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​Brits are getting even more cynical. Only piss-taking brands will cut through

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By Jack Hutchinson, Creative director

June 12, 2024 | 6 min read

Many Brits are shrouded in layers of sulphuric wit and cynicism. Hope&Glory’s Jack Hutchinson believes brands need to take the piss or suffer a miss.

Ricky Gervais in the Office, many people's first exposure to British piss-taking

Ricky Gervais in the Office, many people's first exposure to British piss-taking / BBC

We Brits are a cynical people in a cynical nation. From what we eat to what we watch on TV to who we vote for, we approach almost anything with a healthy dose of distrust (just look at the multitude of Reddit and Quora threads with titles like ‘[Serious] Why do the British seem to be so cynical?’ if you don’t believe me).

And, unfortunately for us marketing folks, this cynicism increasingly thrives on what we do.

From a growing distrust of influencers to an increasing aversion to the bombardment of ads they face, consumers are getting savvier – and more cynical – day by day.

This means we have to try a lot harder to get through to them, but it doesn’t take a great manager like The Office’s David Brent to do so.

“To beat a Brit, you need to think like a Brit” (should have been) a famous quote in Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. In other words, rather than try and battle this cynicism head-on, it’s far better to feed it. Play people at their own game.

In Cynicism in British Post-War Culture, academic author Kieran Curran argues that cynicism should be considered a driving force for cultural production in Britain. Crucially (and uniquely to the UK), it can transcend the barriers between high and low culture, meaning its “omnipresence within society can permeate culture as a whole.”

We’re even seeing some parties in the current election cycle lean into the piss-taking on TikTok for the first time.

This is fuelled by the current UK climate. As the fount of all knowledge – Wikipedia – tells us, “British humor carries a strong element of satire aimed at the absurdity of everyday life.” And for many of us, life has never been more absurd. So we are all seeking some piss-taking relief.

It’s why many of the most interesting and successful campaigns – across PR, advertising and social – have been the ones that have captured the now-more-than-ever piss-taking mentality of the nation.

Here’s a selection of favorites, exploring the subtleties of that very British brand of piss-taking as we go…

We’ll kick off with Uncommon’s Dirty Protest, a campaign that not only has a beautifully simple idea at its heart - a petition against shit in our ocean signed with shit from our ocean – but that also embodies the cynicism and distrust we all have for politics right now. “Politicians are shit, so let’s deliver actual shit into their hands” is the unwritten copy. It’s piss-taking of the highest order, driven by anger at the injustices we (and the environment) face.

Surreal Cereal has long been on a piss-taking roll, with a series of OOH and social campaigns that take the piss out of the very marketing disciplines they are using. Big-name celeb endorsements? Let’s take the piss with cynical ads playing on the fact that names are just… names (whatever the lawyers might think). Glossy visuals? Let’s take the piss with an ad that looks like it was mocked up in Word 97.

Surreal ad

Piss-taking on behalf of the underdog is the theme of a couple of (shameless) examples of our own work. The Ikea Balenciaga towel skirt took the piss out of the ridiculous prices and practices of fashion to the extent that it was featured in the fashion world’s biggest titles (very meta).

Balenciaga

In a similar vein, the Dacia hot water bottle took the piss out of rival manufacturers’ frankly piss-taking practice of charging consumers for things they already own. In both cases, we were taking the piss out of the brands taking the piss out of the consumer (aware we are close to drowning in piss here).

Whether driven by issues with politics and the environment, being on the side of the consumer, or the ridiculousness of our industry, what all these campaigns share – and what makes them work – is that they embrace the cynicism at the heart of the nation.

But perhaps the best piss-taking example of them all is street artist Mobstr’s billboards, which have been found across East London over the past few years.

‘Cool Billboard Bro’ so effectively encompasses consumer cynicism while exemplifying the art of piss-taking that I’m pretty sure it could have a whole dissertation dedicated to it.

In the absence of that, the visuals do the job.

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