When I was a kid, before I moved on to “Big School”, I would return home at lunchtimes, sit at the kitchen table and eat my lunch (always sandwiches, often cheese and Sandwich Spread (which I was extremely surprised to find recently is still a thing), occasionally cheese and tomato, or if I was very lucky, peanut butter and blackcurrant jam) and I would watch the lunchtime kids TV shows.
The BBC didn’t really show anything at the time I was home, so it would be over to ITV, for either Rainbow, or maybe Pipkins.
I mention this for two reasons: firstly, it was probably the last time that I didn’t curse, tut or sigh when the adverts came on, and secondly, because, even though I had no idea about things like Big Brother (the Orwellian “1984” concept, rather than the TV show), I was convinced that we were being watched by people, only these people were trying to sell us stuff.
My logic was this: during my home lunch breaks, I never saw an advert for something we already owned. Everything that was advertised was something for something that we didn’t have, or, more to the point, something that I wanted.
I became obsessed with the idea that our kitchen cupboards had cameras hidden in them, monitoring what we had and what we did not have. Often, I would perform a quick inventory of the cupboards before I sat down, and as the adverts sped by, I’d think to myself: “Ha! I’m right! We don’t have those things, and I want some of them. They must be watching!”
Of course, the things that we didn’t have, which were being advertised in the break in the middle of a children’s lunchtime show, were generally sweets or toys, which had no place in our kitchen cupboard in any event.
I’m reminded of an advert for Refreshers, which must have come out in the wake of Star Wars, so we’re talking around 1977 here.
This advert, in fact:
NB: “Put one in your mouth and hold this tube in your hand” is a phrase which got me into a lot of trouble when I was older.
I digress, for the sake of a smutty gag.
Having seen that, and already knowing the answer, I checked our kitchen cupboards to see if there happened to be a tube of Refreshers lurking in there anywhere. Partly to prove my point (to myself), partly because I quite liked Refreshers, but mostly because I’d like them even more if they really did turn into a light sabre.
There were no Refreshers in the cupboard, of course, but this only confirmed my suspicions. ‘They’ were watching.
I was convinced: ‘They’ knew what we did not have, and tailored the adverts to show us things we could have if we just tried a bit harder.
Years later, I was working at Boots the Chemist when they introduced the Advantage Card. The purpose of this – and of any other store loyalty card, be it a Tesco Clubcard, a Sainsbury’s Nectar Card, or whatever – is not, as they would have us believe, to reward us for being a lovely, faithful, returning customer, and to present us with redeemable points which allow us to get more products for “free”, but so they can monitor what we buy and then target us with suggestions of similar or related products we might also want to purchase, preferably from their store.
There’s an incentive, of course. Hey! It’s a two-way deal! You let us monitor exactly what you buy, how often, and when, and we’ll give you free things, say the companies.
I’d be very surprised if most of you don’t realise this already, of course. What’s interesting is the ease with which these cards have become common-place, and the trade-off terms which we’re prepared to accept in the hope of freebies.
For example: I still have my company-issue Advantage Card, and, unless I attend a special event or spend an absolute shedload at once, I get 1 point for every 25 pence that I spend. So that’s 4 points for every £1.00.
1 point, when redeemed, is worth 1 penny.
And that, apparently, is where I value my privacy. At 4% of my spend at that particular store. Which seems a pretty cheap surrender, to me.
As I did when I sat in the meeting about the introduction of the Card, way back in the late 1990s, where I remember thinking that I was right all along, just a few (well, okay, about twenty) years ahead. They are now, actually, watching us via the things that we buy, but now they do it not via hidden cameras, as I had thought as a child, but through our own complicit willingness to allow them.
(I also rued that I hadn’t actually thought of the fully formed idea myself and trademarked it, of course.)
I mention all of this now because it’s January, and the sales are on, so we’re being overwhelmed by adverts, predominantly for furniture that we do not want to own, or holidays that we do not want to go on, or quit smoking aids that we do not need, or weight loss programs that we could probably do with but can’t be arsed to engage with.
But this year, I’ve noticed loads of adverts for different companies selling mattresses, which already seems to be the must-have item of 2018.
As well as setting me off on paranoid, nostalgic ramblings, it does make me long for more simplistic times.
Billy Jo Spears knows what I mean, even if the utilisation of her choice of al fresco bedding is for somewhat saucier purposes than can legally be featured in adverts:
Billie Jo Spears – Blanket on the Ground
All of which is quite some heavy, paranoid stuff for a Sunday Morning (you can tell I’ve gone a little stir crazy with the flu and no internet), so to lighten the mood a little more, here’s an extra mattress-related tune for you:
John Denver – Grandma’s Feather Bed
And finally, since we established long ago on these pages that nothing, but nothing, is not improved by the introduction of the Muppets: