There’s more than one way to be anti-isolationist: what two recent adverts can teach us about how people frame opposition to Brexit

Katherine TonkissTendayi Bloom

In the past few months in the UK, two companies have launched adverts which are explicitly anti-isolationist: Ancestry, a popular genealogy website that helps people trace their family history and HSBC, an international bank. These adverts are particularly interesting because they depict two quite different ways in which those in Britain who position themselves as ‘remainers’ in the debate over whether to leave the EU have framed their views.

Advertisers have always picked up on the zeitgeist to sell their products, and we have seen some recent howlers. Last year’s disastrous US Pepsi advert featuring Kendall Jenner giving a can of sugary pop to a policeman is a case in point. Feeding off the swell of public protest in the US, the advert showed diverse young people taking to the streets with ambiguous placards and ended with the slogan ‘live for now’. Immediate reactions of disgust at the cynicism of the advert mean that it had to be pulled within days of being launched.

Neither of the adverts we discuss here have elicited much reaction either way from the British public. However, a closer analysis of these adverts can tell us quite a lot about what it means to be anti-isolationist in the current climate of a Brexit-obsessed UK.

Let’s start with Ancestry. Its raison d’être is to convince people that it’s worthwhile being interested in their genes. So it isn’t much of a surprise that they would place genetics at the centre of their advertising. In the past, their adverts have shown people discovering that their genes show them as having connections to countries they’d never thought about. For example, their 2017 advert features families finding out about their international heritage and ends with a comment that ‘DNA gave these families a new view on the world’.

On first glance, their latest advert could be seen as in the same vein. It is ostensibly light-hearted and situates the company unambiguously within the pro-European camp. It opens with a stereotypical Frenchman with a strong accent speaking from a bar: ‘Hello Britain, so you’re leaving? C’est la vie. But before you go…’. Then the viewer is treated to a variety of Europeans serenading them, tunelessly, with Rick Astley’s Together Forever. We are informed that ‘The average British person’s DNA is 60% European’. And the advert ends with the message: ‘We may be leaving Europe, but Europe will never leave us’.

Ancestry’s claim seems to be that it is shared DNA that makes us belong to a community – in other words, it’s people’s genes that make them European. But that is worrying. While the previous Ancestry adverts focus on interesting genealogical connections to places far away, this one is unambiguously about belonging. It suggests that there’s something biological about what makes someone count as European. The advert is trying to say that people in the UK need to stop assuming that they’re ethnically British, but in doing so it implies that the collective ‘we’ in Britain is ethnically European, and this is just as problematic. This isn’t helped by the fact that the case of the advert is overwhelmingly (though not entirely) white.

Contrast this with HSBC’s recent pro-internationalist take on advertising featuring Richard Ayoade. The advert explores international influences in everyday British life, from coffee and cars to international footballers. Over Elgar’s Nimrod, Ayoade tells us ‘we live on a wonderful little lump of land in the middle of the sea, but we are not an island. We are part of something far, far bigger’. The message seems to be that British life is enriched by diverse influences. As such it is tapping into a very different form of post-Brexit vote anti-isolationism.

The Ancestry advert focuses on a shared ancestry and DNA. Viewers are encouraged to look out from one closed community towards a slightly larger one, in which hardy Swedish fishermen and deadpan German bratwurst sellers sing in accented English. In the HSBC advert, what is important isn’t something we are born with, but something we live in our everyday lives – an openness and internationalism. As such, these two adverts reflect two sorts of ways in which those unhappy with the isolationism of the vote to leave the European Union have presented their position, and these should not be conflated. While the HSBC advert focuses on replacing closedness with openness, Ancestry’s take on anti-isolationism simply replaces one kind of closedness with another.

Patriotism isn’t dangerous only when it’s about nations. It’s dangerous whenever it drives the notion that some in-group can exclude perceived others on the basis that they are somehow worth less than everyone else for reasons that are arbitrary, irrelevant and beyond anyone’s control. While DNA profiling might play an interesting role in uncovering historical narratives, it should have nothing to do with political memberships and entitlements.

If we’re celebrating what we have in common, let’s make that dogs, cars, coffee and football – not our genes.

Katherine Tonkiss is Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Policy at Aston University.

Tendayi Bloom is Lecturer in Politics and International Studies at the Open University.