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.