The other day I watched a television programme on philosophy,
featuring someone I suppose was a philosopher.
He was discussing Epicurus, who lived in Athens around 350 BC and gave
his name to the word Epicurean, associated with living well.
Epicurus' idea of a good time was very different from mine. He lived
very simply, didn't drink, didn't wear fancy clothes, didn't attend
In all, he was a big disappointment to me, but not as much as the
programme, which examined happiness and how to attain it.
It featured a Liverpudlian window dresser who spent all his money and
more on clothes, many of which didn't even fit. He was therefore
unhappy, poor lamb.
I was falling asleep when suddenly the presenter said Epicurus believed
that advertising stopped us being happy. This brought me up with a
I know advertising existed then; my favourite example is a sign carved
into the footpath in Ephesus giving directions to the nearest brothel.
But did advertising stop people being happy in 350BC? Of course it
didn't. And did Epicurus ever mention advertising?
Of course he didn't. What we had was some bien-pensant imposing his own
views on the infinitely more intelligent Greek.
Of course, a lot of advertising makes me unhappy, because I can't
understand it, and if I can't, neither can lots of other people.
Essentially all it does is take good money out of circulation and waste
it. Even my dread-locked son Mark, who is pretty avant-garde and has an
IQ of about 3000, showed me an ad the other day and asked me if I could
understand it. I couldn't. It was for Volkswagen - but we were both very
This unnatural zest for the incomprehensible can partly be blamed on
that old fraud James Joyce, of whom Irish columnist Kevin Myers said
recently: "I would happily sit down for a few hours over a Korean-Arabic
theological dictionary rather than ever again have to read Ulysses.
Indeed, if there are solid grounds for complaint over the way the
British governed Ireland up until 1922, they lie in the quite monstrous
failure of the British to take James Joyce out and shoot him when they
had the chance. That any Booker shortlist can be guaranteed to contain
at least one work that is incomprehensible, self-indulgent rubbish is in
large part due to the malignant influence of Joyce and the licence he
gave to the fraudulent, the mediocre and the merely imitative."
Another problem derives from our famous sense of humour. People think
advertising must be funny to work. Being funny is not easy, as a joke
told by Joan Collins in a recent Spectator column revealed. Apparently
when the great actor Edward Kean was dying a young actor knelt by his
side and whispered, "Sir, what is dying like?" "My boy," boomed the old
thespian, "dying is easy - comedy is difficult".
But comedy is almost impossible if you're trying to sell something at
the same time.
The current Fiat commercial set in a petrol station is a perfect
example. It's very funny - but it doesn't tell you why you should buy
the car. Odd.