I bought an egg roll for lunch the other day. It was the very definition of appetising – a few well-chosen lettuce leaves, several slices of plump tomato, a bounty of finely chopped egg, all on a French baguette that was crustier than a Levin Grey Power meeting.
I took a bite and for about a second it was everything it promised to be. And then I tasted celery.
I really hate celery. I hate celery almost as much as I hate denim shorts. Because in my experience, celery is only ever used in two ways. They’re both awful, and they both, somewhat surprisingly and completely absurdly, have advertising parallels.
Celery’s most common use is as a replacement for something great. It’s what you have when you’re not allowed chips, bread, or (if you live in Herne Bay) arancini. No one really chooses to use celery for dips or with a little pre-dinner gin. They just choose not to have something massively tasty but almost certainly quite bad for you.
Celery’s what you serve when you don’t want to risk something going wrong. It can’t be overcooked. It can’t be too spicy or too cheesy. You can’t really cock it up. It won’t offend anyone, won’t push anyone toward a coronary and won’t shower anyone’s Cavalli in crumbs. But no one will really enjoy it and you won’t be remembered for serving it. No one ever left a party saying ‘I don’t know about you, but I thought the celery was exquisite’. Because celery’s only purpose is as a generically innocuous, inoffensive alternative to something interesting.
Which (and I think you can see where I’m going here) is exactly what happens with so much advertising. Instead of saying something that might be really interesting, on account of being original and provocative, we too often end up saying whatever’s left after the interesting stuff has been chipped away. Consequently most ads seem to be written to a celery proposition. It’s the territory you are left with after you’ve set aside the big promise or the bold statement. It’s not interesting or compelling, not provocatively spicy or indulgently cheesy, but it is broadly acceptable.
Celery is also used as filler. As with my egg roll it was added, I’m sure with the best of intentions, in the interests of making things a little more interesting, providing a little colour and texture. Only the celery didn’t do that. What it did was distract me from the central point of the roll – the egg.
It’s a lack of confidence that has a sandwich maker adding celery. Maybe he was worried that the egg couldn’t quite carry the day. Maybe he was worried that if someone wasn’t absolutely sold on the egg that maybe a little celery might make the experience seem a bit bigger or a bit more sophisticated. Whatever his motivation, all he succeeded in doing was distracting me from the thing I really wanted with something completely irrelevant and annoying.
Which (and this time I’m absolutely confident you can see where I’m going) offers another parallel with advertising. We seem to find ourselves being asked to throw a handful of celery into an execution in the hope it will be more interesting. And just like the sandwich maker, it’s a sign of a lack of confidence, of being not entirely sure that the offer’s actually up to it. So why don’t we just throw a little something else in there too. You never know, if they don’t like egg that much, maybe we’ll sell them on the celery? Maybe the celery will make us feel a little more rounded, like we’ve got more to offer? Surely it couldn’t hurt to put a bit of celery in? But, like the egg roll, it’s a distraction, one more thing getting in the way of telling a really simple story, really well.
So the egg roll that promised so much proved to be utterly disappointing, ruined by the addition of completely unnecessary celery. It ended up in the bin, because with egg rolls as with advertising, why would I choose to waste my time on something I wasn’t enjoying?