We could all be dead tomorrow’. The billboards of 2018, with their individualism, their emphasis on living in the moment and their confused idealism, will be a valuable source for future historians.
They also show how much brands aspire to a central place in consumers’ lives. ‘Can one man’s life be forever altered by a personalised Netflix recommendation?’ Netflix asked in a 2015 ad. ‘Yes it can.’ The short film, tellingly entitled ‘Big Questions’, featured an angsty teenager, a lonely twenty-something and an awkward middle-aged dinner party being rescued by the joy of on-demand TV — because ‘Great things start with Netflix’. It’s not just entertainment; it’s redemption.
If you want a cynical theory, here goes: the more starry-eyed the slogan, the bleaker the reality it conceals. The social media sites which aspire to ‘connect’ everybody are doing more to make them solitary. The mass-marketing of clothes and drinks in the name of ‘self-expression’ is turning us into dull conformists. And the companies which deliver the most sentimental lines about human potential are nonetheless capable of treating their workers like animals.
But the simplest objection to meaning-of-life advertising is that it’s so banal. It strains to be poetic, but it bears the same relation to poetry as concrete carbuncles do to architecture. And like bad architecture, you can’t escape it.
This article was originally published in The Spectator magazine.