From Nationwide to McDonald's, more and more advertisements are relying on the power of verse to shift their products. But while it's easy to be cynical, advertising's love affair with poetry tells us something important, tooby Will Harris / June 5, 2019 / Leave a comment
Though poetry famously doesn’t sell (or doesn’t sell much) it has long been used to sell other things. In 2009, to take a random example, Wieden + Kennedy made a television advert for Levi’s, featuring Walt Whitman’s 1865 poem ‘Pioneers! O Pioneers!’ being recited with crusty portentousness alongside footage of beautiful, denim-clad young people running through fields pioneeringly and making out pioneeringly.
Which reminds me of the Apple advert from 2014 showing iPad users in surprising locations around the world—from a military parade to a waterfall to a one-man kabuki show, as the voice of Robin Williams’s Dead Poets Society character John Keating rings out, talking about poetry and passion. “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute,” he says, before—as in the Levi’s ad—quoting Whitman: “‘the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse’ … What will your verse be?”
In these adverts, cute is precisely what poetry is. Its verbal euphony and rhetorical conviction have been put in service of making a product seem more attractive, more necessary. The poetry is there to drown out what Allen Ginsberg called in Howl “the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising.” Poetry is the Auto-Tune which turns the shrieks into song.
Whitman is a writer whose name, if not his work, will be familiar to people. It carries a residual cultural authority, and was no doubt chosen for the same reason that Ford chose Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ to advertise their new Mustang last year, or the reason countless companies have riffed on Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’ (see Irn-Bru’s Scottish twist in 2008: “If you can bounce on six-inch heels all night/ And still walk home on our bare feet”). Popular poems and poets exist in a shared cultural space. Companies who use this work are implicitly trying to force themselves into that space too.
But there’s also a welter of trashier, made-for-purpose commercial poetry. This genre goes back at least as far as the initial heyday of advertising in the early-19th century, when rhyming stanzas advertised anything from shoe polish to haircuts. Warren’s Blacking, for instance, ran a comic poem about a cat confusing a well-polished boot for a mirror, “its surface fair,/ In lustre nothing lacking.”
Those adverts are the wholesome ancestors of more recent campaigns like McDonald’s much-mocked ‘Just Passing By’ from 2009: “And the IT bods/ with taps and prods/ eating a Big Mac/ while writing their blogs/ were just passing by.” Here, the rhymes are insistent, neurotic, but that isn’t always a feature of bad poetry; they’re not unlike the rhyming couplets of Auden’s ‘Night Mail’ which was used in a TV advert for British Rail in 1988 accompanied by the juddering synths of Vangelis. The aim of rhyme, as the academic and poet Susan Stewart has put it, is “to stamp its impression on the wax of our disbelief.” Before you can call bullshit, they’ve melted and stamped themselves on the wax of your innocent unconscious.
This is all context for a recent trend in poetry advertising in which the poets themselves now appear, rather than hiding behind focus-grouped rhymes. The work they read, however, has nevertheless clearly been commissioned and carefully pruned for the occasion, riffing on the (supposed) ethos of the advertised company.
George the Poet, for example, has featured in adverts for O2 with poems about ‘inspiration’ and ‘connection.’ On the one hand, as with Levi’s use of Whitman, O2 are paying for the cultural authority of George the Poet, a BRIT-shortlisted spoken-word artist known for his engagement with political and social issues (notably through his award-winning podcast). On the other hand, as with McDonald’s ‘Just Passing By’, they’re paying for an on-brand, wax-stamping series of rhymes about ‘the memories we make when we speak and we connect.’
Similarly, in Nationwide’s ‘Voices’ campaign, poets appear in a range of everyday settings —a bakers, a barbershop, a florist’s—addressing the viewer directly with a poem about some sort of emotive or transitional life event. In one, Hollie McNish talks about becoming a mother, her poem ending on the moving image of a day at the beach with her child: “You swept your feet without me seeing, wrote I love you mum across the sand. You asked me if I liked it, licked the ice cream dripped upon your hand and watched me melt as fast.”
She breaks eye contact with the viewer for the first time, looking down—as if embarrassed, overwhelmed—and then to her right. The screen melts like ice cream. A sentence appears: “Trusted with children’s savings for generations.” The Nationwide logo comes into focus in the bottom corner. It’s surreptitious, comforting. This isn’t about Nationwide; it’s about trust. If you can trust this mother’s love for her child surely you can trust Nationwide with your children’s savings?
In Season 2 of Mad Men, ad man Don Draper sits in a bar at lunch and sees someone reading Frank O’Hara’s 1957 poetry collection Meditations in an Emergency. Don comments self-consciously that reading over lunch “makes you feel like you’re getting something done.” “Yeah, it’s all about getting things done,” scoffs the O’Hara-reader. Don asks him if the book is any good. “I don’t think you’d like it,” he responds.
The most interesting thing about this scene is what it lays bare: advertising’s aspiration to art. This is the central argument of Nicholas Mason’s Literary Advertising and the Shaping of British Romanticism, that the 19th century brought us “the ad-man as close cousin to the inspired solitary genius.” The relationship between literature and commerce—both obsessed with lone genius—has been porous ever since, with agencies like Saatchi and Saatchi trying to bolster the myth of the ad man as a creatively disruptive figure in business and politics. It shouldn’t be surprising that Don Draper aspires to be O’Hara; Levi’s to be Whitman; Nationwide to be McNish.
In a poem from her 2016 Forward Prize-winning collection Measures of Expatriation, Vahni Capildeo describes a Muslim friend coming back to their family house in Trinidad. On the TV, they see the first images of aerial bombardments of Iraq in the Gulf War and realize that from this moment “in the world’s play of representations of the living, we would look more like the killed. We would resemble—like it or not—anti-advertisements for flourishing societies.”
It’s easy to criticise advertising poems—they’re almost all very bad—and to forget that opposition in itself won’t save us. As Capildeo’s poem makes painfully clear, we’re all in some sense walking advertisements or ‘anti-advertisements’ for the societies in which we’re enmeshed. Poetry in advertising is only the most visible iteration of something that happens every day, in which our words and the feelings they express are co-opted by the forces of commerce and ideology.
Our aim, then, should be more than denunciation, which won’t improve the work. The poems themselves must find fresh and exciting and radical ways to be better. As Robin Williams or Whitman or Apple once said, ‘What will your verse be?’