Patek Philippe, the super-luxury, Geneva-based Swiss watch brand that makes Rolex look about as exclusive as my Casio, has been running a series of award-winning ad campaigns on its Generations theme for nearly a quarter of a century now. Perhaps because I am not in the market for these products and have little exposure to the lifestyle magazines etc. where I imagine they are promoted, I have only just noticed.
Now that I have, I am bowled over by these fabulous productions – the ads, that is, not the watches, which come at crazy prices with far too many noughts on the end for me to consider buying one. Thank goodness, I don’t want to: my modest plastic thing tells the time just as well as PP’s haute horology and that is all I need. In common, I would think, with most heretics here, I have a hearty disdain for brand-addicted consumerism. The life of the mind is our snooty emphasis here – call it the elitism of the have-nots! I speak for myself, of course: doubtless some Heretic TOC readers are millionaires and perhaps even billionaires but they are not so vulgar as to brag about it!
A glance at the photos on this page will suffice to explain my enthusiasm for the ads, which have been unusual for featuring men and drop-dead gorgeous boys (these days also women and attractive girls) together in contexts of an implied bond between them. As the Generations tag flags up, the bond is of course meant to be a family one, hence totally safe and proper for PP’s ads, which have an heirloom theme. The unchanging (for the males at least) slogan is “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.”
To us kind folk, of course, there is “romantic” appeal, for want of a better word: these couples could be lovers rather than parent and child. Not that parenthood lacks a certain below-the-radar erotic frisson: not even the incest taboo can prevent mums and dads from feeling a rewarding physical buzz from hugging, smelling, kissing their kids. But for most parents, especially fathers, the pleasure they take in their kids’ bodies are difficult to acknowledge without fear and embarrassment: the feelings are kept on a tight leash and in most cases probably do not rise to a conscious level – not as regards genital sexuality at least.
Let’s not go any further down that road today, though. Let’s just take the ad on its own terms for a while, enjoying the pictures, of which some samples are shown from the latest campaign and others; let’s also take a look at the company, the products, and what is going on in brand terms. In order to understand the power of the brand we need to learn something about the pedigree. In PP’s own website words:
Patek Philippe has been pursuing traditional Genevan watchmaking artistry without interruption since 1839. The manufacture benefits from full creative freedom, which allows it to design, develop, and craft watches that connoisseurs consider to be the world’s finest – as pledged by its founders Antoine Norbert de Patek and Adrien Philippe. In addition to exceptional skills, Patek Philippe also nurtures a tradition of innovation that has meanwhile been crowned by over one hundred patents.
These basics probably sound a bit bland and underwhelming. Few companies can boast such a long tradition as this one, for sure, but practically every enterprise bigs itself up with glowing prose. It is only when we get to the prices and the customers that things get really impressive. US Chief Justice John Roberts was spotted wearing a Patek Philippe costing $49,780 recently, while he was presiding at the impeachment trial of President Trump. But that’s nothing. Rapper and business mogul Jay-Z rocked up to an NFL game at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium recently sporting a platinum Patek Philippe “Sky Moon Celestial Ref. 6102P”, whatever that is (don’t worry, you can find out here). This timepiece retails for an awesome $311,860. At auction, what’s more, the crème de la crème of these small objects of desire fetch £ millions.
By now, I guess, you’re really beginning to get the measure of PP’s prestige. What seals the deal for me, though, is that the brand’s fans have long since gone way beyond your run-of-the-mill celebs. The Great and the Good whose esteemed personages have been adorned by PP watches include: Pablo Picasso, Peter Tchaikovsky, Richard Wagner, Charlotte Brontë, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, Rudyard Kipling, 14th Dalai Lama, Leo Tolstoy, Pope Pius IX, Pope Leo XIII , Nicolas Sarkozy, Vladimir Putin, Nelson Mandela, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, George H.W. Bush, Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria, King Farouk of Egypt, Emperor Haile Selassie, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert, Queen Elizabeth II and her heir apparent, Charles, Prince of Wales.What might seem odd, though, if you have been as knocked out as I was by the toppest list of Top People you have ever seen, is an astute commentator’s claim that the advertising is not aimed at Top People. Not the fabled top 1% at least. Apparently they never need to be told that PP is the watch for them: they just know, either from being brought up in that world or later immersion in it once they are well on their way to their first $ billion.
No, according to an influential anonymous blog called The Last Psychiatrist (reputedly written by an actual shrink), the ads are aimed not at the 1% but at the demographic immediately below, dubbed “the Aspirational 14%” by TLP. At first glance the 14 looks spuriously exact but what is meant, I guess, is the chunky lower portion of the top 15% once we discount the very top. Anyway, in a 2011 article titled “Luxury Branding the Future Leaders of the World”, TLP tells us about this target demographic:
They know they are supposed to like quality and goodness and etiquette and discretion, but no one ever taught them what those things look like, so when someone does point it out to them they will go all in.
Goodness? Did I see “goodness” in the mix there? My goodness, that’s a big concept to wind a watch up with! “Quality”, another sizeable abstract noun (as anyone who read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance will remember) would seem to speak of the product’s attributes, referencing the expert, painstaking quality of workmanship involved, the exquisite design, the jewels and precious metals that go into it, etc. But “goodness”? Would that be goodness as in moral virtue, speaking to the nurturing side of parenthood, or something of that sort?
TLP provides a very witty, insightful, in-depth reading of the ad campaign’s covert semiotics. I cannot improve on his piece, especially as regards his daringly non-PC take on the extension of the campaign beyond its original focus on fathers and sons to include mothers and daughters.
However, TLP was writing nearly a decade ago. So what’s new in 2020? Late last year the company brought out its latest version of the Generations campaign. This time, as the company’s website notes inform us, the theme is “Modern Fatherhood”, which is characterised, we are told, by men who are “likely to spend more time with their children and be more open with their emotions than previous generations may have been comfortable with”. For this campaign, “Instead of portraying scenarios as in prior motifs (travel, learning, shared discoveries, etc.), the new motif … focuses on the father-son relationship within a more private, intimate and relaxed context.” For the first time, this Generations campaign features two children, “making it possible to place a stronger emphasis on the coming generation”. Both of the boys are the adult model’s own sons.
I am not going to attempt a deep “what are they really saying and selling” study along the lines of TLP’s brilliant insights. I will just offer a personal response that might have more resonance with heretics here. The first image I ever set eyes on in a PP campaign was a still photo for Modern Fatherhood. It was shot in an outdoor setting featuring just one boy and man. The pair are hugging, with the much smaller figure caught under a protective fold of the bigger one’s overcoat. Seen like this they might be lovers, not least because the guy hardly seems old enough for the father role: could he in real life even have been a teenage dad?
The thrillingly transgressive illusion that we are being presented with a public and prestigious celebration of paedophilic love is shattered, alas, when encountering the full campaign. This includes a video that unambiguously reveals the improbably wealthy young dude – with the scene set in his beautiful home and gardens – as a father of two sons, the younger one hardly more than a toddler. Oh, well, I guess we can enjoy the nice pictures anyway!
SPAFFED UP THE WALL
Terrified as I am as to where Boris Johnson’s bright new Brexit dawn will be taking us, credit should be given where it is due. When Britain’s present prime minister was foreign secretary last year his tenure of the office was widely considered disastrous, but he did get at least one thing right at that time.
Last March, he told LBC radio: “I think an awful lot of money, an awful lot of police time, now goes into these historic offences and all this malarkey, and you know £60m I saw has been spaffed up the wall on some investigation into historic child abuse? What on earth is that going to do to protect the public now?”
Quite! We must hope he will insist on a change of direction now that he has the power to make it happen. He could start by closing down the ruinously expensive and farcically inept Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), although he will not be in time to stop its current West End run, which sees a new report coming out on Tuesday. This is what was supposed to have been the big one, the report on all those mega-sensational “V.I.P. paedophilia” scandals at the heart of government. Except it wasn’t. There was no giant conspiracy as alleged. All the most sensational claims turned out to be the work of fantasists who were given too much credibility by the police.
Heretics here may recall that I was contacted by the official solicitor to this strand of the inquiry and asked to give evidence. After doing so, letting them have a piece of my mind in the process, I received a letter from IILSA giving me formal notification that I might be criticised in the eventual inquiry report. We’ll soon see! They may not have liked my opinions (which were redacted out of the official record as irrelevant) but Brian Altman QC, counsel to IICSA, could not fault my factual contribution and appears to have drawn the right conclusions from it. Again, though, we’ll soon see.