Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!

Tesco’s horsemeat media confessional continues.

First there was the visually stark yet otherwise strangely chatty We Apolgise advertisement. “You’ve probably heard or read that we had a serious problem with three of our frozen beef burgers …” it began, with no small measure of understatement.

Next up was the What Burgers Have Taught Us double page spread. Despite its comic potential the tone was positively heartfelt with talk of things “only working if we’re open about what we do”. Almost lyrical you might say.

Then came the follow up It Starts With Us ad with its revelatory conclusion that:

“What’s been happening lately has made us

Look at the way we do things.

Made us realise that we need to do our bit

To change the way our food industry works.”

That’s properly poetic, isn’t it?  Well, that’s what some of our leading poets and literary experts seem to think.

Talking to the BBC last week, the poet Matt Harvey noted that the way the text was laid out in the Tesco ads sought to “give the words a portentous quality – they are reaching for gravitas”.

In It Starts With Us Harvey detected an “incantatory quality” and repeated phrases that try to “cast a spell on the reader”. The ad, he concluded, is a love letter to Teco’s customers: “It is saying ‘things haven’t been easy, I have had a look at myself, I have had a look at our relationship and I know I can change’.”

Christopher Burlinson, an English lecturer at Cambridge University, saw patterns in the text that give a nod to the 17th Century metaphysical poets. “Tesco are calling on a well-established poetic technique,” said Burlinson. “The text is shaped like an arrow. It points downwards on the page. The lines get shorter as you near the end. It is all pointing to the Tesco brand.”

But not everyone has been put under a spell by Tesco’s use of iambic pentameter. The economist Andrew Simms dismisses the whole exercise as “mood music” – an attempt by an enormously wealthy business to “change the conversation” by block-booking national media adverts. More of a poetic distraction.

And of course the ads have been mercilessly spoofed. Huffington Post subjected Tesco’s Everyday Range to analysis by a team of “comedy nutritionists” and someone posted a “totally horsesome” video on YouTube with the concluding strapline: It’s Horse. Honestly.

Of course if Tesco wants to continue to draw poetic inspiration there’s an almost limitless well. Perhaps it could start by revisiting Shelley’s famous trope Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!



By Jim Manson

Natural Products editor and environment journalist
Jim Manson is editor of Natural Products magazine. He’s written widely on environment and development issues for specialist magazines and national media, including the Financial Times, The Guardian and Time Out.