Every ten years The British Film Institute releases its survey of the greatest films of all time.
For decades the number one film was Citizen Kane, although it dropped down to number two in 2012, replaced by Vertigo. However, last December something seismic happened: the 34th best film of 2012 became the top film of the latest survey.
For the uninitiated, Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is a three-hour-long feminist masterpiece about a housewife who also happens to be a prostitute. Is it better than Citizen Kane? Well, that’s where things get interesting.
For the 2022 survey the BFI widened their survey considerably, with 1,639 participating critics, programmers, curators, archivists and academics each submitting a top ten ballot, up from 846 in 2012. This meant many more women and a much wider range of nationalities contributed, and their choices angered many traditionalists.
Where was Raging Bull? Dr Strangelove? Wild Strawberries? And what was the 2019 upstart Portrait of a Lady on Fire doing at number 30, ahead of Some Like It Hot?
Well, all those maligned films were made by straight white men, and this snapshot of 2022 has less respect for their supposed greatness.
As I looked through the survey, full of films by women and people of colour, I couldn’t help wondering what would happen if a similar list was created for advertising.
Thinking about the so-called greats of yesteryear, the vast majority were created by straight white men (interest declared: I am a straight white man). Did that make a difference to the extent to which they were appreciated? Straight white men on award juries voted for ads created by straight white men and, unsurprisingly, found that they liked them, but would they hold up today? Sure, some might seem dated, but we don’t excuse films on that basis; many cinematic greats hold up today, even though they were made a century ago.
Of course, there aren’t quite as many critics, programmers, curators, archivists and academics to ask, but we do have a society that appears to be having its say. We now have advertising that is far more inclusive, diverse and aware. Is it as good? That depends on who you ask and how you assess.
The more I think about older award winners, the more I wonder if there was a consideration of quality based on an unspoken collective standard that was dominated by the opinions of straight white men. That’s not to say they they were all bad, or that they all need to be reassessed in the context of 2023, but you can find plenty of knockabout violence, casual sexism, and life generally viewed from their point of view.
If you didn’t like that kind of thing then you were, in one way or another, ‘wrong’. The sports, booze, video game and car ads were the best of the best, and if you found merit in something else, then you were less likely to win prizes or promotions.
We can never really know for sure, but the awards world has certainly changed. There’s certainly been a move away from the those attitudes, with John Lewis and its knock-offs, Channel 4 Paralympics, Like a Girl, Fearless Girl, Libresse, This Girl Can, Nothing Beats a Londoner (much more inclusive Nike advertising), globally inclusive work from Apple, and (for better and worse), much more social purpose.
A full-on allegory can be found in the output of Unilever, which went from the most sexist campaign of all time (Lynx) to the compassion of Dove’s Real Beauty work. That change happened in the late 2000s, and if you want to go into more detail, simply follow Lynx’s ads over the last twenty years and see how much less offensive they have become.
So something happened. Maybe juries became more diverse. Maybe society responded to Brexit and Trump. Maybe the new mouthpieces of social media strengthened marginalised voices. Maybe we evolved. But it’s now hard to imagine many of the ads of the 90s winning awards today. Straight white men are still in many leadership positions, but far fewer than there used to be. Many of that generation are aging out of the industry, and the ones that remain are having to get with the new programme.
Corporations understand that one wrong move towards intolerance or sexism could provoke a twitter storm that might affect their share price, so they’re not going to accept that kind of work. The old guard might decry it as ‘woke’, but as we all know, anyone who uses the word woke in a pejorative sense is almost certainly not worth listening to.
I find myself watching TV ads from Britain and America, marveling at the fact that all-white casts are practically non-existent, in the same way that POC casting rarely happened in the 1990s. Even if you lament the disappearance of 1990s-style ads, you can probably appreciate that this is a good thing for society as a whole.
So here we are, standing side-by-side with Jeanne Dielman, casting a glance in the rear view mirror at the disappearance of a set of values that have had their time.
Of course, more change is on the way, but we should be optimistic about the future. As Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice’.
As a straight white man, I can’t wait to see what happens next.