A new type of training shoe was introduced a while ago. It is grey, made in Vietnam and costs £39.50. Or £79 if you want one for the other foot as well.
In a world of Nike Motion Control Air Sprung Hi-Loaders, you might expect this rather dour and expensive new product to be a commercial flop. But, because the shoe was tested by someone’s mate in the forces, it’s being sold with an army insignia on the box. That makes it a "British Army" training shoe and that gives it an appeal Nike can only dream about.
Branding has now reached the point where the product doesn’t matter; only the logo. Already you can avail yourself of a JCB cardigan and pop down to the off-licence for a litre of Kalashnikov vodka — guaranteed to blow your head clean off. And how long will it be before Cadbury gets into romantic fiction, and Louis Vuitton into cars?
Even the dullest and most useless products are enlivened by the right name. A hotel, for instance, can raise its prices if it provides Gilchrist & Soames shampoo in its bathrooms. Who are Gilchrist & Soames? God knows, but the handle has a nanny-knows-best ring to it. There’s a sense that it’ll bring a well-scrubbed gleam to your secret gentlemen’s places.
I have no problem with this. If I’m in a shop, faced with a choice of two cardigans that seem similar, I’ll go for the JCB option because there’s a subliminal assumption that Anthony Bamford has personally inspected the sheep from which the wool came and his wife, Carole, has done the knitting. For sure there’s a suggestion that the company wouldn’t waste 50 years of hard graft by sticking its badge on rubbish.
A prestigious badge gives clueless shoppers a sense of wellbeing, a sense their money is not being wasted on tat.
The perfect life then: suit by Knight Frank & Rutley, mobile phone by Boeing, car by Bausch & Lomb, furniture by Holland & Holland, kitchen utensils by Mercedes-Benz, children by Scarlett Johansson, armpit hair by the mysterious Gilchrist & Soames and, best of all, shoes by the British Army.
This is the first time the service has endorsed a commercial product and there’s no doubt it’s entering a minefield. Colonel Robert Clifford, head of the Queen’s Own Light Sponsorship Brigade, said this week: "We need to be exceptionally careful about what we link ourselves to. " Too right, matey"..
You could probably get away with a "British Army" branded Land Rover or some green "British Army" binoculars — the Swiss army has sponsored penknives for years. I think "British Army" lager might be worth a go too.
But I don’t think "army" meat pies or "army haircuts" would go down well. Also, I probably wouldn’t want to spend time on an "army" holiday. It might have worked a hundred years ago when they were in Ceylon and half the Caribbean, but today they only go to Belfast, Belize or Bastion.
This leaves us with a problem. The small income that could be generated from Land Rovers, binoculars and lager would in no way compensate for the inevitable outcry that such a scheme would provoke.
However, what if the deal were to work the other way around? Instead of the army sponsoring commercial products, why not get the makers of those products to sponsor the army?
Everyone looks up when an Apache gunship heaves into view so why not sell advertising space along its flanks? Obviously, in times of war you’d have to cover up the Pepsi logos because they’re a bit bright, but in peacetime, why not?
All the forces could join in. We could have Easy-Destroyers and Lastminute.com transport planes. Marlboro, I’m sure, would cough up for the already Red Arrows and local firms could get in on the act too, sponsoring individual soldiers. Sergeant Brian Griffiths is brought to you by Cartwright & Jones — family butchers since 1897.
It’s all very well saying this is a ludicrous plan, but what would you rather have? HMS Persil or no warship at all? Because soon that might very well be the choice we face. And let’s not trot out the tired old argument that sponsorship would undermine the dignity of the most successful armed forces in the whole of human history.
Where’s the dignity in being allowed to fire only 10 live rounds a year? Where’s the dignity in not being able to afford to take the ships out to sea? And running them on one engine when they do? Where’s the dignity in flying a fighter that has no gun because the MoD can’t afford one? We keep being told that soldiers in Afghanistan use their own mobile phones because the army’s radio equipment can’t even pick up Terry Wogan, and I’m sorry but that doesn’t sound very dignified either.
I’m not suggesting that a soldier should be made to wade into battle looking like a Formula One racing driver, but there is a happy medium. I’m thinking as a guide of the discreet but effective logos allowed at Wimbledon; a little patch on the epaulet that lets the watching TV cameras know that the wearer drives an Audi.