The tweelight of the gods

This morning I read a very funny rant about Sainsburys’ decision to rename tiger bread giraffe bread on the advice of a three-and-half-old girl. One Lily Robinson wrote a letter, complete with “adorable” typos, to head office, who responded thus: “I think renaming tiger bread giraffe bread is a brilliant idea – it looks much more like the blotches on a giraffe than the stripes on a tiger, doesn’t it? It is called tiger bread because the first baker who made it a looong time ago thought it looked stripey (sic) like a tiger. Maybe they were a bit silly. Chris King (age 27 & 3/4).” The bread was swiftly renamed, providing a nice bit of feelgood publicity.

Surely rechristening a product to appease someone not long out of nappies marks some kind of turning point in the infantilisation of branding: a seemingly interminable trend which makes grown men think it’s OK to give their age as “27 & 3/4” without being shoved into a canal. Maybe I should ask my five-year-old daughter to rebrand the Jerusalem artichoke, which is neither an artichoke nor from Jerusalem, and we can all start cooking with Goblinhead instead. Or would that be “a bit silly”?

The first time I saw a bottle of Innocent smoothie, back in 1999, I hated the faux-naif guff on the label, but I had no idea that said guff would still be proliferating over a decade later. Customers of Anglian Water last year received a bill with the following blurb on the envelope. (There are more hilariously horrific examples collected on Becca Nicholson’s Wackaging website.)

According to an article in the Times this is the most requested brand identity of all and you can see what’s in it for the brands: both chummy and childlike, Innocentese poses as an authentic voice in a world of corporate liars. We’re not like them. We’re your best mate inexplicably treating you as if you’re a 10-year-old girl. Making pre-adulthood synonymous with sincerity, it appeals to the Holden Caulfield in us, the part that thinks that kids are sacrosanct while grown-ups lie.

This is, of course, a very old idea. In the story of the emperor’s new clothes, tediously referenced by every internet commenter who wants to pretend that not liking something popular is somehow ennobling, the lone truth-teller is a little boy. Rousseau lionised childhood as an all-too-brief sanctuary from the big bad world. Wordsworth, much like Chris King (27 & 3/4), believed the child was “Might prophet! Seer blest!” He, too, might have allowed a three-year-old to rename his bread. But Innocentese didn’t appear in the late 90s out of a vacuum and I think the ground was laid, at least in part, by indie culture.

In the mid-80s, indie bands like Beat Happening in the US and the C86 scene in the UK employed a childlike aesthetic as a form of resistance to dominant cultural trends. In place of slick professionalism and expensive overproduction, chaotic amateurism. In place of exaggerated sexuality, puritanical sexlessness. In place of glossy “lies”, painful sincerity. In place of adulthood, essentially, a magically extended childhood. One could note with some discomfort that the pop culture being opposed, though identified with corporate America, was driven by working-class black people, but in the heyday of Thatcherism and Reaganomics the “twee” approach was still a valid form of rejection. I thought of this when I read Eva Wiseman’s Observer column about the Innocent aesthetic last autumn:

These brands are the opposite of sexy. They’re anti-sex; they stand on the other side of the brand motorway to perfumes or Nuts magazine. Is this cuteness the consequence of sex-sells branding, the answer song to all those oily boob ads? If you feed in a lorryload of thighs and innuendo at the start of a decade, does it excrete cupcakes and baby voices at the end?

When, a decade later, alternative rock had come to resemble the things it had once opposed, via Britpop and corporate grunge, key indie bands once again reached for the satchels. Belle & Sebastian named themselves after a children’s book and wrote some of their best songs about school, while Neutral Milk Hotel recorded an album inspired by Anne Frank and the lo-fi, pots-and-pans amateurism of a particularly enthusiastic summer camp. These were gifted songwriters creating idiosyncratic private worlds born of refusal and I don’t blame them for what followed anymore than I blame Nirvana for Nickelback, but over the following decade this cult of childhood became part of indie’s schtick. Writing about Pitchfork in n+1 recently, Richard Beck examined the language with which the website praised Animal Collective:

Pitchfork’s writers immediately latched onto the band’s blend of sonic eccentricity and emotional innocence. An early review referred to the group’s work as “fairy-tale music.” Another imagined the band’s members “dancing like children around the crackling fire among the pines.” Another: “It’s a child’s lack of self-conscience and ‘common sense’ that makes them holy. . . . Wisdom is wasted on the old.” Another: “There’s a romantic sense of longing, an air of celebration, but also tinges of doubt, loss, and acceptance.

Animal Collective at least have a sound all their own. Indie’s fetishisation of naivete reached its giraffe bread moment with the reprehensible YouTube sensations Pomplamoose, specifically their bloodless covers of R&B hits.

Around the same point in the late 90s as Belle & Sebastian and Neutral Milk Hotel were emerging, the chillout scene offered a safe haven to ageing ravers alienated by the superclubs, and toyed with ideas of childhood in records such as Lemon Jelly’s Nice Weather for Ducks and Mr Scruff’s Fish — ideas which, like indie twee, were fresh and unusual before they became appropriated and caricatured  by brands. The original, pre-takeover Big Chill was the first truly child-friendly festival so it was inevitable that Innocent would later mount its own festival, appealing to many of the same people.

During the same period Hollywood has also become fluent in Innocentese. Its Belle & Sebastian was Wes Anderson, whose whimsical movies feature children who talk like adults and adults who act like children. Again, this distinctive vision became a much-copied trope. Witness the poster to Sam Mendes’ Away We Go with it’s shambling not-quite-adults and hand-drawn artwork, or the new adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close which sentimentalises 9/11 through the eyes of an aggravatingly precocious nine-year-old boy who lost his dad in the Twin Towers. New York Times critic Manohla Dargis caustically noted: “In real life he would be one of those children who inspire some adults to coo and cluck while reminding others of how grateful they are to be child-free. This being a movie, however, almost everyone reacts to Oskar with the same warm indulgence.” The book and movie act as if 9/11 would somehow be insufficiently moving if it were just about boring old adults with their lies and compromises and inauthenticity and their sex.

The perceived underdog status of indie music and movies, which depends on having big-bucks monoliths as a point of contrast, is appropriated by brands who want to seem like plucky outsiders who are on your side. So I can understand why so many people are selling Innocentese but why are so many people buying it? On some level consumers of Innocent or Ella’s Kitchen must know that their wacky, “hey guys” friendliness is a lie like any other branding exercise. They understand that when the CEO of Innocent lays of staff or talks to 58% shareholders Coca-Cola that he doesn’t call them on the Banana Phone. Surely they clock that it’s essentially bullshit. Yet they play along because it satisfies a need.

I think it’s partly related to the Cult of the Child, defined by one blogger as “the brainwashing some parents undergo that convinces them their children are innately, infallibly wise, untainted by worldly prejudices, and therefore their opinions and pronouncements should be heeded as if they were handed down from the heavens, and their every wish should be indulged”. Parenthood, instead of marking the point at which one irrevocably becomes an adult, is often presented as a second go-around, with the parent eager to shrink the age gap. The packaging of Little Me Organics (“Lots of mummys got together to create a range that was carefully selected to be the best for their little ones…”) and Ella’s Kitchen baby food bizarrely addresses parents as if they were babies themselves, making childhood synonymous with those sacred concepts in upmarket food branding, “natural” and “pure”. Handwritten, obviously, because fonts are for phonies.

And that’s the thing. The brand’s voice is “childlike” but it’s not actually like a child at all, because real children are complicated and tempestuous and say all kinds of stuff: it’s the voice of a parent trying to get a child to do something by approximating their outlook. Innocentese is relentlessly chirpy and nice, in a profoundly white and middle-class way which connects with its affluent customer base.

Copywriter and blogger Tom Albrighton, who calls Innocentese “wackywriting”, shrewdly notes: “In my view, wackywriting has its roots in the sort of language used by some middle-class parents to their young children: jolly, zany and childlike, but with a colder undercurrent of authority, judgement and passive aggression.” Hence the ubiquity of Keep Calm and Carry On merchandise — a slogan conceived for a possible Nazi invasion of Britain which is now only slightly less annoying than an actual Nazi invasion of Britain — which wraps the desire to keep smiling and chill out and cheer yourself up with a cupcake in the voice of authority. Albrighton again:

What if you’re a parent who wants to be liberal, or a brand that wants to be human? How can you control people without getting all heavy on them? Wackywriting is the answer. When direct instruction is culturally inderdicted or deprecated, you can still get the same result by smothering your command in playfulness, cosiness and niceness.…

Wackywriting embodies the dilemma of the liberal middle classes: material privilege, and unease over that privilege, glossed over with affected bohemianism and faux-naïveté. Hopelessly compromised by power and possessions, we long to return to the garden, but can’t pass through the eye of the needle. We’re guilty, but we wish we were, yes, innocent.

I thought perhaps that the whole down-the-shitcan vibe of the world at the moment would puncture the whimsy bubble. If anything it seems to have intensified the need to escape to a wuvly innocent world where nobody’s heard of the Euro crisis or Iranian nukes. But I suspect that just as indie music and cinema laid the groundwork for Innocentese, the growing revulsion towards twee art is the first sign of a backlash against it among consumers. As the language becomes more common, more widely mocked, less trusted, it becomes less useful for brands and one day soon — I hope and pray — we will see the end of the Innocents.

Note: This started with a question on Twitter this morning and perhaps it’s not so much an essay as a quick way to get some thoughts down and collect some useful links in one place. As well as the ones mentioned and linked in the piece, I recommend Lucy Sweet’s hilarious polemic and Nick Asbury’s thoughtful insider view. Other ideas came from Twitter followers who responded to my tweet this morning, especially @zone_styx, @richard_king and @mattleys. The pun in the title was kicked off by @gargarin.

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35 Comments

  1. Fantastic article.Another example: those dead pages on websites that say things like: “Ooops, something went wrong! Don’t worry, we’re working on it. xoxoxx.” Makes you yearn for a cold, ruthless “404 ERROR FILE NOT FOUND”.

  2. That was brilliant, Dorian.

  3. An excellent post. Best one I’ve read so far in terms of surmising where such a voice might have come from. I think innocent has changed over the years, and I definitely wince at some of the stuff that we wrote in the early days (which is usually the stuff that is given as an example when highlighting the tweeness). I guess we were just trying to work it all out. I also like Neutral Milk Hotel and was influenced by those C86 bands as a young man. From Dan Germain (responsible for writing most innocent words since 1999).

    • Thanks for the comment Dan. Far more good-natured than I could have reasonably expected after such a rant. And you’re right that in recent years the worst examples aren’t Innocent but brands such as Treacle Moon who have pushed that language to the point of absurdity. I suppose that’s the downside of success: Innocent has become shorthand for the entire trend, even the bits has nothing to do with directly. So I appreciate the response and am pleased to see that I’m not too far off the mark re: the style’s origins.

  4. Excellent post. Can’t stand all this infantilism.

    Except for one problem – Innocent make very nice smoothies and Belle and Sebastian make great records. What’s a man to do, eh?

    • Indeed, and I rather like the little wooly hats on the innocent bottles, there the perfect size for my stuffed lamb. The problem isn’t really playing to our childish sides though, it’s when it becomes such a massive annoying trend rather than one flavour in an infinite variety of ways to approach the world.

  5. Neutral Milk Hotel? Really? Have you actually listened to any of their albums? Sample lyrics: “Your father made fetuses with flesh licking ladies / While you and your mother were asleep in the trailer park”, “Sweet communist /The communist daughter / Standing on the sea-weed water / Semen stains the mountain tops”. Fuck me, I would chug down a gallon of any ol’ crap they’re selling if they had stuff like *that* printed down the side. Perhaps you just got confused ’cause there are trumpets on a couple of the track?

    And I can see how the *style* of Belle and Sebastian can be said to have been an influence on the turgid piss-fuckery that is Innocentese, but again, as with NMH, there’s an edge and a depth to many of the lyrics which makes the songs far from being wholly pure.

    And that’s not even getting into the lo-fi production values. Basically, you’re way off the mark with them both.

    Lemon Jelly and Mr Scruff however, I can see your point since there’s nothing but playful, giddy thoughts (and DUCKS!!! and FISH!!!) with a radio-friendly, crusts-cut-off sound. And further to those, you forgot to mention the rise (in the early 2000s) of those insipid singer-songwriter types who rather more exemplify the Innocentese values – I’m looking directly at you, without blinking, Jack Johnson. Y’know the sort – the sitting on a beach in the sun with a guitar and everyone’s happy type of music.

    • I think you’ve interpreted my point too narrowly. I used NMH and B&S as examples of an undiluted treatment of childhood as a form of resistance to the corporate world, not as direct inspirations for Innocentese. I’m a fan of both bands and of course there’s edge in there, but during the 00s that general aesthetic was watered down into whimsy. Good call on Jack Johnson.

  6. Great article. I remember the first time I bought shampoo from the Aussie haircare range (with their grating, patronising chat like “Hangovers, boyfriends, deadlines. They all hang around for too long. We all love quick exits, but some things do need a little TLC.” and “What’s the flick-hop you ask?” (I didn’t) “In hair terms it spells the end of a sad, bad relationship with limp hair”) and thinking “Stop trying to have a matey conversation with me, weird toiletry product. Do your job and shut up. If I want counselling, I’ll go to a therapist”

    If I’m honest I do still buy their shampoo on occasion but in my defence I’m not buying into their Innocentese per se, It just makes my hair smell really, really nice.

    • that reminds me a lot of this poisonous voice used persistently in advertising in the australia. i call it the ‘top aussie sheila’. she’s friendly, she’s bubbly, she’s got a little bit of sass, she lets viewers know that the program coming on next on channel xxx is totally female-friendly and accessible, or that any girl who wears this tampon has got some edge to her.

      the nadir of this omnipresent voice-over matrix is when you call, i believe, telstra –the major telecommunications provider in the land– and the top aussie sheila has been turned into a robotic, computerised prompt that you have to talk back to. “now, after the beep, just tell me what we can help you with t’day,” she chirrups, like some down-to-earth-yet-flirty gal holding a glass of white wine at a bondi beach caf. and we all know the painful drill: the utter, utter humiliation and indignity of having to talk to a machine, only to have the top aussie sheila coo “oh, i’m sorry! i’m having a bit of trouble understanding you? could you say it again?” i feel like vomiting with rage just thinking of it…

  7. Great piece, and thanks for the mention. Credit should also go to Oliver Wingate, who first blogged about the Anglian Water envelope. Oliver is the copywriter who named the Sherpa van (among other achievements).
    I think it’s significant that so many indie bands hark back to the 60s one way or another. The whole decade has a strong pre-lapsarian feel about it, but it was also the cradle of psychedelia. And as Ian Macdonald pointed out in ‘Revloution in the Head’, the central concern of psychedelia was nostalgia for childhood innocence.
    As has been discussed in the comments, edge is crucial. In psychedelia, edge made the difference between twee whimsy and something deeper and more disturbing. John Lennon understood that when he wrote ‘Strawberry Fields’ and ‘I Am The Walrus’ – yet even he tired of psychedelia almost immediately, dismissing it as middle-class artifice and moving on to the raw rock of ‘Revolution’ et al.
    That didn’t stop bands like ELO using his 1967 work as a career blueprint, keeping the cellos but ditching the bitterness to make hits of questionable merit like ‘Mr Blue Sky’, with its lamely infantile lyric. Later, as you say, indie bands shuffled the pack by selecting cooler retro tropes, but success still depended on having some sort of edge.
    Moving back to marketing, it’s struck me recently how ineptly advertisers usually tap into the power of nostalgia. A good example is the recent John Lewis Christmas ad. The way it used ‘Please please please let me get what I want’ retained Morrissey’s mawkish whimsy while completely neutering his sarcasm and passive-aggression, turning him into a sort of wistful Charles Hawtrey. And that was a missed opportunity to appeal to people of my generation (although I’d probably still have an issue with hearing The Smiths on any advert).
    I guess what I’m saying is that when you’re selling to adults, there might be scope for a less innocent Innocent that packs more punch – and music shows the way.

    • Good points Tom. I should have mentioned the John Lewis advert. I started thinking about psychedelia too and then worried I was getting into a long history of ideas of childhood in pop, with all the generalisations that entails. Also, LSD played such a big part – what intrigued me about Beat Happening et al is how they fetishised childhood without that narcotic impetus, and at a time when it was so unfashionable.

      I’m intrigued to see what happens next in this area of branding because surely saturation point has been reached. Likewise, I fear for anybody who has invested their savings in cupcake bakeries and 40s-style tea shops.

  8. Well said DL. Did all this kak begin with Ben & Jerry’s, the hippy company that ended up a division of Unilever? Another offender – David Shrigley.

  9. Brilliant piece, Dorian. Really thought provoking. At the very least to be fair to Innocent, the original idea is theirs. So from that point of view I don’t really have an issue with them. It’s more the likes of Anglian and Sainsbury’s that can’t come up with an original thought, so they decided to nick Innocent’s tone of voice.

    • Thanks. I agree that I should have made a distinction between Innocent – annoying though I always found it, it was a powerfully original voice – and the tin-eared imitators.

  10. […] analysis of why this trend towards infantilisation is both depressing and a bit troubling, read this piece, or this piece (less in-depth, more angry really), or indeed the book ‘Big Babies’ by […]

    • Great article, and I agree with many of your points. I love NMH and Belle and Sebastian, and it was interesting how those bands dealt with themes of childhood in very interesting ways. Many seem to have ignored the ‘interesting’ part and have becoime obsessed with childhood itself – ignoring many of the nasty/disturbing elements of many people’s childhoods that are reflected especially in NMH’s music.

      I must admit though, Innocent is possibly getting a raw deal here. I find that their inclusion of useless information on packaging was a commentary on how useless and ignored information usually is on such products. This led to people re-thinking what to do with packaging, yet again unfortunately companies have simply repeated Innocent’s strategy, therefore invalidating any possible message and resulting in a condescending atmosphere of large companies acting like ‘innocent ma and pa’ businesses. Also, Innocent food/drinks are healthy and often aimed at children, in which case ‘fun’, ‘quirky’ packaging is serving a good purpose.

      Apple adverts are a good example of the effect of twee – where the simplistic brand is the most distinguishing feature and adverts feature voice-overs of how ‘simple’ everyone wants their products and show children using £400 pieces of kit to read bed time stories…’Hey White Middle-class person, here is a corporate product for you to buy, but it brings families together so it isn’t an indulgence but a nessecary part of life!. They essentially adapt the language/image of nintendo adverts but for products made for professional adults, not young children.

  11. Those crappy Spotify people who talk to you in an annoyingly quirky and familiar way – i hate them the most.

    • Yes, I HATE that! ‘Hey, I know interrupting your music is annoying, but I’ll do it anyway. I’m your friend, and just want to help you get the best deal and make everything simple, so its OK that I waste your time trying to sell you something, right?’

  12. I’d always found tweeness so ridiculously suffocating and dare i say it, passive aggressive.

  13. […] Sell the product to the kind of people who might think the product is good. And if you can do it without putting us all on the train to Tweesville that would be fan-ruddy-tastic. (Read that last link: it’s by Dorian Lynskey who is a better […]

  14. Don’t forget, Jonathan Richman absolutely jump-started the whole post-modern tweefest with his albums that immediately followed his first Modern Lovers release in the 70s. Talk about going against the grain! “Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers” threw a gauntlet down in 1976 with songs like “Here Come The Martian Martians” at a time when such sentiments couldn’t have been more shocking in the whole death-throes-of-glam milieu.

    • Good point. The Velvet Underground’s I’m Sticking With You also has a lot to answer for.

      • By George – I think you’ve absolutely nailed the meta-influence there! That makes all the sense in the world, seeing as how he worshipped at the altar of the VU. I forgot that song since it’s so completely atypical to what we think of as the Velvet Underground.

  15. I know they might seem like opposites, but do you think all this revolting tweeness might in some way be a descendent of the laddish advertising which was popular in the early 2000s (like the one in which the Pot Noodle was called a slag), i.e. a way of using the relaxed, uninhibited language of intimate personal relationships (between friends, between relatives) to make marketing appear innocuous and infiltrate your personal mental space without encountering the resistance that something too formalised or obviously external might generate?

  16. Great post Dorian. I think Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep is a major culprit here too. Forget the John Lewis Christmas special though, the apogee of tweeness was reached in that Match.com advert.

    “I like old movies…”
    “…like the Godfather…
    “…Three…”
    “…it’s not considered the best one…”
    “…but that’s just me…”

    It’s not the best one. And it’s it’s just even old. I would happily have gouged their eyes out in an instant.

    • Actually my original, even longer draft included a brief defence of The Science of Sleep as an example of a film which actually interrogates whimsy. Just as Eternal Sunshine sets up Clementine as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl before having her refute that stereotype, I think Science pulls out the rug by showing that the main character is deeply troubled and incapable of an adult relationship – his twee fantasies are ultimately poisonous. Maybe I just have a soft spot for Gondry – I like Be Kind Rewind too, and that’s far more vulnerable to charges of excessive whimsy.

      That Match.com ad is hideous.

      • Hey Dorian. I totally agree about Eternal Sunshine, I think your summary is spot on. I personally found The Science of Sleep a bit affectless and irritating – but even if you’re right about the tweeness being a bandage for his troubled personal life, the film’s imagery has definitely inspired a lot of floaty, indiefied ads! Be Kind Rewind was an interesting premise, although I’m not sure if it entirely worked.

  17. Excellent, excellent post. The sort of stuff I’d love to write but end up overcomplicating as I will no doubt proceed to do here! Your theme, and it was brilliantly written, if you don’t mind me saying so, does tie in with a semiotics paper I’m writing at the moment about the parallels between the ‘we think’ discourse currently dominating the marketing world and the surfeit of ads showing effusions of love, caring or just mechanism of orchestration and communion – people communing. It is as if the Coke Side of Life has exploded and its spoors have made their way into all sorts of other categories. The proliferation of pink ( see my piece in Semionaut.net) in every area of the semiosphere at the moment seems to fit with this as well as sonic semiotic codes such as ‘caring piano’, ‘faux naive’ (banjo and as well as the enchantment signifiers (glockenspiel etc) and what Candle Music, who coined these phrases dub ‘drippy girl’. I agree that it can be seen as a sort of bourgeois affectation but also believe it is an example of auto communication on the part of the advertising industry. They are largely communicating to themselves persuading themselves of their own validity as well as communicating to prospective consumers. Is this just a function of the irrelevance of much advertising in 2012?

    I think Baudrillard said that advertising is capitalism saying “I love you” to itself. I believe that kitschified group huggism is a similar deal.

    This has been happening in the car market for ages – recurrence of codes all referencing the neuroses of car manufacturers – exploding the car shape, biomorphism, abstract expressionism, digitization of metal – all attempts to escape reality. Of course there is certainly an isomorphism too between the sharing, interconnected thinking of digital ecosystems and this welter of caring, sharing ads. I think the Adam Curtis doc Watched Over By Machines of Amazing Grace also sounded a minatory note here. There was a similar florescence of group love back in the late 90s after Blair came in and post the collective hysteria of Lady Diana when St Luke blazed a trail.

    I do think that there is an eschatological and escapist dimension underlying all this, something that Diesel ads used to capture exquisitely, before they totally lost their way with the Be Stupid campaign and what Zizek hints at incontinently (as is his wont) when talking about Hollywood in the tome Living in the End Times.
    Anyway, nice one and looking forward to reading more from you.

  18. Damn Proust

  19. […] written, taking into account both style and substance. Music critic Dorian Lynskey quoted it in his own post on the same subject, and that post drew a response from Dan Germain, Head of Creative at Innocent. […]

  20. Erh the poor Jack Johnson rip-off, singing about trees, song to this is awful: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yn2dNDWms0c

  21. I really hope this M83 song is about the dystopian world that would ensue if kidz got their way with more than just horrible bread:

    http://vimeo.com/31133188

    As I said to someone on my way back from a search party, I always thought the tweeification of everything was because people who listen to C86 and Belle and Sebastian still have to have jobs and are not, by virtue of liking fairly good music, necessarily prevented from being cynical cunts.

    Turns out I was wrong.


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