Stick with me. This is going to start with what appears a meaningless piece of nostalgia, but it will then expand to cover a profound analysis of modern capitalism. Well, that’s the hope. It will help if you were watching commercial TV in the 1950s.
OK, off we go. I’m a blood donor. My dad started me going whenever the qualifying age was, because I was the same blood group as him (consoling, I guess) and that is O negative. It’s not madly rare – about 7% of the population have it – but its great advantage is that it is the universal donor. My blood is so featureless that anyone can be transfused with it without bad things happening. Or so aristocratic: I’m talking here about the stuff they bunged into Princess Di when she arrived at hospital. It’s truly good stuff, and I’ve given 81 pints of it.
So, there I was sitting drinking tea after my donation and eating free NHS biscuits. I was actually eating a Penguin, which was very nostalgic, and I mentally told myself to “P-p-p-pick up a Penguin”, remembering the old advertising slogan. Then the NHS volunteer emptied some Club biscuits in the basket – and something hummed in my head along the lines of a kids’ choir singing “if you want a lot of chocolate on your biscuit, join our club”. And there I was, thinking that they don’t do adverts like that on TV any more. We have become a service economy, and the adverts we get are for gambling, or compensation, or comparison sites. The occasional car company sponsors a detective thriller, true, and local double-glazing companies can bellow at you in the afternoon, but generally, there are many fewer adverts for things any more. Now, I’m not against a service economy. Recent GNP figures may have shown that the government’s desire to rebalance things in favour of manufacturing and the regions was the predictable flop. But generally, I know that it is a sign of economic advancement that we move from agriculture to manufacturing to service industry. But the adverts we increasingly see are simply transfer payments – not creating wealth at all, but transferring it between gamblers and bookmakers, between successful litigants and unsuccessful, taking a rake-off as you switch people from one energy supplier, holiday hotel or car insurance company to another.
The first TV adverts I saw was when I was in hospital as a ten year old. We had a BBC TV at home – that’s how televisions started, with one fixed channel – and hadn’t upgraded to ITV. At the time, the idea of subscribing to a commercial service – commercial, my dear, appalling – would have been distasteful for teachers like my parents. So I needed a mastoid infection (see below) to be able to lie in bed and see – not just Robin Hood, William Tell and The Buccaneer – but advertisements. Proud galleons breasting the roaring forties to bring you Senior Service cigarettes, encrusted blocks of ice with SR toothpaste in them, marching guardsmen singing “Murray-mints, Murray-mints, too good to hurry Mints. Why make haste, when you can taste, the hint of mint in Murray-mints” – an unanswerable question. I can even remember the famous 30 second drama that promised “you’re never alone with a Strand”, trying to sell a cigarette because it will give lonely men companionship but instead conveying ostracism. Real things, even if they gave you cancer.
I watch cricket from India sometimes, and their stadia are bedecked with advertisements for real stuff – concrete, motor cycles, flour, hair cream. UK sports stadia are sponsored by corporations doing no one quite knows what, or full of brazen nonsense pretending that Adidas or Barclays Bank loves the community. It’s a symptom of an economy that is serious, not about creating wealth, but in just raking in cash, and there is a difference. The TV adverts are there to remind us that people who make stuff are very second division behind those who make money.