At Glastonbury in 2000 I noticed two young men both wearing enormous Y-fronts and carrying an even bigger pair with the word ‘pants’ written on it. They both looked miserable as you would if you’d come up with the idea while drunk and then found yourself stuck like that for the duration of the festival. Some of the more thuggish elements jeered and threw beer cans.
Seven years later, at another festival I attended, they wouldn’t have attracted a second glance, because dressing up had become ubiquitous. This year, seven years on from that, far from being weird, wearing Y-fronts superhero-style over your trousers is all the rage — not just at festivals but out and about in normal life. It’s the latest charity fund-raising craze, and come Christmas you’ll be a party pooper if your pants aren’t on display.
Of course, the odd eccentric has always done wacky things for charity: bathed in baked beans or run a marathon in a gorilla suit. The difference with Movember, the ice bucket challenge or the new fashion for Superman Pants is that the wackiness is communal, almost compulsory. It’s become the default setting for the British at play.
Weddings have caught the ‘wacky’ bug. I know a bride who came down the aisle to the ‘Imperial March’ from Star Wars. At others there have been dressing-up boxes, even animals from petting zoos. Architecture is at it too: why have elegant buildings when you could have the Gherkin, the Cheese Grater or the Walkie Talkie?
It’s at work and in the world of advertising, though, that wackiness is most pernicious, and most tiresomely knowing. The staff at Pret A Manger are encouraged to banter with customers — exhausting when all you want is your morning coffee handed over. The mission statement for O2, the telephone company, is ‘Be more dog.’ When you get the bill at a Hotel du Vin it comes on a bit of paper labelled ‘The Damage’.
Worst of all are the corporate Twitter accounts with a brief to be funny which then interact with other corporate accounts. There was a particularly appalling exchange last year between Tesco, Yorkshire Tea and Cadburys. Buzz-feed picked it up and deemed it hilarious. They move fast, these crazy marketing people: no sooner had an American tourist been trapped overnight in Waterstones Trafalgar Square than they announced a ‘sleep-over’ in the shop.
Weren’t adverts in Britain once made with wit, warmth and imagination? As I remember it, they were often the best thing on television and the people behind them, Ridley Scott for one, went on to have Hollywood careers. Now the creative director just presses a button marked ‘wacky’ and delivers faked eccentricity. The new Rowntree Randoms advert is perhaps the worst or best example. In it, a woman stops her car to ask for directions and a man, scoffing Randoms, comes out with nonsensical phrases such as ‘Bob’s your teapot’ or ‘All right ice cream cone.’ It’s the sort of thing students said to each other in the 1990s after watching too much Vic and Bob.
It’s not just the ads, either. Newsnight, in an attempt to halt declining ratings, had Kirsty Wark dance like a zombie and poor old Jeremy Paxman interview Russell Brand about his revolution. No news is too serious for a bit of ‘fun’. If the economy is tanking, you can be sure the screen will fill with pictures of boats sinking and the talking heads will be dressed in sailor’s caps. But it’s not funny, it’s cynical. It’s TV commissioned by people who assume the public can’t be interested in anything unless it’s dressed up. And that’s the trouble with ‘wackiness’ in general — it’s not fun, it’s depressing: a soulless substitute for fun lit upon by desperate people.
My theory is that John Major must take some of the blame for this state of affairs. It was under his administration that student numbers soared as the old polys expanded and became new universities. Students were everywhere, encouraging each other to live a little and dress up as giant chickens.
Today it feels like we’re trapped in a gigantic feedback loop. Our student antics are picked up by advertisers, and beamed back at us. This encourages us to go to even greater wacky heights. What can we do to break the cycle? We must vote with our wallets, I say, and boycott products with wacky advertising. Never, ever retweet a corporate Twitter account and, at all costs, keep your pants inside your trousers.