What does it mean to be British to most people? We are proudest of our history, humour and shared institutions. But we also have world-beating industries, and advertising is one of them.
British advertising, I believe, is the best in the world. It is often provocative, sarcastic, creative and funny. We take risks, we think differently, and where others may just find fault with competition, we prefer to embrace consumer insight and the big idea. But how is "being British" depicted in our advertising?
For some, being British is about being insular. We’re an island, and the combative stance this geography embeds into our DNA makes us unique. Or so we like to think. We still, embarrassingly, hark back to the days of the empire and ponder on our lost greatness. We lament the many sports we created, that we now get thrashed at on the world’s stage, and we view the world through fairly xenophobic tinted lenses.
"I suppose an essential aspect of being British is not liking others very much. We are set apart by our lack of French-ness, German-ness or Italian-ness" Terry Jones
One of the funniest depictions of this positioning came from Blackcurrant Tango’s ‘St George‘ spot aired 16 years ago. Ray Gardner is the customer service spokesperson who receives a letter of complaint from a French exchange student, Sebastion Loyes.
A jingoistic tirade to camera follows, while Ray walks through the office, out of the car park, disrobing as he marches, onwards over fields, culminating in a boxing ring on the white cliffs of Dover.
As the camera circles, Gardner can be heard shouting "Come on France, Europe, the world. I'll take you all on! I'm Ray Gardner. I drink Blackcurrant Tango. Come and get me!" while three Harrier jump jets hover in the background. Cool - probably not. Un-PC - most definitely. Funny - very.
Some still relate to this image of patriotic fervour but, no doubt, this wouldn’t be an image we would want to portray today, especially after the riots of 2001 and 2011.
But if there were ever a time for it to be cool (again) to be British, then surely 2012 must be the year.
This year was a unique opportunity for advertisers, as Britain was put under the world’s microscope twice. These occasions were both historical but very different from an emotional perspective. They called for very different strategies from brands to embrace the feeling and emotion generated.
The pomp and circumstance of the Queen’s Jubilee, and all the revelry that went with it, was probably how the world traditionally sees Britain - steeped in history; old fashioned yet interesting, quaint yet dated. We’re experts at eccentricity. Apart from a plethora of brands paying lip service and updating their packaging with Union Jacks, or over-using the red, white and blue food dye, who managed to work this angle successfully?
T-Mobile played up to the image well. Building from their hugely entertaining and pass-on-able Royal Wedding spoof last year (over 26 million hits on YouTube) when members of the royal family danced down the aisle to House of Love by East17, this year they went for a Saturday evening Harry Hill style approach celebrating the weird and wonderful things Britain loves, over and above a Jubilee of course.
From kebabs to trampolines, and funny names to feeding ducks - this did show the normal yet idiosyncratic nation we are. It wasn’t on a par with T-Mobile’s previous efforts if I’m honest (only 57,000 views on YouTube) but they have set their own bar very high.
The cast of the T-Mobile Royal Wedding ad actually popped up in a Jubilee ad for Pizza Hut and their Crown Crust offering, fit for a queen no less. However,the less said about this ad the better. The dialogue was forced, and the gags were dreadful.
Here at Ipsos ASI our personal favourites were the John Lewis Best of British outdoor ads which adorned billboards and tube stations during the summer - lots of their products made up to form the shape of a double-decker bus, a crown, and even a gold medal. These played to the rules of print advertising so very well - strikingly simple, visually stunning and classically clever. How very John Lewis.
And then along came the Olympics. It was as though Britain didn’t expect to do well at either hosting or competing. Fuelled by a pessimistic media frenzy, we were led to believe that everything was doomed - transport would give way under the strain of increased passenger numbers, security would be a farce and globally we would end up a laughing stock.
Adidas' "what will you take" TV ad captured the build-up perfectly - the expectations, the training, the commitment, and potential back-lash and let down if it all went wrong. It summed up Britain perfectly; from the gritty and urban grafittied walls, to the shots of key British athletes preparing to take the stage. It was dark, grimy and perfectly communicated the juxtaposition of the new (stadium) and old (run down part of London).
For me, however, P&G were the winners of all the Olympic offerings, though it’s fair to say their ads were borderless rather than having a genuinely British feel about them. But sometimes that can work too. In fact the big idea behind this ad is so powerful, emotive and, particularly for all mums out there (including me), hugely resonant. We may view these athletes as Olympians, but to their mums, they’ll always be kids. The ads also reminded us that people aren’t born Olympians, they’re raised that way.
But what about the impression Britain made abroad? This year represented a once-in-a-generation opportunity to promote the UK overseas with the hope and expectation of delivering long-term trade and tourism benefits to Britain.
By late 2012, Britain was seen as one of the three most positive countries for the planet in a study of 27 countries. The GREAT campaign invited the world to take a fresh look at everything Britain has to offer. It centres on ten areas of British excellence, focusing on reasons to invest in and visit the UK.
From heritage to sport, music and shopping, the message was clear - Britain is one of the very best places in the world to visit, live, work, study, invest and do business.
So, the Olympics and Paralympics were a great success not only for our athletes but also for the reputation of Britain abroad. We showed everyone how to put on a great show. The Gamesmakers were helpful and cheerful; the opening ceremony added just enough confusion to reinforce that eccentricity I hope we keep; and we put our rich musical talent on display at the end.
We created the greatest Paralympic games ever in the history of the event, and that is something I am very proud to have been a part of. Have as many young children ever been more aware of disability, as we pushed diversity to centre stage?
"It's a good time to be British...I wouldn't say I'm proud to be British, but for the first time, I'm not ashamed to be British" Tracey Emin
Our natural self-deprecation means that we were never as a nation going to shout from the rooftops about how we "done good" this year but I think most would at least agree with Tracey’s sentiment.