The ADgenda: cold, dead-eyed Kooples

The week's oddest advert.

We've all heard that sex sells. Well, so does shared catatonic boredom if The Kooples adverts are anything to go by. You're sure to have seen them adorning the sides of buses in cities across the country - the hollow-eyed, sullen slouchers who represent a brand with a smugger than smug outlook on life.  The Kooples rely on the assumption that you spend your days coordinating outfits with the ultimate accessory, your impeccably dressed girlfriend/boyfriend. These Kooples also inhabit a strange world where same sex and mixed race relationships are non-existent and women are in thrall to their talented men – Cantona balancing a ball and blondie slouching on his BMX like an oversized child while their girlfriends stand idly by. 

The tagline declares something along the lines of "Stefano and Arietty have been together for five years" – each of those years cooler, hipper and more fashion savvy than the last. No morning breath, snoring, shout-whisper arguments in public places for them. No, the Kooples are here to show us that our aspirations are futile, however hard you strive you will never be as achingly beautiful a unit as these ethereal beings. 

Evidenced by the cool £87m they notched up last year, it seems a few of us are buying into this message. Walk past any of their stores and you're sure to see either an awkward looking couple dubiously eyeing the his'n'hers leather get-up, or a nervously determined singleton, head held high, weathering the "This is not for you" disdain that the brand so effortlessly oozes. Never has an advertising campaign delivered such a hefty kick in the teeth to all singletons, or to the ultimate sinners – a sartorially clashing twosome. Nothing says "relationship on the rocks" like a bomber jacket boy strolling next to a flowery dress girl. God forbid. 

It's hard to imagine daily reality for these impeccably turned-out twosomes. Dinner at a restaurant would resound with the clinking of cutlery – the universal sign for awkward social occasions.  Polite enquiries would be met with bizarre self-satisfaction: "How did you two meet?", "Well, I noticed that the angle of his cheekbones perfectly complemented the shade of my suede trousers and I knew he was 'the one'".  

The Kooples business model revolves around disdain – tapping into that primal need for approval hardwired into our systems since school days spent hankering to be one of the cool kids, left wanting it all the more when our efforts were rewarded with a withering glance. The only difference is now the cool kids seem faintly ridiculous, insistent on our attention as they stare down at us from bus sidings, like precocious children their eyes shout "Look at us! We're the ideal!" To which the average passer-by responds with a bemused acknowledgement. Quick, applaud the beautiful people before they start to stamp their feet. 

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage