This month’s column takes the form of a confession. I have committed a crime against the Left and need to clear my political conscience. I haven’t been eating in McDonalds or telling dodgy jokes, and I promise the sad passing of Tony Benn had nothing to do with me. My transgression is much, much worse. I have appeared in a TV commercial. I know for a socialist this is a deadly sin, but before you turn the page muttering something about a morally bankrupt ginger sell-out, allow me to explain, because, believe me, I have paid for my misdeed.
The decision to do it was simple: I wasn’t working and I needed the money, plus I wasn’t exactly being asked to be the poster boy for Goldman Sachs. It was to be for a well-known tyre-fitting firm, a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ appearance, or so I thought. As it turns out, in the age of digital television it became more of a ‘blink and you rewind it, pause it, screen-grab it and post it on Facebook’ appearance. Thanks to social media, I was practically trending after a few days. I was named and shamed good and proper.
To complete my humiliation, the launch date for the ad coincided with the 20th anniversary of the death of legendary alternative comic Bill Hicks, whose position on performers doing adverts was pretty clear: ‘Do a commercial, you’re off the artistic roll call; every word you say is suspect, you’re a corporate whore. End of story.’ Not much wriggle room there. The timing was terrible. The footage of my Faustian pact went public at the exact same time as everyone I know was lamenting the demise of an advert-hating bastion of liberal morality. Was Bill getting in on my social-media lynching from the afterlife?
Ultimately though, I don’t feel too guilty. I agree in principle that commercials are essentially a pernicious hoodwinking exercise, but I don’t think all the actors who rely on them as an economic lifeline are morally tainted. I hate fossil fuels, but I’m not about to accuse coalminers of cutting a deal with the Devil (although who knows what they get up to down there when we’re not looking).
This is not to let all performers who do adverts off the hook. A celebrity using their fame and influence to endorse a questionable product for an astronomical fee is entirely different from a jobbing actor pretending they like the taste of a drink to pay the rent.
A recent and particularly blatant example of this unprincipled celebrity avarice was when actress Scarlett Johansson quit her role as Oxfam Ambassador in favour of becoming the face of SodaStream, an Israeli company that gets ‘busy with the fizzy’ on land Israel has occupied since 1967. Why can’t Bill Hicks torment her from beyond the grave?
So, there it is. I’m sorry, but I can’t sit here all day atoning my sins, I’ve got an audition for a company that sells hair shirts I need to get to. Reckon I’ll be a shoo-in.