Postmodern irony is one of those terms whose meaning depends on which academic discipline the Hogwarts sorting hat chose for you. For our purposes, however, Postmodern irony stands for ironic self-reference and absurdity, and it is a territory that advertising and marketing regularly dwell in.
The 2011 Barclays Tracker ads with Stephen Merchant’s voiceover. One example, started… ‘Ere we go. This one’s about Barclays Tracker Mortgages that’s why these people are on some kind of track. Cut to a laboriously symbolic hill of rail track with two people on a pump truck.
Now being on a tracker mortgage when the going’s good is good – there’s a squirrel – but if times get tougher… The random squirrel is glanced at for less than a second – and then we get back, um, on track with the information. Luckily the random squirrel has also jolted us out of a mortgage talk coma. Later in the ad the voiceover says: I don’t know if the squirrel’s relevant. Is the squirrel relevant? The squirrel’s not relevant. Ignore that.
Merchant’s voiceover is spoken as if he is viewing the execution for the first time and saying what he sees – in the way that people do when commenting on the TV at home. This marketing trickery puts the endorser of Barclays side by side with its customers on the sofa, watching the advert together.
Barclay’s self-depreciating positioning
Given a backdrop of unprecedented hostility to the banking sector, the choice Barclays made to situate their products in Postmodern Irony territory was calculated. This self-depreciating approach made it less vulnerable to attack from a public more disposed to taking offence.