Since the Brexit referendum decision in 2016, advertising has been dragged into a culture war about which brands are British Brands and about the UK's place in the World, not just in Europe. The most notable example has been the campaign for HSBC starring Richard Ayoade. At first, it seemed unclear whether the campaign was celebrating or bemoaning Brexit, but as it increasingly focuses on Global Britain, the answer is clear. Given the brand is the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, that is hardly surprising.
In stark contrast to HSBC, few brands are more resolutely British than Vauxhall. The German's have their Opels. The Australians have their Holdens. The Americans have their Buicks, Cadillacs and Chevys. But if you want a Vauxhall, you can only buy one in Britain.
But since Brexit, it is not enough to be British. Brands have to be seen to be British too. And not some Johnny Come Lately British immigrant, but able to trace their British heritage back for three of four generations. Ideally, a brand would be like those toffs who claim that their family came over with the Normans. Although for a car company, that might be tricky.
So, in the end frame of a recent television commercial for the all new Corsa, Vauxhall claimed "British Brand since 1903". However, in the Post-Brexit Britain of 2021 people won't stand for misleading claims of Britishness. As Cecil Rhodes observed, to be born British is to win first prize in the lottery of life. While one half of the country wants to tear down statues of Rhodes, the other half of the country appears to be embracing his 'philosophy', and insisting that only true Aryans, sorry, true Brits, should be able to make that claim.
Four people therefore complained to the Advertising Standards Authority that the claim was misleading, on the grounds that Vauxhall has been foreign owned for many decades, firstly by General Motors of the United States since the 1920s, then more recently by the French PSA Group and now by a Dutch company called Stellantis. These 4 complainants are clearly very knowledgeable about issues of ownership in the automotive sector and were not misled at all. So were they more motivated by nationalism than by a concern about misleading advertising? Is this just another example of advertising becoming embroiled in the Brexit culture war?
Perhaps. And Vauxhall even may have been pleased to be afforded an opportunity to burnish their British credentials by responding to the complaint. Vauxhall convinced the ASA not to uphold the complaints on the basis that the Vauxhall trademark is by British company, Vauxhall Motors Limited; Vauxhall badged cars are only sold in the UK; and Vauxhall has always built vehicles in this country. The ASA was even willing to overlook the fact the model featured in the ad, the all-new Corsa, is not built in the UK, but in Spain. So still inside the European Union. It would not have been surprising if the decision had gone on the other way, given this was an ad for one particular model which is not built in Britain.
It makes one nostalgic for a time when our cars were built in Britain, but our ads didn't feel the need to say so. Personally, I would allow Nissan to claim "British Brand since 1984", provided they agree to keep the plant open in Sunderland.
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