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For me, the 1980s signaled the golden age of British TV advertising. High concept and high budget cinematic style promos contrasted with the tradition of more parochial narrative-orientated adverts. Now, in a multi-channel, digital age, advertising has a more global and universal register, where savvy consumerism demands less emblematic packaging of products.

The G-20 summit, fiscal stimuli, Keynsian revisionism, and possible economic apocalypse, have made me think a little about how individuals engage with their state and institutions! As clear dividing lines are drawn between “laissez faire” individualism, and top-down statism, I wanted to highlight (through examples of advertising) some visual representations of these competing ideologies.

This advert for British rail from 1987 updates the hugely influential GPO documentary Nightmail of 1936.

Whilst maintaining the first film’s image of a conjoined nation with public institutions at its heart, the advert’s powerful proliferation of sweeping aerial shots gives its national focus an air of grandeur and imposing power that reflects the futurist sensibilities of the Eighties. Moreover, it offers a fascinating symbolic portrait of a changing national culture: the high-tech train’s imposition on rural landscapes, and industrial heartlands suggests rapid technological and social progression via the mechanisms of publicly owned resources. Yet, towards its conclusion, the domineering foregrounding of The City anticipates a future of capitalistic excess, and by extension, the power shift from industry to finance. This slice of pre-privatisation propaganda is both reflective and prophetic.

By contrast this advert for Natwest from 1991 arrives in a post-Thatcher climate in which the centralized mechanisms of the state are rapidly disappearing.

Equally resonant for today’s economic crossroads, this work signals the apparent liberation of the consumer as he ‘frees’ himself from the outdated institutions of a now bygone age. Gone is the imposing bank manager, in its place the cash machine and its faceless guilt-free excess. Here financial independence, in both a national and personal sense, is represented through the discourses of economic liberty: seamlessly characterizing the insidious transformation from citizen to consumer.

 By David Forrest

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