I hate very few things. However, Downton Abbey is one of these things. I’m subjected to it every Sunday evening when it is on.
What I hate so much about it is the horrible, clunky characters that almost look to camera and give you a wink as if to remind you ‘Oh yes, he is the grumpy father character, slightly stuck in the past but trying to do the right thing for the future, but can be slightly pigheaded sometimes about it’. Or Maggie Smith’s character that tries so hard to be acid tongued, bosomy, preposterous relative from a Wilde play. Problem is, Julian Fellowes who writes Downton Abbey isn’t nearly so clever or witty as Wilde and her barbed shibboleths fall flat. It is just absurdly laboured, an exercise in trying too hard. Like a sketch show that relies heavily on catchphrases it is a lazy, easy way to get a laugh. Her lines feel they are only one editorial decision from a drum sting and a laughter track.
Aside from the characterisation the plot is unwieldy, predictable and frothy. Serious issues of the time such as broken men returned from the Great War unable to fit back in to society, the imbalance of power, poverty, the worrying sways of power and imminent collapse of the Weimar republic are all glossed over. What we get instead are car accidents, rape, blackmail, theft and murder. Short of someone moving away to Manchester, it is period drama Eastenders. Don’t get me wrong, the budget is huge and it looks great. The costumes are authentic, the sets are beautiful and it is wonderfully shot, it is just the meat and bones of it that aren’t much cop, It could be so much more.
The other thing I hate is television advertising. Moronic jingles, catchphrases, recurring characters, the volume shooting up when the programme you are watching ends and the adverts begin. No, no, no. Your Russian meerkat isn’t funny, it is odious, dull and repetitive. Does it tell me why I should use your service? No. Do I want a meerkat with plastic glasses and a white lab coat sent to me in the post? No. Just fuck off. Among the worst offenders are insurance, price comparison websites and double glazing companies. There is one particular advert at the moment, no doubt designed by some wet lipped, pudgy, shiny Primark suited, fat tie knotted, pointy shoed, wet look hair gelled amoeba who works in a grey concrete office in Dudley for a double glazing company that promises to quote you a ‘Shack-a-lack-a-boom-boom price’ over the phone. Honestly, even just typing that out boils my piss. If ever I got hold of the person who wrote and directed that advert, scaphism wouldn’t be nearly a painful, slow or humiliating enough death for them.
Imagine my dismay that on Sunday after another forced Downton Abbey session, an advert for beer comes on. I’d been aware of the train crash of last year’s ‘Let There Be Beer’ campaign with tightly cross-armed football ‘lad’ and all-purpose bellend Tim Lovejoy, but I’d not seen any of the ads. Equally I was aware that it was being re-launched this year in an attempt to claw back some credibility.
For those of you not aware, Britain’s Beer Alliance, made up of big multinational brewers like SAB Miller, AB Inbev and some smaller ones like Shepherd Neame and a couple of pub groups has spent 10 million pounds on this new campaign ‘There’s A Beer For That’ and to summarise the ad was:
‘Created by SapientNitro and directed by Michael Winterbottom the piece showcases a diverse group of people from all walks of life supping beers to demonstrate that there’s a fermented yeast to suit any occasion.
Filmed in the style of a documentary a cast of 250 were recruited from London, Liverpool, Manchester, Lancashire, Yorkshire and Wales.
Winterbottom said: “This is the first time I’ve directed a TV commercial. The idea was simple – to film a cross-section of people around the country enjoying a beer with a meal. I like beer and I like food, so it was hard to think of a reason not to do it.”
David Cunningham, programme director at the British Beer and Pub Association, added: “This campaign has been designed to reignite Britain’s love of beer and to show its appeal across the full breadth of multi-cultural Britain. We wanted to demonstrate the quality, diversity and the versatility of beer.”
The ad is great to look at, well shot, nice locations, lots of beautifully poured, foamy headed pints in nice stemmed glassware. There are lots of different types of people shown all having a great, wholesome time, enjoying a beer in different places at different times. Yup, ok, there is a beer for that.
Sadly, the advert, much like the aforementioned Downton relies on clichéd tropes for the characters too. A skinny jeaned, short body blazered chap with a huge beard enters the pub and orders a pint of twiggy brown cask beer, the old toothless guy gives him a suspicious look. Every inch the drum sting, laughter track, easy joke of Maggie Smith’s character, ported to this ad. The characters shown are lazy stereotypes and the ad doesn’t seem to have any particular message other than ‘Drink more beer when you go out for dinner’. In many ways it is about as blunt as the potato lorries I sometimes see on the motorway that just have ‘Eat More Chips’ written in large blue letters on the side.
The big brewers are hurting, and their sales are dropping every year, but a big budget tv ad campaign is not the way to win people over. It will almost always be too simplified for the already converted and mystifying to those who aren’t. I’m no marketeer but I do know that screen and print ads usually have by far the lowest ‘penetration’. At Meantime, where I work, we don’t have the budget to spunk ten mil on a primetime ad campaign or on full pagers in the national press. For that reason we use experiential marketing. We have salaried staff to host beer tastings, beer and food pairing evenings, we have two beer trucks with mobile bars (with a third on the way) to take to events like Lovebox, Field Day, OnBlackheath and Standon Calling. Putting a beer in someone’s hand, getting them to taste it, explain where it comes from, make the beer real and not just a can or bottle on the shelf.
I can’t help but think that 10 million quid would have been better spent doing some marketing out in trade, training people to engage and educate the public about beer and, shock horror big brewers, brew some better beer. I hope ‘There’s A Beer For That’ does engage and interest people, essentially brewers big or small should be fighting the same fight and getting people to understand, consider and drink more beer. I think however, if it continues to plough the same generic furrow, it’s impact will be fairly low.