The meaning of good

I spent some of the Easter weekend reading Tina Fey’s biography, Bossy Pants. It’s not particularly interesting (no mention of Mean Girls?), but it chimed with my wish to write a post about the expression of opinions regarding quality.

Here are two quotes:

It is an impressively arrogant move to conclude that just because you don’t like something, it is empirically not good.

There is one other embarrassing secret I must reveal, something I’ve never admitted to anyone. Though we are grateful for the affection 30 Rock has received from critics and hipsters, we were actually trying to make a hit show. We weren’t trying to make a low-rated critical darling that snarled in the face of conventionality. We were trying to make Home Improvement and we did it wrong.

This second one in particular made me think of a comment Gout-Legs left here a while ago. It was something like, ‘Better to do something good for a thousand people than something shit for a million’.

So what should we aim for? Good? Amazing? Amazing at the expense of the possibility of good? And what is ‘good’ anyway?

Possibly-annoying fact number one is that there is no ultimate empirical measure of quality in anything. One person’s incisive genius is another person’s deliberately obscure recherché joke. Is 30 Rock ‘better’ than Home Improvement? Of course it… is… isn’t… depends who you ask. Are ‘cleverer’ jokes better than someone falling flat on their face? Have you ever read a Booker winner and thought ‘hmmm, that was rather amusing’, but actually laughed at something more obvious by Terry Pratchett? What about whether Kanye is better than Springsteen? You’ll find at least a million people who will sit very firmly on either side of that argument.

So if there’s no real good or bad, why do we insist on saying there is?

Well, we all have an opinion, and it tends to feel better to express it in absolute terms: ‘The Godfather is the best film ever made’ is more robust than ‘I think The Godfather is the best film ever made’, but it’s less true. And where does that leave opinions on advertising? When it comes to evaluating sales messages we’ve long since left the world of empirical measurement. Even effectiveness awards rely on a series of measures that have been chosen and created to suit the paper that has been submitted.

We can try to evaluate ads based on how well they achieve their goal, but then what is that goal? This campaign was awarded by D&AD in 1999. I have no idea of the extent of its impact in the ‘real world’, but I do know that it spawned many, many ads (lots of them award winners) that turned an abstract concept into a person or creature, perhaps setting us off on the current wave of analogous advertising that has included Balls and Gorilla. So does that make the ESPN commercial one of the greatest of all-time? Did it inspire an entire übergenre of worldwide advertising? How could we know for sure?

We can’t. We also can’t know exactly how much more Guinness was bought because of this:

But it won the Grand Prix at Cannes, The One Show and the Andys, so it must have been the best of the year. Except that D&AD chose not to award it for best ad, instead giving the prize to Sony Balls, which fell far short of Evolution in the Cannes judging. Then in 2000, Guinness Surfer won an unprecedented two Golds at D&AD, only to fail to win the Grand Prix at Cannes and The One Show.

So there really is no definitive measure of quality in advertising. A bunch of people can have a different opinion to another bunch of people. And it’s the same in absolutely every single thing on earth: killing thousands of people with a bomb is bad, unless it brings about the end of World War 2, and even then, millions of people will still think it’s bad; press freedom is good, unless it goes a bit too far for our liking and people start to feel harassed, and Spurs and Chelsea are shit, unless you’re mad. From morality to ads, choice of pet to choice of political party, kindness or lack thereof, none is better or worse than the other.

You may still think that there really are final criteria for evaluation of goodness; that Dylan really is better than Steps; that Milliband must be an improvement on Mugabe; that sunshine is nicer than swearing. But there aren’t. You can only like what you like and do what you’re proud of.

Everything else is is a brain-numbing waste of time.

Which is quite pleasantly liberating when you think about it.

Further reading: moral relativism and moral absolutism. Interesting Seth Godin post that Ant left a link to.