My dislike of the word ‘pamper’ suddenly caught fire recently. Walking through an English seaside town, I saw sign after sign advertising ‘pamper packages’ of some sort. There was competition to see who could offer the most ludicrously overblown one; fourteen hours of pampering and spa treatments by candlelight as you’re fed Turkish Delight by captive apes wearing golden chains, each trained to whisper because you’re worth it and smile sympathetically, their grave simian eyes showing that they understand and value you—they don’t judge.
There’s some kind of weird, coddling infantilism in the air. The directions to one spa said that they were ‘snuggled behind Barclays Bank’. What? How terrible can life be in that pleasant and prosperous little town that its people want this sort of babying? Surely, for an adult, spending a day being croodled over would be boring, sinister, and repellent, while being in a spa by candlelight is more Miss Havisham taking a bath than some kind of treat. Against my will, I find myself thinking of those middle-aged businessmen who pay to have nappies put on them.
I know, I know, I’m not the target market; advertising has always been naff; no doubt there’s some word association with Pampers nappies. I don’t want to interfere with anyone’s harmless pleasures, but I can’t help hating the way they talk about it or thinking that there’s something disgustingly onomatopoeic about the word ‘pamper’. And then, you see, there’s the whole desserts caboodle.
Just about anything with an acknowledged amount of sugar in it is ‘deliciously decadent’, ‘wickedly indulgent’, or whatever. If there’s chocolate in it, then put some bells on. They talk as if eating a pudding or a bar of chocolate were akin to Nero’s orgies. It’s not.
His feasts now lasted from noon till midnight, with an occasional break for diving into a warm bath or, if it were summer, into snow-cooled water. Sometimes he would drain the artificial lake in the Campus Martius, or the other in the Circus, and hold public dinner parties there, including prostitutes and dancing-girls from all over the City among his guests. Whenever he floated down the Tiber to Ostia, or cruised past Baiae, he had a row of temporary brothels erected along the shore, where a number of noblewomen, pretending to be madams, stood waiting to solicit his custom. He also forced his friends to provide him with dinners; one of them spent 40,000 gold pieces on a turban party, and another even more on a rose banquet.
The question of dessert is a little more tame. If you’re an adult you can vote; you may be able to drive a car, tons of metal travelling at deadly speed; you can join the army; you can join the police, the civil service, become a magistrate, serve on a jury, send people to prison, assess their taxes; you can decide whether to eat a piece of cake or not. But then there’s our peculiar Anglo-American attitude to food. I’ve quoted Michael Pollan on this elsewhere:
He showed the words ‘chocolate cake’ to a group of Americans and recorded their word associations. ‘Guilt’ was the top response. If that strikes you as unexceptional, consider the response of French eaters to the same prompt: ‘celebration.’
A novelist like Graham Greene can make some forms of guilt fascinating and glamorous, but few people can make guilt over eating, say, a Snickers into anything flattering to their self-image. That’s where the advertisers come in, of course; it’s not some tame, childish guilt, it’s decadent, wicked, sinful, etc.
I suspect that the pampering business, with its rather creepy caressing of self-esteem, is a fairly similar manipulation. Partly through advertising culture, in particular aspirational advertising, many yearn to at least feel attractive (thin), successful, fascinating, etc. It’s a bruising business for the ego, as most of us aren’t much cop by these standards. So a new market opens up for this sort of thing. No doubt that’s a simplification, but it’s a thought.
It’s almost enough to make me long for the vanity and pseudo-sophistication of an earlier era of advertising, or even the current aspirational lot; at least it’s only adolescent and not infantile, crass and not creepy. I mean, if in everyday life someone told you they lived snuggled behind a bank and cracked on about pampering by candlelight, wouldn’t you feel a mixture of fear and revulsion?
Paul Fishman (Bristol, February 2015)
Roget’s Thesaurus (Harmondsworth: Penguin)
Suetonius (translated Robert Graves) 2007 The Twelve Caesars (Harmondsworth: Penguin)
Michael Pollan 2008 In Defence of Food (Harmondsworth: Penguin)
Charlie Brooker, How TV Ruined Your Life (BBC 4)