As the nation converts itself into a gigantic royal theme park for the platinum jubilee, I’m busy batting away casting calls for me to play bogeyman on live TV. Producers of right-leaning shows hope I might come on air and perform some on-demand Queen-bashing. “Would you be interested in debating whether flags are racist,” one asked, “since Twitter users have compared the display of flags throughout the nation to Nazi Germany in the 1930s?”
No doubt they will find someone else willing to play the villain. Personally, I find witnessing a platinum jubilee most educational, as it is an absolute masterclass in branding. You see it in every shop: from Heinz salad cream bottles (rebranded “Salad Queen” for the occasion) to lipstick (Estée Lauder’s “Queen for the Day”) to crisps (Walker’s Sensations Thai sweet chilli flavour, jubilee edition) and even toys (Aldi is bringing back a Kevin the Carrot stuffed toy dressed as Her Majesty). Those working in marketing for other brands shouldn’t be too hard on themselves, it’s not exactly a level playing field when it comes to the British MonarchyTM – no other brand has its own press corps, which generally regards its role as one of sycophancy.
And what user review could ever, in this feedback economy of ours, dream of competing with that unique, three-word seal of approval: by royal appointment. If your fizzy drink, bed linen, sausages or breakfast cereal are enjoyed by either the Queen or Prince of Wales, you can join one of the 800 or so companies whose royal warrants allow them to whack that unquantifiably legitimising coat of arms on their packaging.
It’s legitimising because of what the royal brand stands for: continuity, nostalgia, the absence of change. As the Guardian’s former royal correspondent, Stephen Bates, put it in his book Royalty Inc, the royals “form a sort of backbone on which the rest of our history is hung”. It’s a win-win brand message – the more anachronistic and at odds with modern values the monarchy becomes (it’s one of the very few left in democratic countries and by far the best known) the deeper that message goes.
There may have been a time when the royals were synonymous with imperial expansion (Queen Victoria), pioneering innovation (Queen Elizabeth I), or aggressive military conquest (Henry V). But, unable to offer anything equivalent in this globalised, tech-oriented, superpower age, the monarchy has wisely allied itself with the idea of privilege in an era of meritocracy, and the absence of change in an era in which change is happening with unprecedented rapidity.
Outstanding individuals who do capture the spirit of innovation, creativity or progression are cleverly co-opted by the royal brand, proving surprisingly easy to seduce with OBEs and other honours.
The jubilee reminds us that there is a serious strategy at work here. The monarchy has to be seen to be believed, as the Queen is known to say. But where the archbishop of Canterbury tweets, and even the pope talks to journalists, the Queen must be the only person on the planet who cannot be interviewed. Her omnipresence works differently, by attaching itself to people’s ideas about their own cultural identity.
To do this, whether the royal family likes it or not, it has to meet the nation where it’s at. The jubilee celebrations are like a bunting-framed mirror, reflecting us back at ourselves. At the time of the Queen’s coronation 70 years ago, children were offered the choice of a number of items including a Bible; a book about the Queen by Richard Dimbleby, a spoon and fork, and a dish bearing a portrait of the Queen. I wasn’t alive then to witness how that went down but I am confident no one would bother trying to impress the TikTok/Roblox generation with some official-looking cutlery today.
The platinum jubilee speaks to who we are now, which is obsessively consumption oriented, spending money we don’t have largely on credit. It is estimated that Britons will spend almost £1bn celebrating the bank holiday weekend, in spite of the rapidly advancing economic squeeze.
We are low on productivity – four-day weekend anyone? – big on low-quality foods, and very, very keen on alcoholic beverages. The latter are available in jubilee-themed packaging to suit all budgets and backgrounds. There is the limited edition Moët & Chandon jubilee rose from Waitrose, the Queen’s corgi-themed cans of beer from Aldi, a repackaged version of Lambrini as Lamqueeni and a jubilee bottle of Adnams gin.
If any brands had been tempted to promote an anti-monarchy sentiment, the jubilee has neutralised this by making jubilee celebratory marketing a chance to sell more products. And more importantly, by making jubilee celebrations the cultural norm. It’s not about being pro-royalist, one advertising expert told the Wall Street Journal this week, it’s about being part of the “national conversation”.
I’m not entirely sure what that “conversation” is. Would you like some platinum jubilee-themed sweet chilli crisps with your platinum jubilee-themed gin and tonic? Does your child dream of a jubilee-themed stuffed toy shaped like an anthropomorphic carrot dressed as the Queen?
There is certainly scope for thoughtful discussion. Isn’t it fascinating that the Queen’s first official act, standing in for her father in 1943 when he was on a trip to north Africa, was to countersign a death warrant. How is it that after a long reign of moving towards more progressive penal policy, we seem to have come full circle with rightwing political support for the death penalty once again?
And how do you get to a point in 2022 where the official jubilee dessert is conceived with ingredients such as gelatin, which makes it out of bounds for Muslims, vegans, vegetarians and potentially Jews, as the so-called Platinum Pudding is? Animal welfare group Peta described the lemon and amaretti trifle as an “out-of-touch dessert” that “would be more fitting for Henry VIII’s medieval table than a modern-day royal celebration.”
And that’s exactly the point. Let’s not try to pretend the jubilee is a conversation when it is actually a tool of social conditioning via the only means that really works in the contemporary age: massive consumption and time off work. As this weekend reveals, the Queen of England remains probably the single most famous non-commercial brand in the world.
I personally find this quite liberating – and authentic. The royal brand is not one that resonates with me. For reasons I have elaborated in many other columns – in summary because it celebrates itself at other people’s expense – the flag-waving tribe is not my own. And I do wonder how those pure of faith, who genuinely believe in the monarchy, with all its supposed divine connotations, feel about it being reduced to a gimmick on crisp packets.
But the reality is we live in an age of branding. And when it comes to being unapologetic about what you stand for – even when it is seemingly at odds with just about everything else – this platinum jubilee-fest is one intense, audacious, masterclass.
Afua Hirsch is a Guardian columnist
Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a letter of up to 300 words to be considered for publication, email it to us at [email protected]