Catchphrases · Notes from West London · On the box

“I want to be a tomato”

“I want to be a tomato.”

Does this phrase mean anything to you?

If not, how about saying it with the voice of a child, sounding really miserable, about to burst into tears?

If it rings any bells, then you probably remember an advert for Prudential financial services from the late 1980s. I have been using it ever since, usually in response to someone telling me what they want, or don’t want. My children are now familiar with it, although they were both born long after the advert was last aired.

With my old-fashioned thinking I briefly wondered how I could show  it to them. Is it on a video tape somewhere, in the middle of a movie I recorded in the late 1980s, or an old episode of “Coronation Street”? Possibly, but it’s on the web of course, and a search for “I want to be a tomato” brings up the relevant clip on YouTube. It starts with the catchphrase I was looking for, so you’ll have to be quick to catch it when you click on this link.

As you can see, there are children in tomato costumes dancing round some poor kid whose costume is (as far as I can see, and have always thought) that of a carrot. He looks really miserable, and I hope that he was acting the part rather than going fully method and living the misery of a child who can’t be the vegetable (or fruit) that he wants.

The rest of the advert is familiar too, but the only other line I have quoted with any regularity is “I want to be a tree”. I usually do this when explaining where the original phrase comes from, and the YouTube link is titled “1989 The Prudential I want to be a Tree”. Over the years I have learnt that almost nobody outside my own family remembers the advert or the catchphrases, a sign that they’re either too young or never watched enough commercial TV.

Here, for the record, are the things that the characters in the advert want to be, starting with the kid who wants to be a tomato:

The kid on stage, surrounded by other kids dressed as tomatoes: I want to be a tomato.

The kid on his paper round on a wet morning: I want to be in bed.

Two twin girls, both saying: I want to be different.

A schoolgirl using a ruler to flick a blob of paper soaked in ink: I want to be expelled.

A boy with his leg in a plaster cast: I want to be able to scratch it.

A woman waiting on a crowded railway platform: I want to be home an hour ago.

A man seemingly naked (we only see him from the waist upwards), standing in field: I want to be a tree.

A woman fixing a fire extinguisher to the wall: I want to be safe, not sorry.

A man in a crowded pub, standing at the bar and being ignored: I want to be served.

A fashion designer, in her studio: I want to be in Europe.

An Underwater swimmer, I can’t make out what they’re saying, maybe it’s: I want to be a fish.

A traffic warden, seen in the middle distance, from behind: I want to be loved.

An older woman,  reading the Financial Times I want to be in conglomerates.

And the voiceover tells us: Whatever you want to be in life, you want to be with Prudential.

There were  other adverts from Prudential around the same time with different characters saying what they want to be in life. This one features a young Jake Wood (who went on to play Max Branning in “EastEnders”) with a punk hairstyle, pogoing and saying “I want to be a brain surgeon” [at 0:17], and is that a before-he-was-famous Hugh Grant at 0:31 whose car is rolling down the hill? It looks like it might be.

I never really wanted to be a tomato, and over thirty years since these commercials were originally broadcast the character I most identify with is the fashion designer in her studio. Who, where or what do I want to be? A tree? A brain surgeon? In conglomerates? No; in Europe.

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