There seems to be this unstoppable tendency, for a few products, to oversell them in a completely unrealistic way. It doesn't apply to all products, by any means, only a few. Washing powder is one of them: every television advert I've seen for washing powder seems to have the message, "remember how we said six months ago that our latest washing powder gimmick would get your clothes the whitest they could possibly be? Well, we've got a new gimmick, and now they're even whiter! Forget everything we said last time: instead, buy our new product! Your whites will blind people in the next county!" If even a tenth of the overblown hyperbole that's applied to washing powder were actually true, looking at white clothes would be like living on the sun. We'd need health warnings on packets, and sunglasses on the NHS. Shampoo's the same (well, it doesn't promise to wash your hair white, unless you're Professor Dumbledore, but the point stands). This might be the influence of American-style advertising on the British market; Bill Bryson once wrote about how American products are almost all oversold in this way. His example was that of cold remedies: here in the UK, adverts for cold remedies show the sufferer, after taking said remedy, feeling pretty much better -- still a little sniffly, perhaps, still slightly red-nosed, but able to go back to work and get on with their lives. In America, on the other hand (so Bryson says), adverts for cold remedies promise total instantaneous relief. After taking one of these things, you'll not only feel better, you'll actually feel fitter and more healthy than you did before the cold started, and moreover the sky will be bluer and the beer will be colder than heretofore. Products that aren't sold in this way lose out to those that are, and realism be damned. Now, Americans aren't stupid; surely they must realise that any product claiming this kind of success rate is bound to not meet up to its claims? But it still goes on. And, of course, it's a vicious circle; once one manufacturer exaggerates the efficacy of their product, their competitors have to equally oversell, or they'll look bad by comparison. Naturally, someone then takes another step up, and everyone steps up again to join them, ad nauseam, until claims have spiralled completely out of control and into cloud cuckoo land, and the public have to manually correct these insane claims back down to reality whenever they watch an advert.
What prompted this, as some of you reading might have guessed, was that last night was Bonfire Night, an evening on which, traditionally, there are fireworks. There are two types of firework display: big public ones and small private ones. We will not concern ourselves with big public displays here. The small private displays normally involve buying a box of fireworks and then setting them off, one at a time, in your back garden, so that your children can look at them and say "ooo-ooooh!" in the time-honoured fashion. It's a British tradition, and much like many similar British traditions such as sending hundreds of Christmas cards, or going to the seaside, it happens with a grim, teeth-gritted sense that you should be enjoying it, even though no-one really likes it very much. Now, fireworks aren't really oversold in the same way as washing powder: after all, when did you last see an advert for fireworks? Apart from the ones warning about the danger of fireworks, that is, which are noble and good and should definitely continue, obviously. No, fireworks aren't advertised. However, their effects are, by the fireworks themselves. Next year, take a look at each one as you take it out of the box, paying particular attention to the name. Then, after you've spent five minutes crouching in the wet grass getting it lit, and fifteen seconds watching it throw out a small damp cloud of coloured sparks, ask yourself whether that name was an adequate description of the vision of pyrotechnic excellence you've just experienced. Firework names imply that you're just about to watch an event to rival the greatest of son et lumiere spectaculars: "Towering Inferno", "Solar Blaster", "Red Dawn". I'm sure that there was a "Chernobyl Rocket" in last night's box. Or "Incredible Krakatoa". Something like that. Since all home fireworks are of one of two types, either the "shoot up in the air making a small noise and that's it" or the "narrow short fountain of coloured sparks", these names are an unbelieveable, unconscionable overstatement of their true impact. They failed to interest my daughter particularly, and she's only two-and-a-half years old. I tried, believe me I tried; "Look, Niamh, at all the pretty colours!" She was having none of it, turning a long-suffering look upon me as though I were treating her like a moron. "No, Daddy," you can imagine her saying, "it's a small fizzle in green. Just like the previous two." What she actually said was that she wanted to light one, but I, unsurprisingly, wanted to reserve the excitement of kneeling on wet grass in total darkness solely to myself. I'm sure Guy Fawkes would be proud of me.
© sil, November 2002