The nostalgic conundrum of Carling Black Label

The nostalgic conundrum of Carling Black Label

The Background

Carling began brewing in Canada in the 1870s, survived prohibition in the US, and reached the shores of post-war Britain in 1957 – becoming the world’s first mass-brewed beer along the way. 

As Carling Black Label, the brand’s popularity hit huge peaks during the 1970s and 80s in the UK, not least due to its ‘I bet he drinks…’ campaign, known for its parodies of other hit ads, controversial patriotism, and Great British silliness. 

And while the ‘Black Label’ has since been dropped, Carling remains the dominant tinny at the top of the UK booze charts, with an un-crafty 1 million hectolitres* downed in 2019 alone.

*Don’t ask. I have no idea either.

The Big Idea

The big idea saw WCRS London create a long-running campaign starring two comedians, Stephen Frost and Mark Arden (who you might remember from Lazarus and Dingwall and The Young Ones). 

The pair finished each spot commentating, “I bet he drinks Carling Black Label”, to sum up the ad’s main protagonist as he (and it was always ‘he’) showed off some kind of impressive prowess.

What They Did

I’ve picked a suite of three Carling ads that all sprang to mind for this nostalgia issue.

None, perhaps, with more actual spring than their classic Mission Impossible-soundtracked Squirrel advert from 1989, featuring a daredevil grey rodent full of poise and bushy-tailed balance, literally going nuts to complete a back-garden obstacle course, only for one of the two onlooking owls to speak Stephen Frost’s eponymous strapline.

Then there’s the campaign’s perhaps most memorable ‘Dambusters’ ad of 1990: a 90 second take off of the classic 1956 black and white movie, which sees our two comedians as Lancaster bomber pilots, dropping round upon round of bouncing bombs, with comic exasperation… only to see each of them saved with increasing ease by the patrolling German dam guard-come-goalkeeper.

But what brought all these back for me first, was an ad from after Frost and Arden’s cameo era: the brand’s other ‘Dambusters’ themed excursion, tuned this time to a battle for the sun loungers at a sun-soaked holiday villa in 1994. This saw a wildly stereotypical trope of aging male German holiday makers all jumping out of bed to a “wakey wakey” wake-up call, in pursuit of the most coveted lounger by the pool – only for a chiselled, Jack Grealish-looking Brit to unleash his Union Jack towel from a high and mighty veranda and see it skim the water, bouncing bomb-style, before claiming the grand prize by unrolling across the lounger and dropping a fresh can of the good stuff into a bucket of ice. Bosch.

The Review

For the record I was 12 in 1994 – so it wasn’t really the thought of an ice-cold Carling that made that bouncing towel and those even earlier ads stick in the ol’ memory bank.

But they were funny. Each tickling me enough to cut through the last 30 years when I asked my brain to remember some stand-outs.

As a kid, it’s not hard to see why I’d love watching an acrobatic squirrel – in fact, it wouldn’t have surprised me if that ad had kicked off the entire Animal Magic and You’ve Been Framed show genres if Google hadn’t just told me otherwise.

Then, of course, in the 1990 World Cup semi-final against West Germany (another one of my very early TV memories), we were beaten on penalties (not for the last time) – which, when you think about it in today’s money, makes that first ‘Dambusters’ ad not just a good giggle, but a brilliant piece of culturally reactive creative to boot.

Furthermore, as a young British kid who was busy building Airfix Spitfires after getting increasingly interested in the history of World War Two – soaking up an innocent youngster’s sense of patriotism as I went – the repeated parody of that ‘great’ 617 Squadron wartime raid and the bouncing bomb towel spot provided an easy-get set of giggles at ‘the old enemy’s’ expense. 

I got the story on all counts.

In Hindsight

I still find them funny. Which is what unnerves me a bit. 

Not just about these ads, but about nostalgia itself. 

That set of fuzzy memories we all cling to – especially in our current world gone mad – to remind us of good times past, of ‘when things were simpler’, or for many, before ‘political correctness went mad’.

You see nostalgia’s a funny thing. But it’s also dangerous. 

The reason why things from the past seem to so often appeal is because we’ve chosen not to remember all of life’s shit we were dealing with at the time. We’ve just cherry-picked the good stuff to hold on to. 

Or, for those in the ‘PC gone mad’ brigade, it’s about harking back to a time where structural racism was even more rife, and society’s tolerance for immoral, discriminatory, and unethical behaviour hadn’t undergone the reckoning it’s needed over the last 30 years – which is once again repeatedly and openly under threat today.

So, leaving super squirrel to his well-deserved nuts for a minute, what I see now when I look at these two ‘Dambusters’ ads again (which have since been criticised for being anti-German and glorifying a wartime raid that killed over 1,600 civilians – 1000 of which were thought to be Soviet allies working as forced labourers) is a nod to a narrative that’s haunted us Brits ever since.

The jolly old German-bashing. The isolationist, political jingoism. The often distasteful, unfounded patriotism of today’s increasingly confident, populist, right-wing rhetoric that ranges from politicians rolling out the ‘Blitz spirit’ every six months to battle whatever crisis they don’t know how to deal with, all the way to that very dangerous idea that us Brits, (or is it just the English these days?) are somehow superior and impervious to everyone else.

Reaching into the commentator's book of clichés, it's easy to say these ads are all ‘of their time’. But, more concerningly, they're a bit too much of our time for my liking.

For me, it's this very attitude of superiority that we've all finally succumbed to as a nation, a la Brexit, the ale-swigging grin of Farage, Boris’s biffle baffle bluster, and that ever-recycled Blitz spirit. 

That storyline retort of ‘two world wars and one world cup’ has underpinned growing elements of British xenophobia ever since, arguably resulting in the mess we find ourselves in now… a country whose swagger and sense of innate superiority is on show for all to see but lacks any actual distinguishing substance.

Much like the promise of a pint of Carling then really.

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