I always feel slightly fraudulent when someone asks me what type of lager I’d prefer. Because, really, I don’t think I can tell the difference. I wouldn’t be able to pass the Pepsi challenge. It’s not that all lagers taste the same; it’s just that in some pubs, a Stella will taste like a Fosters, and in another pub, it will taste like Carling. You could almost be forgiven for thinking that all the taps run out of the same barrel or that they just plumbed the different barrels in at random.
It’s not so much the taste that’s important, it’s the associations, which fall into two categories. Firstly, there are all your own idiosyncratic memories linked to the brand; that hot, summer day when a certain cool refreshing drink was just perfect, that teenage party where the girl you fancied took her top off, that soul-destroying nightclub in Southampton where you drank something which made you feel nauseous for several days afterwards.
Then there’s the associations brought about by advertising, of humorous campaigns and catchphrases of days gone by, of reassuring rustic Frenchies, of no-nonsense Australians, etc.
The reason why the advertising is so important is because the lagers taste the same. They’re not selling a taste, they’re selling a dream, a lifestyle, a myth. That’s the only difference. It’s the same with anything where the product is essentially identical; cigarettes, perfumes, phones, banks, cornflakes, cars.
Which is, of course, one of the evils of capitalism, but it’s also a basic part of human nature. Because people are, as Martin Gore once so perspicaciously observed, basically the same. The only difference is in the presentation, the way the other person makes us feel about ourselves, which is at once both utterly trivial and a total deal-breaker.