Are we allowed to criticise?

Here’s an exchange from last week’s blog post ‘Frank and Jonathan are back‘:

Ciaran McCabe wrote:

Wouldn’t it be nice if, in the spirit of Sibelius’ “A statue has never been erected in honor of a critic,” once you had critiqued an ad, you had to say “Compare it with this ad I created.”

ben wrote:

Do I have to do the same with movies/music etc.?

Ciaran McCabe wrote:

Not unless you create movies and music.

ben wrote:

I don’t think that’s consistent with the Sibelius quote.

And are we supposed to do that with ads we like as well?

Toast wrote:

Walt did the screenplay for the film

And if the ad is coming into my living room I can criticise anything

ben wrote:

Absolutely. You can look at an ad as a consumer and say whether or not you like it.

And even then, you can say what you like about anything.

Free country, innit?

You no like, you no visit blog.

Ciaran McCabe wrote:

Perhaps I missed part of the Sibelius quote, but I don’t recall his commenting on critics liking something. As for the fact that it is a free country and anyone can say “… as a consumer …” whether or not you like something, absolutely true. I find it hard to equate most of the comments with what a consumer, who doesn’t work in advertising, might say about an ad.


The right to comment on something is the absolute essence of this and many other blogs, so I thought we’d bring that subject out into the light so that it can get the attention it deserves.

I can see where Ciaran is coming from, but I don’t agree with him for a second. For a start, as my first response suggests, I don’t see why we’re allowed to say things are good but not that they’re otherwise (I’m now going to repeat my occasionally-mentioned theory that if you can sue people for the damage caused if they say something mean about you, a person who says something nice about you should be entitled to a percentage of any benefit that results from such a boost). Opinion is opinion and whichever way it comes out should surely be subject to the same principles of validity. After all, what right to do I have to say that I like Jonathan or Frank’s work? I’ve never made an ad that’s up there with their best work so I should just keep my mouth shut. Then again, I’m just over 99.9999999999999% certain Ciaran would not have commented vis-a-vis anyone’s right to criticise if we’d all said the ads were great, loveable, wonderful etc.

On to the second point: Toast’s rejoinder that anything that comes into his living room is fair game for whatever you want to say about it. Absolutely true. All art is to be consumed and advertising falls under the wider definitions of art. It’s a piece of creativity purely designed to be seen by the largest number of people (at least it is in this case. Some ads are deliberately targeted at quite specific audiences; I don’t think these fall into that category), and besides that, you have less choice about consuming it. You have to choose to visit an art gallery or cinema; adverts just come at you whether you like them or not. Yes, you can switch them off, but you tend to have to see them before you feel inclined to do that. If I shove a drawing under the noses of passers by in the street or read out my novel in the middle of Oxford Circus I can expect a reaction that I’m not allowed to choose. If I want that reaction to be good I have to make sure my work is good. Equally I can accept that different people think different things and accept that not everyone might like what I create, but if I choose to create and distribute it than I have to take the responses on the chin.

The third point, that this is a free country, so you should be able to say whatever you like is a little more complicated. A couple of months ago I wrote about offence, suggesting that it’s all in the mind of the offended and that you could simply choose whether or not something was offensive. I still think that’s true, but I also understand that it would be disingenuous to suggest that everyone should be able to simply shrug off, say, an extended campaign of intense cyberbullying (on that subject you might like to watch and share this new ad from Ed Morris). So where do we draw the line? What is free speech and what is genuinely harmful? And what harm is permissible? If we all have a go at the head of the EDL until he disbands his party, is that OK? What if he commits suicide a week later? Perhaps the difference lies between hurt and anger. If I say that Muhammed is a twat then you’d think that a Muslim could just laugh that off, his strength of faith crushing the pain a daft comment like that could cause. But no, a simple cartoon can lead to death threats, so it’s a distinction with little consistence or clarity. However, I think that disliking an ad in a public forum is not quite the same as questioning the validity or existence of someone’s god. If you make an ad you’re holding it up for people to react to. If you don’t think you’re doing that or you don’t like it, get another job.

Ciaran’s last point, that these comments are not those of consumers so much as advertising professionals, is pretty specious. Advertising professionals are also consumers. Just because our jobs might be a bit different to those of the majority of our fine planet it doesn’t mean we’re not in the target market. And even if the ad isn’t aimed squarely at us in particular we can still, as ad people, discuss its good and bad points with a context and knowledge that is more extensive than most people’s. And that doesn’t make our opinions less valid, or more in need of specific credentials to back them up. If anything it makes us more able to accurately analyse than a film critic who has never been near a set or written a screenplay. We know what it takes, what goes into an ad, why some ads are harder than others. I think in the case of last week’s post that was particularly pertinent: Audi+BBH+Glazer is quite a favourable set of circumstances that sets the bar very high. Most punters don’t know that so they just say whether or not they like it, and that opinion is fine, but it’s less informed. This blog is written by a creative director and read by lots of other creative directors and creatives. It’s not the opinion of Joe Bloggs. If you want to see what that’s like put the ad on Mumsnet and see what they say. Then again, you might put the ad on a forum for boxers who criticise the legwork of the caucasian fighter. Is that less valid? Of course not, but would it still be from a consumer? Yes.

The Sibelius quote goes: ‘Pay no attention to what the critics say. A statue had never been erected in honor of a critic’. As I understand it Sibelius is talking about people who criticise professionally, someone whose job is that of a ‘critic’. As I said above, nearly everyone who does that job has never done the job he is criticising. This blog is generally different: it’s people who have made ads discussing, for better or worse, the ads of other people. And that’s valid, even if the ads made by those who offer less than favourable opinions are not as good as the ads under discussion.

No one is asking for a statue; they’re just calling it how they see it.