Television programmes don't define the zeitgeist. TV commercials do. And during the first month of the new millennium, TV ad land was already slightly yet significantly different. The commercial that defined the last century's final decade was conspicuous by its absence. For, at 6.15pm on 29 December 1999, a televisual era ended when one of the best loved adverts of the 1990s was broadcast for the final time.
"The ambassador's receptions are noted in society for their host's exquisite taste that captivates his guests," cooed our narrator, as the camera lurked in the grounds of some grand embassy, like a paparazzo without a press pass, while the great and the gorgeous sailed up a red carpet into ad land's most prestigious party. Did you yearn to gatecrash? No problemo. With Ferrero Rocher, you were in.
Within this inner sanctum of the smart set, a distinguished manservant glided silently through the moneyed throng, with a pyramid of golden baubles, perched on a silver salver. "Delicious," purred a pretty Oriental woman. Well, that's what the subtitle said. Yet although everyone looked foreign, some of them spoke English. Or perhaps these scrumptious treats are so sophisticated, they make you bilingual in a single bite. "Monsieur, with Ferrero Rocher you're really spoiling us," whispered a femme fatale, in our lavish host's ear. The ad was inscrutably vague about his nationality, but he certainly wasn't British. A Brit would jump out of his rented dinner jacket at such a seductive sally. This suave fellow barely batted an eyelid. He merely smiled to himself, as if he'd heard it all before. And after almost eight years, he surely had. "Ferrero Rocher," concluded our narrator. "A sign of good taste." Or, as one of his high society pals put it, in immaculate Eurospeak, "Excellente".
And now this chic soiree is no more. Of course, the actual chocolates are still going strong. Apparently a new ad depicts them in an after-dinner setting. But the significant thing about that ad isn't the confectionery, or even the social status of its eaters. What made it so special is what it said about our love-hate relationship with Europe. It proved that the most fundamental factor which divides us from the mainland isn't the single currency but a singular sense of irony.
This ad was first filmed in Italy, and dubbed into different languages for transmission elsewhere in Europe. This product is wonderful, it proclaimed, so wonderful people use it. It looks like our domestic custom of selling things by mocking the commodity and its consumers doesn't work so well overseas. Reportedly, Ferrero Rocher wouldn't be drawn on whether it was supposed to be funny, but like the Catalan shopfront sign I once saw for a Eurosex Snack Bar, I always suspected the chasm between sincere intention and comic effect was what made it seem so absurd. Malcolm Muggeridge called humour "the difference between man's aspiration and his achievement". Arthur Koestler thought it consisted of "the collision of two different frames of reference". This classic advert qualifies on both counts. Koestler's colliding frames of reference are the detached, self-deprecating wit of our isolated island culture, and the less caustic, cynical sense of fun that unites our Europals. This ad appeared to aspire to seriousness, yet over here, at least, it achieved a sort of sub-operatic high camp. Not that our continental cousins don't have a sense of humour. They do. But it's very different. British viewers love to laugh at foreigners, not with them.
Conversely, our confectionery advertising has traditionally tended to be a relatively modest, perfunctory affair: "Have a break, have a KitKat"; "A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play"; "A finger of Fudge is just enough"; "A Milky Way won't spoil your appetite between meals". More portentous ads always ran the risk of ridicule. Who knew the secret of the Black Magic box? And who cared, when a Topic promised a hazelnut in every bite? Even the most preposterous ads had a comical dimension. That Flake ad was the Lady Chatterley of the commercial break. Would you want your wife or servant to watch it? Like 007, the Milk Tray man now has his tongue wedged firmly in his cheek.
And that was why we adored that Ferrero Rocher ad: partly because ad land's eternal tension between embassy myth and corner-shop reality was stretched beyond breaking point, but most of all because is showed Britons laughing about things our European partners seem to take more seriously. The ambassador's reception was resolutely Europhile, but the way we watched it was stubbornly Eurosceptic.
William Cook is a historian of comedy and is currently writing a book about the Comedy Store for Little, Brown