The fightback against wackiness starts here

I’m sick of corporations and charities behaving like a 1990s student rag week. Who’s with me?

1 November 2014

9:00 AM

1 November 2014

9:00 AM

At Glastonbury in 2000 I noticed two young men both wearing enormous Y-fronts and carrying an even bigger pair with the word ‘pants’ written on it. They both looked miserable as you would if you’d come up with the idea while drunk and then found yourself stuck like that for the duration of the festival. Some of the more thuggish elements jeered and threw beer cans.

Seven years later, at another festival I attended, they wouldn’t have attracted a second glance, because dressing up had become ubiquitous. This year, seven years on from that, far from being weird, wearing Y-fronts superhero-style over your trousers is all the rage — not just at festivals but out and about in normal life. It’s the latest charity fund-raising craze, and come Christmas you’ll be a party pooper if your pants aren’t on display.

Of course, the odd eccentric has always done wacky things for charity: bathed in baked beans or run a marathon in a gorilla suit. The difference with Movember, the ice bucket challenge or the new fashion for Superman Pants is that the wackiness is communal, almost compulsory. It’s become the default setting for the British at play.

Weddings have caught the ‘wacky’ bug. I know a bride who came down the aisle to the ‘Imperial March’ from Star Wars. At others there have been dressing-up boxes, even animals from petting zoos. Architecture is at it too: why have elegant buildings when you could have the Gherkin, the Cheese Grater or the Walkie Talkie?

It’s at work and in the world of advertising, though, that wackiness is most pernicious, and most tiresomely knowing. The staff at Pret A Manger are encouraged to banter with customers — exhausting when all you want is your morning coffee handed over. The mission statement for O2, the telephone company, is ‘Be more dog.’ When you get the bill at a Hotel du Vin it comes on a bit of paper labelled ‘The Damage’.

Worst of all are the corporate Twitter accounts with a brief to be funny which then interact with other corporate accounts. There was a particularly appalling exchange last year between Tesco, Yorkshire Tea and Cadburys. Buzz-feed picked it up and deemed it hilarious. They move fast, these crazy marketing people: no sooner had an American tourist been trapped overnight in Waterstones Trafalgar Square than they announced a ‘sleep-over’ in the shop.

Weren’t adverts in Britain once made with wit, warmth and imagination? As I remember it, they were often the best thing on television and the people behind them, Ridley Scott for one, went on to have Hollywood careers. Now the creative director just presses a button marked ‘wacky’ and delivers faked eccentricity. The new Rowntree Randoms advert is perhaps the worst or best example. In it, a woman stops her car to ask for directions and a man, scoffing Randoms, comes out with nonsensical phrases such as ‘Bob’s your teapot’ or ‘All right ice cream cone.’ It’s the sort of thing students said to each other in the 1990s after watching too much Vic and Bob.

It’s not just the ads, either. Newsnight, in an attempt to halt declining ratings, had Kirsty Wark dance like a zombie and poor old Jeremy Paxman interview Russell Brand about his revolution. No news is too serious for a bit of ‘fun’. If the economy is tanking, you can be sure the screen will fill with pictures of boats sinking and the talking heads will be dressed in sailor’s caps. But it’s not funny, it’s cynical. It’s TV commissioned by people who assume the public can’t be interested in anything unless it’s dressed up. And that’s the trouble with ‘wackiness’ in general — it’s not fun, it’s depressing: a soulless substitute for fun lit upon by desperate people.

My theory is that John Major must take some of the blame for this state of affairs. It was under his administration that student numbers soared as the old polys expanded and became new universities. Students were everywhere, encouraging each other to live a little and dress up as giant chickens.

Today it feels like we’re trapped in a gigantic feedback loop. Our student antics are picked up by advertisers, and beamed back at us. This encourages us to go to even greater wacky heights. What can we do to break the cycle? We must vote with our wallets, I say, and boycott products with wacky advertising. Never, ever retweet a corporate Twitter account and, at all costs, keep your pants inside your trousers.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

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Show comments
  • grimm

    At the heart of the wackiness epidemic is our extraverted culture’s pathetic need to “liven things up” (ie. to amuse and entertain and at all costs avoid being condemned as boring by the hearty and outgoing brigade). Newsnight’s themed, would-be-funny, pieces are truly irritating but no doubt please their creators. C4 news is heading the same way.

    • Dr. Heath

      Or it might also reflect a comforting but puerile belief that, while we can’t make television sets, trains, aircraft, clothes and dish washers, cameras, radios, bicycles or cars in the numbers we used to, we’re the coolest, funniest people on earth. It’s a form of exceptionalism. Wacky Brits are not only special, we keep on insisting, but special in the best possible way [except maybe for the French or Italians, who are, some of them choose to think, the sexiest and most fashionable people on earth].

      Irritating? And embarrassing and mind-numbing and intrusive.

  • davidofkent

    This genre has come from the USA. Their so-called comedy is based on rather oddly-behaved people saying very witty things and then turning on the canned laughter. Unfortunately, those characters are actually just plain stupid and the wit wouldn’t fool a five-year old over here. The BBC, however, loves this sort of thing and fills it’s panel games with idiots pretending to be wits. Most of them are about halfway there.

  • Michael H Kenyon

    I blame this on the downward mobility of the BBC when they decided to take on ITV in “light entertainment” with funderful Radio 1 (thanks, Wedgie-Benn; I preferred Radio Caroline), and the idiotic end-of-the-pier / working man’s club dross pushed by Billy Cotton on our Saturday nights in the 1960s and 70s, “It’s a knock-out”, etc. Seriousness (and serious fun) was replaced even in the minds of the middle-classes by trivial demotic crap, and to dislike it was to be stuck-up. But easily solved. Don’t watch television, listen to music on disc, stream any programmes you want to see, rarely deviate from radio 4, and use the “off” switch enthusiastically.

  • Sean L

    Yeah well said. As Kingsley Amis predicted re the expansion of higher education: “More will mean worse.” How could it be otherwise? But he said that *fifty* years ago when the proportion of students entering higher education was a fraction of what it has become. . .

  • Peter Stroud

    Surely wackiness began over fifty years ago with The Goon Show: and it has not been bettered since.

  • jaz

    It must be so hard being a Spectator columnist (or indeed reader looking by the comments). Life is such a drain. Everything is bad. Our language is awful, people are awful, nothing is as good as it used to be. In the Spectator’s (spiritually at least) sister publication Uttley is even complaining that imported American traditions (about which he complained) aren’t as good as they used to be.

    Cheer up you lot of Eyeores. Life is great. The sun is shining. It is a lovely day. Enjoy yourselves. Go and have great sex. Life really isn’t that bad.

    • Christian

      And bliss is ignorance…….

  • Felixthecat

    It’s a natural consequence of the tweeification of Britain, from music to fashion everything is offensively inoffensive. I suppose this is the consequence of speech codes strangling creativity.

  • Mnestheus

    “Students were everywhere, encouraging each other to live a little and dress up as giant chickens.’

    So that’s how the denial of man’s impact on climate began !

    • Gwangi

      Well when I was at Sheffield Uni, the students at Manchester voted a hamster in as Student Union president. I was envious. A hamster would have been better than any of the cliquey f-ckwitted croneyistic leftie hypocrites who were elected at my old uni!

      • Mnestheus

        On the internet, no one can tell you’re a hampster wearing a chicken suit.

  • rtj1211

    Every generation humour changes. As people get older they claim that humour has gone, by which they mean that the humour of the next generation doesn’t make them laugh.

    How do you think 50 year olds in 1977 felt about punk? 50 year olds in 1963 felt about mods and rockers? They hated it. It wasn’t about them. It was about the next generation rebellng against their parents.

    Why don’t you rail about your generation’s grand larceny through banking, property and currency fraud??

    Because you might find yourself ostracised, out of pocket and out of work.

    So you take it out on the next generation’s dodgy humour, because you’ve accepted that you won’t fight the things that are far more important.

  • Gwangi

    Imported from the USA, taken up be meeja muppets and foisted onto a public, most of whom think it’s all a load of boring w-nk and not funny in the slightest. It is only seen as hilarious in Hoxton – HIH. It isn’t.

    Blame PR and marketing agencies; perhaps we can cull those in marketing and PR? I mean, do we really NEED them? Do we NEED special days and months and silly unfunny stunts shoved in our faces? Why can’t we shove a chainsaw in theirs in return then eh? Now that would be hilarious…

    Same with that dumb ice bucket challenge. Oh because it’s for charidee that’s OK is it? Anyone who did that is a tw-t.

    Same will silly marketing students like the Fawcet Soc T-short fiasco (even more ironic seeing as Fawcett does NOT support gender equality but discrimination against men to overpromote mediocre women via quotas etc). I am a feminist – I believe that males and females should have equal opportunity (but that does NOT mean every level of every job will be 50/50 male/female due to innate hard-wired differences). The joke is now on Harriet Harman and others who feel for dumb marketing and PR stunts. What a bunch of cupid stunts ha ha ha!

  • Christian

    I rather liked the twitter exchange, simply because I can imagine the poor, bored sods manning the twitter feed finally having what seemed like something interesting to do. Before reality came crashing back in

  • Perhaps The Chairman of the Speccie will heed this essay and adjust the scripts and the skits of This Week accordingly. And also try harder to enunciate when reading the autocue. I’ve never understood why he stands for the amdram and puerile rubbish (or indeed why I have persevered with it – in hope rather than expectation – since its Midnight Hour format). A shame that it has been downhill ever since, because on the Daily Politics and Sunday Politics his journalism mostly still excels. This Week has become increasingly sloppy in both content and presentation. And the faux self-deprecation is now tissue-paper thin. Get a grip or dump it (enabling me to watch Fox live rather than recording it for morning viewing).