Friday, May 19, 2017

Getting the lowdown on human frailty - why we are all suckers for wanting to teach the world to sing (and making Coca Cola even wealthier). But who cares: it's art

I’ve often thought that if I were to have my time all over again, I’d have tried for a job in advertising and marketing, or ‘advertising/marketing’ as I think it should be called as the two are so intricately entwined that I’ve come to the view they are just two sides to the same coin.

Obviously, none of us can have our time over again, and equally obviously I am talking as a man who, over the years, has learned much, not least about himself and who now judges a lot rather differently. (Incidentally, one of the things I like to think I have learned is that the only really stupid people are those who do not learn from their mistakes. If you don’t learn from your mistakes, you have no one to blame but yourself when yet again things go tits up.)

What I mean is if, at 18, I knew what I now know, I would have worked far harder at university and taken the whole thing a lot more seriously, and then upon graduating with a far better degree than I did get headed straight for the advertising industry to find whatever toehold I could to get started. (I sat for an MA Honours in English and philosophy, but was awarded an MA ordinary - the English department wanted to fail me after a college career of doing hardly any work, reading hardly any of my set texts and turning in essays which were at best puerile and at worst utter rubbish. That I got a degree at all is down to the philosophy department insising that as I had done reasonably well for them, I should get some kind of degree. (And thank you Neil Cooper for passing on that snippet.)

I know there are some, if not many, who regard advertising and marketing as perhaps the shallowest of all shallow professions, but I disagree profoundly or rather to some extent. That criticism of advertising, the suspicion that it is essentially venal and mucky, is neatly summed up in a description I heard recently (and I can only paraphrase) that advertising/marketing ‘delves deeply into the surface of things’. But I have come to regard it as something very.

I was reminded of all this when I came across a series of ten 15-minute talks on BBC Radio 4 recently by one Rory Sutherland called ‘Marketing: Hacking The Unconscious’, a series the BBC describes on its website as ‘Rory Sutherland explores the story, and psychology, behind the most influential marketing campaigns in history’. That very neatly sums up why I am interested, and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say fascinated, by advertising/marketing: examining what makes people tick, getting to understand their behavior as individuals and in groups, and then applying the knowledge gained to creating advertising.

OK, using the insights gained to, as cynics might have it, sell to people crap they don’t need might not be the most noble human activity, but the ‘selling’ is not what I am interested in: I am interested in the doing, the thought and creativity that goes into marketing, as well as the oddities in human behaviour it throws up. I am bound to admit that I - although apparently not a great many others - feel that much of the creative work in advertising can often come far

closer to being ‘art’ than a great deal of what we are presented with as being ‘art’ in self-conscious ‘art’ exhibitions (although I should add that I don’t much, if at all, subscribe to the hi’ falutin descriptions of ‘art’, its purpose, its imperatives, its consequences and principles. But I shall leave that for another time.)

I am attracted to the deep thought that goes into creating an ad campaign. I am attracted to, and impressed by the subtlety, the vision of many ads, the analysis of human behavior, and I don’t restrict this to television ads, but to posters and photography. I readily acknowledge that many, a great many, might be put off by the purpose of advertising: simply to get more people to buy a certain product, and I concede that there is nothing necessarily noble in that. But it is the preceding processes involved in thinking up an ad and an ad campaign which capture me and which I cannot deny I admire and respect.

I have recorded one of those 15-minute programmes by Rory Sutherland and you can listen to it below. Perhaps they might convey just why I am fascinated by the industry and its work.
Here is the one:

Rory Sutherland on advertising, excerpt 1

. . .

It is surely no fluke that some of some of those who worked in advertising went on to become artists in a different realm: the novelists Fay Weldon, Elmore Leonard, Dr Seuss, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Salman Rushdie, the filmmakers Jonathan Glazer, John Hughes and Ridley Scott, and artists Andy Warhol – famously — and Norman Rockwell. I suspect there is something about the discipline necessary in copywriting and graphic art which is conducive to make the transition from the one ‘venal’ realm to the far more hi’ falutin world of ‘art’. Or perhaps I’m completely wrong: they would have progressed anyway and the fact that they worked as advertising industry ‘hacks’ is coincidental. But I don’t think I am wrong. That isn’t to limit art in any way and that most certainly isn’t to promote all advertising as akin to art – there is quite a bit of dross out there, too.

Obviously, as there is quite a bit of dross in about any sphere you care to look at. But the best advertising is, at least for me, quite fascinating. I have spent that past 43 working in the newspaper industry, first, comparatively briefly as a reporter and then as a sub. I wasn’t outstanding as either. I was by no means a bad reporter and, I must add modestly, possibly better than some because there really were and are some clunkers out there. But my heart wasn’t in it. I disliked the bullshitting involved and realised that to progress and get to the top you either had to really believe in ‘news’ and ‘the public’s right to know’ and ‘writing the first draft of history’, or you simply had to be a real cunt, someone who really didn’t care about trampling over others. And none of that fitted the bill.

I turned to sub-editing because I was equally interested in the whole process of producing a newspaper, and reporting was only the first step. And there I remained, not a particularly good sub-editor, though one who knew what I should be doing, but nor was I outstandingly bad either. I coasted (and I have to say coasting is pretty much the story of my life). But there is also something in the discipline of sub-editing which could give an insight into the production of ‘art’ (and sorry, but I really can’t resisit those inverted commas).

For example, for five years, from 1990 until 1995 I lived in London and ‘did shifts’ for a variety of newspapers. One day I could be working on The Times, the next on the Evening Standard, then back on The Times, then the Daily Express, or the Daily Mail, or the Sun. Some were broadsheets, some were tabloids, but each demanded a certain style. And I have to say that boiling down several hundred words of agency copy into four or five short paragraphs, or reducing a welter of rather boring copy into something reasonably interesting did teach you a lot.

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