What's love got to do with it, and why does Love Island exist?
A view from Harry Lang

What's love got to do with it, and why does Love Island exist?

Love Island is the guiltiest of guilty pleasures for millions of viewers right now, but why? Money, escapism and a healthy dose of schadenfreude might have something to do with it.

Love Island (formerly prefixed by the entirely superfluous word ‘Celebrity’) reared its Medusan head once again on 4 June on ITV2. 

It was, as far as I could tell, at 9pm BST on that Monday that the end of days began as a farm of fame rats started flexing their abs and prostrating their vulvas towards a drooling audience of millions.  

Let me be clear, in case any fans of the show are reading this and can’t handle the multiple syllables – I’m not a big advocate.

A few deep breaths and a mellowing dose of Miss Marple later, it occurred to me that I was in the minority. Love Island is a screaming success story of narcissistic guilty pleasure, albeit one that I can barely understand. 

So in the guise of ‘know thy enemy’ I realised I needed to gain a better understanding of its popularity. So I watched an episode.

In fact, no, I didn’t – I lasted seven minutes and 52 seconds into episode 44. Dani cried. Jack looked sunburnt (or just really ashamed at the lie detector results). Alexandra sobbed. I joined her. Unbelievably, it was worse than I could’ve ever imagined. 

Where had this come from? And why does it exist at all? I felt the need to find out.    

We’ve had due warning, of course. Parody and satire have always been the ammo of choice for the enlightened, and more recently comedians have constantly yet subtly butchered the TV shows that sit in the ethereal mist somewhere between zeitgeist and lobotomy. 

Ben Elton took advantage of the fame-diarrhoea factory that was Big Brother in his 2001 novel Dead Famous. That story worked a treat – the format for his other-universe reality porn held the public responsible for killing off contestants if they kept watching. It worked – even in the early Y2K era it rang horribly true but we, the viewing public, reassured ourselves that such absurdity was just a vividly imagined dystopia in our Never Never future.

Not so now.

It’s not the contestants’ fault, is it? They’re just simpletons who’ve worked hard on teeth whitening, ethical flushing and sit-ups in order to grab their one and only chance of fame and fortune, battling harsh back stories (like having Danny Dyer as your dad) and a lost cerebral circulation that directs oxygenated blood from their cortex to their cocks.  

No, I can’t blame them, no matter how unlikable they are – it’d be like blaming mosquitos for malaria. 

There’s a higher power involved – and it’s not presenter Caroline ‘probably auditioned for Season 1 and didn’t make the grade’ Flack. No, the next step up the food chain must be the puppeteer jangling the strings. Step forward Angela Jain, the managing director at ITV Studios Entertainment. 

I’d love to dislike Angela – but I can’t. She is, quite simply, a genius. Briefed to produce a low-cost, young demographic, advertiser-friendly televisual Tsar Bomb of filth – she’s totally fucking nailed it. Unlike her boss, she won’t win a damehood but at this rate she’ll be sitting at the same Netflix cash table as Jeremy Clarkson soon enough, which is nirvana for a producer of her capabilities.

Beyond Angela and her ITV bosses (Yes Dame Carolyn McCall, I’m talking to you), we come to the errant advertisers and their media agencies that fund this inglorious drivel. 

Superdrug remains lead sponsor – and if anything were to segregate the brand from family-friendly Victorian pharmacy of choice Boots, it’s this. It would be great if its involvement related a safe-sex message and enhanced condom sales, but since most contestants think a prophylactic teaches science at university, this is unlikely.  

Advertisers clambering to join the bandwagon read as an A to Z of brands trying to recapture their lost youth.

Cadbury’s, Asda and Ikea feature heavily, with supporting roles for automotive (Nissan and Seat) and technology (Microsoft and Sony) – corporate giants that should know better but just can't help themselves. Kellogg's sponsors the official Love Island: The Morning After podcast and Lucozade sponsors social content ("As shareable as crabs" has yet to go live but it will. It will…) 

Meanwhile, a string of product placement deals will see contestants use a heap of branded products on-screen.

Jet2holidays is the travel partner, 90s throwback Ministry Of Sound hosts a party in the villa. Samsung is supplying the Galaxy S9+ handsets for contestants to communicate with. 

Fashion seems to fit a little better – you can at least flog a floss-shaped bikini or two from Muggy Megan bending to pick up her single brain cell from the pool side, and H&M/ Missguided/ Calvin Klein/ Pretty Little Thing are on hand to sell their wares that way. Primarni will, as ever, flog official, Taipei-produced merch to bejazzled dimwits. 

Finally, we reach the bottom of what is a Mariana Trench of a septic tank – cosmetic surgery brands such as MYA and diet supplement Skinny Sprinkles. "Want to look like her? What you need is gastro-intestinal leakage." Yeah, they fit the content pretty well actually. How Dame Carolyn could defend them on BBC Breakfast is beyond me.

Is that it then? The simple appeal of buxom girls being driven back to the Stone Age by guys who struggle to talk and flex at the same time?

No, not quite.

This turgid barrel of medieval pish wouldn’t be fathomable without one crucial and seemingly inexhaustible ingredient. 

Money. 

And here we can understand why a programme so low-brow exists. It’s hugely popular, socially shareable and drives multi-channel, ever-repeatable advertising fees.   

Last year, Love Island’s audience was up 73 per cent to two million viewers, and the advertising revenue has become stratospheric as apparently reputable brands claw over themselves to reach the mobile screens of millions of young UK viewers. 

Looking at the psychology behind the success, the show’s creators have developed a perfect storm of relatable fantasy, escapism, sex, drama and the murky fifth wheel – schadenfreude.

The inclination to enjoy others’ failings is a hugely powerful but rarely acknowledged trait (outside media concept brainstorms that is). Rubberneckers gazing on a motorway pile-up are a common example of our innate human instinct to relish the horrific downfall of other people.     

Carl Jung stated that our mental health is reliant on our shadow – that part of our psyche that harbours our dankest energies such as melancholia and murderousness. The more we repress the dark, the more it foments neuroses or psychoses. To reach our potential of ‘wholeness’ we have to acknowledge our most demonic inclinations.  

In Love Island the viewer knows the car crash is coming – the format and skill of the editors ensures that. Added to that gleeful anticipation, the perceived beauty and fame of contestants means their inevitable fall from grace is all the more delicious. Our visual senses are titillated, gossip and backstabbing tickle our need to be ‘in the know’ and the constant failures of characters to build relationships beyond pool-side trysts feeds our morbid curiosity.   

Famed psychologist Eric G Wilson coins it best: "Freud believed that our most basic urges are Eros and Thanatos, sex and ruin. We frequently commingle the two."

So far, so true. But beyond the money and fame, is Love Island just bubble gum for the brain? What of the girls, preening themselves to within an inch of their lives before prostrating their bodies in front of waxed gigolos and banks of cameras? Some may argue they’re empowered young women doing what it takes to get ahead in life using their God-given talents (namely large breasts and morals that can dislocate from their selves like an anaconda’s jaw).      

Before I get too high and mighty, it’s worth skipping back a century or so. One hundred and three years to the day before Love Island 2018 hit our collective eyeballs, Emily Wilding Davison, suffragette and feminist, threw herself in front of King George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby. Her actions and sacrifice raised awareness of women’s suffrage and ultimately helped win the fight for sexual equality. 

What would she make of Love Island? Not a fat lot I wouldn’t wager. 

With the torturous ‘dating prison/ edited torture porn/ advertising clickfest’ that is Love Island, it seems we’re about three years from the metaphysical bottom rung. 

Although how we can conceivably get any lower than Love Island 2018 is anyone’s guess.


Harry Lang is the founder of marketing consultancy Brand Architects 

@MrHarryLang

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