Advertising has, at best, 30 seconds to thwack us between the eyes with soft, cultural hammers and try to strike a chord: “Look at this. Know what we mean? Of course you do. Now buy our stuff.” And this can cost a company millions because when an advert gets it right, it can own something far bigger than a mere boost in sales. It can own a ‘moment’. Like a truly great pop song, an advert can – very rarely – capture something perfectly.
That’s why every newspaper wrote an obit for Nick Kamen last week – I mean, he was gorgeous, sure, but he was gorgeous Just For That ‘moment’. His Levi’s Launderette ad was a meme before memes were invented. And that’s why the new Wrigley’s Extra ad that celebrates the end of lockdown has gone viral, garnering headlines like “People are getting choked up watching this ad” as viewers take to Twitter to confess watching it with “something in their eye”.
Nailing the ‘moment’ is hard but rewarding. Future historians trying to understand why the Nineties was a bonkers decade on pop culture need only watch the Tango ads to get a sense of the madness. But the Nineties was also the time that homophobia started to seep out of mainstream culture. In 1999, Russell T Davies proved this with Queer as Folk – but over a year earlier Impulse, the body spray with the catchline “Men just can’t help acting on Impulse”, had featured a gay couple to literally no public outcry. You can’t go against the flow if you’re in advertising. That’s why good ads tell you about the culture – they have to be just behind the cutting edge of change, just as things tip into the mass market.
1971, for instance, was a complicated year. The 1967 Summer of Love had segued into bloodshed of 1969’s Charles Manson murders and the violence at the Altamont free concert but the crazy idealism of the decade that had seeped out of Chelsea and Haight Ashbury had not been completely lost. Hard to explain – but watch Coca-Cola’s Hilltop ad, and you’ll see hundreds of young people of all creeds and colours dressed in flowing white and gathered on a hill singing “I’d like to Buy the World a Coke”, a jingle so popular it was recorded by two separate groups – the New Seekers, who reached number one with it in the UK, and the Hillside Singers, who reached 13 in the US. Kind of sums it up.
And if that brings a tear to your eye, don’t get me started on John Lewis. Since 2007 it has made a nation so misty at Christmas there are even charts on the most emotional ad it’s released.
But lockdown – I mean, that’s a tough call, adland. You have maybe two minutes to sum up the grinding isolation, social confusion and wary sense of creeping hope that this spring is dangling in front of us. So, when Chicago-based Energy BBDO pitched Wrigley’s Extra’s marketing team with the idea that they’d totally capture the current ‘moment’ you know that everyone was thinking – yeah, good luck with that, hipsters.
And yet they’ve only gone and knocked it out of the park.
We open on deserted streets. Tumbleweed rolls by. In a darkened flat, a bleary-eyed, unshaven man wakes to a breakfast DJ announcing we can “see people again! How ‘bout that?” He stares, barely comprehending, at the radio as Celine Dion gives it the full diva on It’s All Coming Back to Me Now.
Fast cut across a handful of his friends – one sleeping under pizza boxes, one staring at his door as if he can barely remember its purpose as the good news dawns.
Men peer at the sun through their mass of uncut hair and untrimmed beards. A desperate mother struggling through Another Pointless Zoom Call as her children dismantle the kitchen can barely believe it as everyone logs out of her meeting, one by one, until she’s free, when she slams her laptop shut, runs in her PJs to the dust-covered family car and screeches off down the road.
People stream from blocks of flats, filling the streets and squares, now all overgrown with trailing vines as they head to the park where they suddenly come face-to-face with the first attractive stranger they've seen for the past 18 months. The chemistry is palpable. Presumably something else is palpable as no-one’s cleaned their teeth before fleeing so, whaddya know, they reach for the gum. Otherwise… well, you get the idea.
Then they kiss. They kiss as Celine screams “If I kiss you like this… And if you whisper like that…” and by God, the snogging that ensues as the sprinklers drench all their young, muscular limbs, clinging to each other until… I beg your pardon, I quite forgot.
Fortunately, we cut to workers hurtling to the office before we all get too carried away. This bit I have to say rings slightly less true. Assuming you get the second jab, will you run with your arms out like an aeroplane on the morning commute? Thought not. But you may forget your trousers, so we’ll give them that. Then the grateful furloughed office workers hack away at the mini jungle enveloping their corporation (again, really?) and stumble into a desolate foyer.
Just when you think the awkward HR conversations are about to begin we cut mercifully back to the park where literally everyone is getting some: old, young, black, white, slim, chunky, any and every gender you choose. They’re so horny they’re falling out of trees, rolling down hills, crashing out of boats and… let’s just say if the ad didn’t cut there we’d be entering a whole new genre of commercial.
All the while, Celine lays it on the line for us – “It was dead long ago, but it’s all coming back to me. It’s so hard to resist, and it’s all coming back to me. I can barely recall, but it’s all coming back to me now…”
You can write as many novels and TV dramas as you like – you can film earnest documentaries and commission stark photographic exhibitions. They’ll all tell the story of the past year in important and well-chosen ways. But when it comes to the chaos and freedom and lust for life that’s creeping through all our veins just now, as a new Summer of Love beckons (cannily, Wrigley’s is also sponsor of this year’s Love Island) you’d be hard put to beat the much needed optimism of the Extra ad. Forget the Covid sex drought. Kids, you’ll be able to say in 10 years’ time, this is what it was like the night you were conceived.