We talk in black and white, but all is grey.
It feels like the last five years have given us a constant stream of binary opinion. From Leave/Remain in the UK to Trump/No Trump in the US to Masks Are An Evil Infringement on Freedom/Masks Save Lives Everywhere, the division of complicated issues into right/wrong, good/bad and them/us appears to be the order of the day.
But even within supposed two-horse situations, there are often many other horses involved. Take the 2019 UK General Election, in which the Conservatives beat Labour in a landslide. If you read the media coverage you might have missed the fact that 3,500,000 people voted Lib Dem, and 850,000 voted Green. And that doesn’t even take into account the many shades of difference within the two big parties: Brexiteer Conservatives, Fiscal Conservatives, ‘I Hate Corbyn’ Conservatives, All Of The Above Conservatives etc.
It’s the same with the Republicans in the US. They may seem like one homogenous mass of dumb, uncaring racists, but they are made up of all sorts of groups: Qanon nutjobs, law-and-order Miami Cubans, Christian Conservatives who are just taking the shortest path to the outlawing of abortion, Moderates who want lower taxes, a smaller homogenous mass of dumb, uncaring racists etc.
And look at the many and varied reason people have for giving the vaccine a swerve.
You might also have heard about issues such as ‘Cancel Culture’, where defenders of ‘free speech’ suggest that it’s bad and wrong to demonise people for their incendiary opinions. But if you scratch beneath the surface you’ll soon find that every one of them has something they too wish to ‘cancel’.
For example, here in America a TV host called Bill Maher continually goes on about how corrosive Cancel Culture is:
But he also goes on about hating many of the ‘oppressive’ elements of the Islamic faith, suggesting that they should be… um… canceled. Maybe, like him, you think that these are two different things, and that demanding that women wear burkas or banning homosexuality is a false equivalency when compared to Kevin Hart losing his Oscar hosting gig for being homophobic a decade earlier. But here’s the problem: plenty of Muslims would disagree with you, and that’s because there is no right or wrong here; only opinions. The problem is those opinions are often presented as hard fact, with a dash of straw man nonsense and some pejorative terms such as ‘woke mob’ (by the way, a Twitter user recently accused me of being ‘woke’ because I suggested Margaret Thatcher sometimes did her job in a way that not exactly compassionate. Subjectivity, eh?). I think Bill would be considered to be part of some kind of woke mob if he expressed his opinions in Saudi Arabia. And then he’d probably be murdered. Cancel culture indeed…
I get it. Bill is a comedian who exaggerates to make jokes, but he also uses double standards: he later concedes that people shouldn’t hold a ‘dress up like we’re in the Old South’ party. Is that cancellation? Political correctness gone mad? Where do you draw the line? How do you know? So I suppose he agrees with Cancel Culture, except when he doesn’t… The problems of binary expression.
Have a look at 2:30 in the above video. Bill takes a statistic that ‘80% believe political correctness is a problem’ (quite a vague assertion) and exaggerates it by listing demographics that cover everyone in America and saying they ‘all hate the current atmosphere of hypersensitivity’. Then he asserts that ‘everybody’ hates it, so it becomes even blacker and whiter, and less accurate, but at least it supports his point a bit more forcefully.
So cancel culture is complicated. It’s subjective. It’s contextual. Pretty much everyone wants to cancel something, but the idea of cancelling cancel culture is clearly the most ironic of ironies.
Which brings me to the current hand-wringing over purpose-based advertising. Again, this is a complicated subject that is often spoken about in binary terms. It seems that for many on my Linkedin and Twitter feeds, we as an entire industry are woke idiots who are promoting baseless social justice initiatives instead of getting down to the proper business of selling stuff. There is in fact an entire book out there called ‘Can’t Sell, Won’t Sell‘ whose subtitle is ‘Why adland has stopped selling and started saving the world’. Having read the whole thing I can tell you that it contains some interesting points, but even with a book with that definitive a title, the author mentions several instances of purpose-based advertising being a good thing. So why write a misleadingly binary title, subtitle and Amazon blurb paragraph for a non-binary book?
Has adland really stopped selling? Obviously not. The amount of purpose-based work is dwarfed by that which explicitly tries to sell stuff, but if you are of a mind to decry any purpose-based work, then you can certainly find many examples to back that opinion up. However, an overall assertion that this is advertising’s biggest difficulty deflects attention from larger, more problematic issues (eg: malignant data scraping, the massive talent and money drain to tech, the reduction of fees due to the rise of procurement departments etc.).
But here we are with the binary nature of 2021 language. Purpose bad, selling good, as if they can’t co-exist in any way, except when they do, very successfully (see Nike’s recent Cannes Effectiveness Grand Prix-winning Colin Kaepernick work; or Microsoft’s Gold Effie winner, Changing The Game; or Aeromexico’s Gold Effie-winning DNA Discounts campaign). Sure, many purpose attempts are more Kendall-Jenner-Pepsi than Kaepernick-Nike, but there are lots of crappy, poorly considered non-purpose ads out there, too, and the vast majority of them will get nowhere near a Gold Effie. Perhaps ‘purpose’ is simply another advertising genre, like ‘humour’ or ‘celebrity’, and like those it is done both well and badly, suggesting another situation full of shades of grey.
Additionally we are now in a similar set of circumstances regarding ‘diversity’ (my inverted commas are there to denote the subjective nature of defining that word in 2021) where middle-aged white people are winning discrimination cases. That’s a direct result of people speaking in black-and whie terms about complex issues. If you, as a female ECD, say you want to ‘obliterate’ your agency’s reputation for being full of white, privileged straight men, you might just leave your agency open to charges of gender-based discrimination (I must add here that Jo Wallace, who said that, seems like a decent, intelligent person who has been treated dreadfully by the gutter press).
It’s not a binary issue of ‘obliterating’ a certain demographic to favour others. It’s a very nuanced problem that takes in systemic discrimination, meritocracy, conscious and subconscious gender biases and several other deep, complex topics, each of which could justify an entire post-grad thesis. But this was not a case of oldish white man bad, everyone else good, and I’m pretty certain that’s not what Jo meant to suggest, but here we are in binary world where a complicated issue has left egg on a great many unfortunate faces, and caused massive damage to the very situation it sought to help. Who will now be brave enough to sack an oldish white guy? How much more likely is it that a sacked oldish white guy will take that sacking to a tribunal? What is intrinsically wrong with oldish white guys? (Full disclosure: I am an oldish white guy.)
I know we’ve reached this situation because of the way social media discourse works, with incendiary, attention-grabbing statements leading to clicks and sales, but if we don’t employ critical thinking and nuance in all areas, we might find ourselves shutting off potential avenues of success, or useful and necessary arguments, while heading off in the direction of some pointless fool’s gold.
The black and the white is where the easy shit lies. But it’s also where the bullshit lies. If you find yourself making a massive generalisation you’ll probably find yourself missing out a big chunk of truth. The title ‘Sometimes Sell, Sometimes Don’t Sell: Why adland occasionally uses purpose to great effect, but sometimes kind of fucks it up’ … Hang on, I was about to say that it wouldn’t be as good, but that’s actually a much better title, although it would have to be for a different book. Anyway, there’s no need to be definitive when reality is nothing of the sort. Sure, human beings like certainty and closure, but playing to that need betrays the opportunity to make the kind of difference that happens when you engage with what is actually the case, rather than the superficial headline version of things.
Sure, it requires more work and less simplistic thinking, but what are we saying? ‘Drain the swamp’ or ‘Let’s take a look at corruption in politics and see how we can reduce it’? ‘Lock her up’ or ‘Has this person acted in a way that contravenes any laws? If so, what should be done about it?’? ‘Get Brexit Done’ or ‘We should examine the ways in which leaving the EU might affect most of the people of Britain, then act in the best interests of the majority’?
Yes, the cheap sloganeering is easy to remember, and has incited many people to both support and action, but to what final result? ‘Move Fast And Break Things’ sounds great until you ask what might be broken and discover the answer is Western Democracy.
The simplicity of black and white is so tempting, but life tends to exist within the grey, and we ignore that at our peril.