'Come we don't want to hear any more of them cust D's and B's.
Say the words out like a man and don't be so modest or else leave it alone'
The Mayor of Casterbridge
I warned you about this.
Last year we had a politician applying the world 'bullshit' to a painting which he didn't particularly like. This year we have an advertising agency breaking the penultimate taboo and using the word 'bum' in an advertisement for toilet paper. It's only a matter of time before we start telling school children where babies come from, you mark my words.
You might think that there was something healthy and grown-up about the fact that manufacturers of loo-paper are prepared to allude, be it ever so obliquely, to the kind of purpose to which their product might possibly be put. This is an industry which regards windsurfing as an appropriate euphemism for menstruation and a woman eating a slice of chocolate cake as the height of wit and sophistication when used to sell constipation tablets. Only very recently have they been prepared to even show a toilet in the context of an advert for toilet paper. More usually, they fall back on abstract signification systems. The original point of the Andrex puppy was, I think, that Andrex was good value because you got a lot of it for your money--the puppy got tangled up in the loo-roll, ran around the garden (negating the need to even depict a bathroom) and the family were amused at how far it went. But the adverts rapidly reached a point where 'Labrador Puppy' meant 'loo-roll' as surely as a hammer-and-sickle represented an abstract theory of political economics. (The current ad has a man caressing a roll of loo-paper as if it was a puppy-dog.) One product whose name I can't remember--see how well spent your advertising money is--uses a cute cartoon of a bear in some woods--having a picnic, going to sleep, doing everything, in fact, but shitting there. This implies a level of repression of quite Viennese proportions.
Someone once wrote a book on euphemism, which claimed that advertisers invent words ending in an 'X' to describe products whose purpose we might feel embarrassed to mention: Andrex, Durex, Tampax, Ajax. This seemed very convincing until someone asked why we were all so ashamed of eating Wheetabix.
In the women's magazines before the war you were not allowed to use the word 'bottom' in any context. You had to say 'the foot of the stairs', 'the hem of the dress' , 'the lowest position in the football league'.
My primary school music teacher went through a set of song books and manually replaced 'bum' with 'tramp' in The Big Rock Candy Mountains in order to safeguard the moral welfare of her charges. This was the first time I discovered that the word has different connotations in the UK and the USA. Up to then, when Ben Grim had described villains as 'crumb bums' it had called a rather odd image to mind.
So. Does the fact that the makers of Velvet toilet paper think it acceptable to display a series of bare botties followed up with the slogan 'Love your Bum' mean that we are becoming less hung-up about our bodies and our bodily functions? It would be a jolly good thing if this were the case. Lots of people would apparently sooner die of bowel or prostate cancer than talk to the doctor in a frank and grown-up way about their plumbing. If one were selling, say, soap or bathroom fittings then it might be quite rational to illustrate them with an image of a person in whatever state of undress they found themselves while using the product, and not worry too much about which twiddly bits happen to come into shot. If we were prepared to do this, it might indeed be a sign we were less hung-up about nakedness. But if we had reached that point, then the Velvet ad wouldn't be worth doing. A huge photograph of a backside is an arresting and amusing image precisely because we don't expect it and are not comfortable with it. (If we no longer thought that 'fuck' was a Very Naughty Word Indeed, then the French Connection U.K ads would be even less funny than they actually are.)
There is an interesting side-issue about the social status of photography. According to the dominant belief-system, photography drains an image of any capacity it might have had to shock. One assumes that the Equity members who exposed themselves for the Velvet ads would be embarrassed if a guest wandered into their bedroom while they were undressing, but they don't mind themselves being photographed and displayed on 20 foot high poster hoardings. We also assume that the actors who do full-frontals in movies (but only if it's artistically necessary) still put a towel round themselves when getting changed on the beach. Photography acts as a barrier or an invisible wall; it clothes the naked flesh and makes it decent. Perhaps a bum is like an eclipse--a thing of great beauty, but very dangerous if you look at it directly. Or like the Medusa: you can look at its reflection, but look into its eyes, and you are struck blind.
Paradoxically photography is also thought to have the power to turn an innocent image into one that is shocking and even criminal. Almost no-one would find anything wrong in a child being bathed by its parents or paddling naked on the beach; but photograph the scene and you are likely to be accused of being a child pornographer. We may have to ban mobile-phones from gyms and swimming pools in case someone uses the new digital camera feature to photograph people with no clothes on--a possibility obviously too horrendous to contemplate. This superstition reached its apotheosis last year when two separate L.E.A.s took steps to prevent parents taking photographs of their children's Christmas plays in case these scurrilous images ended up in the hands of paedophiles.
There was an apocryphal story of a lady being charged with indecency for breast-feeding her baby in an art gallery…. surrounded by artistic paintings of bare-chested nymphs. I look forward to hearing about the first person done for indecency for dropping his trousers in front of one of the Velvet posters.
If you analyse the Velvet advert, you will discover that it actually turns on a rather ingenious visual pun.
To begin with, it doesn't simply show a bottom. It doesn't show, say, a rear view of a group of people who with no clothes on (as with the 60s Naked Ape cover) let alone a group of ordinary mortals who have pulled down their pants and are, as the young people say, 'mooning' us--complete with spots, hairs, tattoos and other human frailties. Such an image would have been insulting, comic and perhaps even obscene.
What we have instead is a sequence of torsos without any human beings attached. They are heavily lit so you can't see any imperfections on the skin. Indeed, its such a washed out bottom that you are almost inclined to look at it as an abstract shape. The image makes one think of statuesque, classical Greek beauty; or else of a centre-fold model doing a slightly naughty pose. I think, by the way, that they are all Caucasian bottoms.
"Aha," we say when we see it for the first time. "A mildly sexy image of a shapely posterior. I guess they're using sex to sell us something again."
So when the slogan 'love your bum' appears we experience a moment of incongruity--a disjuncture between what we expected the image to signify and what it actually signifies. It wasn't about sex after all, it was about, er, lower bodily functions. Which is just what you do associate backsides with. Ha-ha. Fooled you.
Most jokes turn on a jump between two systems of signification; a moment when we were interpreting what was said according to one set of rules, and found that we were supposed to following a different set. The rules of advertising make us expect a derriere to be associated with sex and to therefore to be used to sell motor-cars, chocolate flake, cosmetics or expensive underwear. It is therefore funny to hear a punch-line which says 'Sometimes, Doctor, a bottom is just a bottom.' The revelation that the image was about something as mundane as visiting the little-room up-stairs has the effect of suddenly unclothing and revealing the image; and raising a laugh just as surely as if a clown had dropped his trousers on the stage. And of course, only schoolboys say 'bum'. In real life, people say 'arse' or 'backside'.
We thought it was a bottom but it was really a bum. Ho-ho.
We thought it was about sex, but actually it's about loo-roll. Cringe.
We thought it was about Nudity but actually it was about nakedness. Titter titter titter.
The advert, in short, relies on the fact that we find naked flesh embarrassing--except on condition that it is "clothed" in sexuality. And that seems to me to be every bit as hung up or repressed as putting skirts on piano legs.
To this end I will continue to bulk buy the cheap white stuff at Sainsburies.
This essay has been nominated for the J.K Rowling Award for Using the Greatest Number of Euphemisms For Arse in A Single Paragraph