Is marketing due a return to aspiration?
Last Sunday I attended a gig by the luminous ‘80s pop band, ABC. They performed their essential 1982 album, The Lexicon of Love, in its entirety. Martin Fry’s literate pop skipped effortlessly along to chopped guitar patterns, sensuous saxophone and opulent orchestration. Bliss.
For my generation The Lexicon of Love was a defining work. We would play it end-to-end at college parties. We danced dramatically to its pop-soul rhythms, playfully enacting the lovelorn lyrics. We shot ‘poison arrows’ across crowded rooms; we aimed ‘looks of love’ at imagined sweethearts; we remonstrated with each other that ‘tears are not enough.’
‘Well I hope and I pray that maybe someday
You’ll walk in the room with my heart.
Add and subtract, but as a matter of fact,
Now that you’re gone, I still want you back.’
Martin Fry/ABC, All of My Heart
Punk had taught us to be angry – at society, at convention, at our diminished opportunities. Post Punk had taught us to think – beyond the confines of our education and the narrow horizons of our modest suburban lives.
The Lexicon of Love taught us to dream.
It suggested that somewhere, behind a red velvet curtain, there was a world of style, intrigue and romance just waiting for us. It was a glamorous dreamland of gold lame jackets, of loss and loneliness; of meaningful glances and withering bons mots; of unconfessed and unrequited love. It was film noir re-imagined in a Technicolor age. And all available for the price of a Long Island Iced Tea.
There’s a tendency to dismiss the aspiration of the ‘80s as somewhat shallow and materialist. But at the time this aspiration seemed incredibly democratic. We had grown up assuming that some things were only available to the gilded elite; that ours was a more modest lot - of sausage rolls and Sandwich Spread on the sofa; of straight-glassed light & lager down The Drill; of chart-topping disco at the Ilford Palais. But ABC suggested that a heady, intoxicating glamour was immediately accessible to us if we had the youth, wit and imagination to conjure it up.
We trooped down to Sweet Charity and invested in second hand silk ties and ‘50s suits with a shimmering sheen. We cultivated Country Born quiffs, sturdy brogues and moody expressions. We covered our bedroom walls in Cartier-Bresson.
‘The sweetest melody
Is an unheard refrain.
So lower your sights
But raise your aim,
Raise your aim.’
Martin Fry/ABC, Poison Arrow
In the marketing world of the late ‘80s we talked a lot about ‘aspiration’. There were aspirational lifestyles, aspirational experiences and aspirational adverts. We imagined that, with a nod and a glance, certain brands could convey access, acceptance and allure.
It all seems faintly absurd now. And, of course, the genre of aspirational advertising fell victim to over-promise and under-delivery. It drowned in an excess of lip-gloss, Elnett, high heels and shoulder pads; too much black and chrome; too many moody businessmen peering through blinds and striding purposefully around industrial apartments.
Nonetheless, I would suggest there was something worthwhile in all this. For all its faults, ‘80s advertising was seeking to democratise glamour; to bring hitherto exclusive worlds within reach of ordinary people; to make the aspirational accessible and affordable.
I like brands with a democratic purpose. I like it when Ikea talks of ‘democratizing design.’ I like Sam Walton's original intent to ‘give ordinary folk the chance to buy the same things as rich people.’ These are admirable ambitions.
Culture is dynamic. It’s on the move and people want to move with it. Surely one of the primary roles of brands is to introduce the many to the tastes of the few; to encourage social mobility. ‘Aspiration’ is not a dirty word.
‘But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.’
WB Yeats/ The Cloths of Heaven
Now, of course, we live in an age of authenticity, utility and transparency. But we should beware. If we strip away all the artifice and confection from brands, we'll also strip away the fantasy and romance. We’ll be left with the earnestly artisanal and the sincerely sensible. Someone you’d want to avoid at parties.
I notice that, since the last UK election, people have started talking seriously about aspiration again. Perhaps the pendulum is swinging. When everyone else is beating the drum for ‘keeping it real’, now may be the moment to revisit the dreamlike charms of glamour and escape.
Perhaps it’s time to dust off those spats and don that gold lame jacket. Because you wouldn’t want to be left with Martin in the land of regret and missed opportunity…
‘If you gave me a pound for the moments I missed,
And I got dancing lessons for the lips I should have kissed,
I’d be a millionaire, I’d be a Fred Astaire.’
Martin Fry/ABC, Valentine’s Day