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Bard Behaviour - Poetry in advertising

Perhaps like me, you woke up to discover that the other day was National Poetry Day – whatever that really means. From Sticky Toffee Pudding Day to Thank Your Dentist Day, there’s some bullshit entirely fictional moment to celebrate each and every facet of human endeavour. It’s beautiful, it’s inspiring, it’s unadulterated, and it’s bollocks of the most meaningless kind. ‘Taco Day’ is rapidly approaching on Saturday, and let’s not forget ‘Ship in a Bottle Day’ too. If you care for such things, there’s no limit to the rabbit hole, no shortage of this type of waffle so utterly beloved by Social Media Managers.

Inspired by National Poetry Day (which Nation exactly?), I thought it might be a suitable moment to consider how we use poetry in advertising. Yes, advertising, the sharp implosion of fields where art meets the rattling of a stick inside a swill-bucket. Let’s see how some brands are using poetry to sell their products, and whether they did it successfully.

First up, that unstoppable behemoth of consumerism, the world’s most popular restaurant. Expectations are naturally set to high when we consider they can easily snap up the best pens in the business. And from those pens flowed:

Now the labourers and cablers 
and council motion tablers
were just passing by.

And the Gothy types
and scoffy types
and like-their-coffee-frothy types
were just passing by.

McDonald's - Just passing by

When I first heard this on telly, I hated it. The language felt contrived and artificial, the tone somehow patronising and sweetened with a saccharine chumminess. Only now, looking back a few years later, can I appreciate this as a work of some genius. The key insight here (and the one which no doubt they had difficulty selling to the client) is the notion of ‘Passing By’. Because of course we’re just passing by. No one makes McDonald’s a destination. No one ever turns to McDonald’s for a special event anymore. We’re all just passing by and McDonald’s just happens to be there with fat and meat and sugar and every button to push that sends dopamine to our silly little mammal brains.

The beauty of this advert is turning a restaurant into a stage, where all of life is played out between fries and McFlurries. We witness the flirting, the joking, the relentless desire for recognition, respect, friendship, happiness, all painted into a single moment like a Grecian Urn served up with a large Coke. We recognise that observational nature inherent in ourselves and can imagine being there, judging, considering, wondering – it’s the van men, it’s the emo kids, it’s the woman who should really know better. McDonald’s is remodelled into a microcosm where all of life is passing by, passing through – the focus taken away from the food which barely gets a mention. It works because of that key insight into human psychology; we pass by and as we do we love to watch. It humanises the brand and gives it a more accessible face as seen through the nuances of their customers.

From burgers to jeans, we arrive at the second way poetry is used in advertising. Here - and this comprises the vast majority of examples - a poem is appropriated wholesale and reinterpreted to convey a set of brand values.

I see their knavery: this is to make an ass of me;
to fright me, if they could. But I will not stir
from this place, do what they can: I will walk up
and down here, and I will sing, that they shall hear
I am not afraid.

Levis 501 - Midsummer Nights Dream

What they’ve done in this advert is entirely divorce the meaning of the text from a new interpretation. Bottom and Titania are set as lovers against the backdrop of a threatening city street. Its Baz Luhrmann meets denim, and it works beautifully. While this may interest no one other than me, from a textual point of view it makes no real sense. Midsummer is a comedy, moreover at this point in the play Titania has been bewitched to fall in love with the first person she sees – even if that person happens to be stupid and revolting. Rather than being enamoured with his sexy Levi’s (with Anti-Fit!) we might conclude she’s more affected by the drugs inside her system. In the play, Bottom then brays out a hideous song and Titania asks for more – this bit sadly didn’t make the edit.

Other than historical disembodiment to a meticulously shot and framed ad, what can we conclude? Well, for starters, poetry can work really well in advertising. The change of mood can be seen as a novel interpretation to a Shakespearean love story, modernising it to fit our current tastes in fashion. We identify with the two attractive main characters and aspire to fuck at least one of them. The old is reframed and made new, like the cut of a jean endless trying to reinvent itself. Highbrow meets sex appeal, precision engineered to sell. Shakespeare would have loved this.

These are only two examples; there are many more. Poetry has a place in advertising but let’s not kid ourselves. Real poetry isn’t written to sell but to convey something much deeper. However, like all things, if we can spend it on the altar of commerce we will. Nothing is sacred. Nor should it be.

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