A week or two ago, I found – I can’t recall how now – an article asking whether Amnesty International’s latest print ad crossed a line in the name of its cause. Here’s the image:
The image, of course, evokes the slow-motion, oppressive horror of the Japanese tsunami. And the question the author poses is, in essence: “Too soon?”
Personally? I don’t think so. And I’m not completely convinced the question here is really even relevant.
Imagine a copywriter and designer having this conversation:
“Okay. What we do is we show a picture of a brutal wave ripping an infant from the arms of its mother, its mouth frozen in its last cry, the woman’s eyes wide with the crushing impact of her futility in the face of their mutual doom.”
“Good, good… but what’s our tagline?”
“Reese’s: they’re not just good, they’re killer.”
THAT would be exploitative. Like, really fucked up. But who would actually do that (I mean, other than PETA)?
No one would have this conversation. A writer may think, “This event is relevant and impactful, and there are elements of it that we could use to convey a strong message,” but she’s not likely to be fiendishly rubbing her hands together at the same time.
“It’s not that it’s maliciously exploitative,” I hear you saying. “But it IS insensitive at best.” Is it? Is it really insensitive to acknowledge the horror of a tsunami, an earthquake, a terrorist attack? What’s so wrong about pointing to a picture and saying, “Dear God, wasn’t that awful? Let’s not do THAT again.” Or do we just object because money is involved?
I’ve written for megacorporations and small businesses alike. And it seems that no matter who the client is, they have each uttered some permutation of the phrase, “We want something different.” They don’t. Never believe a client who tells you this. They want exactly the same shit they’ve been selling for 20 years. They just want it in orange instead of teal.
But we — writers, marketers, businesses, people in general — often like to think of ourselves as “edgy,” as risk-takers. We’re genetically predisposed to want to be the prettiest peacock in the menagerie, and of course that carries over to our professional, corporate identities. And we’ve gotten really, really good at convincing ourselves that being earnest is the same thing as being interesting. How many times a week do you read, “This blog entry changed my LIFE,” or “This commercial I watched was the greatest thing I’ve EVER SEEN,” or “This agency’s latest campaign is EPIC.” It didn’t, it wasn’t, and it isn’t. They’re looking you straight in the eye, maybe, but that’s ALL they’re doing.
So we tell ourselves we’re changing the world, we’re fighting the good fight, we’re representing a cause. We want to stand for something. We want to be charitable and do good works. That’s noble. But is it honest?
Think about the agency you work for. Think about the clients you take on. What are you writing about most of the time? Virtualization, probably. Ergonomic patio chairs. Full-tang knife handles. Mulch. You can probably kick around “ROI” like a Thursday stoner with a hacky sack. Maybe those clients are taking their profits and re-investing them in good causes, but that’s not what they were built to do. They were built to sell more shit. Our job is to help them do that effectively and without a lot of questions. That’s fine. It’s a (pretty) honest living. But let’s not have any illusions about what it is.
Thus, it strikes me as disingenuous when my writerly fellows try to convince me of their connectedness, their relevance, their cultural sensitivity… and then go completely silent when something legitimately important lands in their laps. The way some writers go on, you’d think my Twitter feed would be a glut of charities, nonprofits, and political activism. It isn’t. The actors, authors, and scientists I follow have an endless well of opinions and insights. The marketers and social media folk? The people whose JOB it purportedly is to shape our discourse? Silent. Crickets. They love to sell bullshit, but they appear to be dumbfounded by substance. Where’s the outrage, people? You retweet Mashable like it’s manna from Heaven, but our latest mission to Mars just doesn’t do it for you?
Copywriting and/or marketing writing and/or social media writing have become an ouroboros of self-congratulation. Every other press release, tweet, and LinkedIn status update is, “Look how WELL we’re doing! Look at all of the great THINGS we’re making! By golly, we’re changing the WORLD with our enthusiasm!” It doesn’t matter what they’re selling — a product, an idea, or themselves. Just keep it positive. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t crack that manic rictus.
So when I encounter skepticism over a piece of writing or imagery that is actually powerful, that was carefully, specifically crafted to be uncomfortable, you know what my response is?
Fuck you. Let’s see YOU do better, you fucking dipshit tools. You empty suits. You crazed, yippy little shitforbrains.
We NEED to be unsettled. We NEED to be uncomfortable. No, of course it doesn’t feel good to be offended. It doesn’t feel good to be reminded of the things that keep us up at night — or the things that should and don’t. So what? How is feeling disquieted any different than feeling happy or sad or pensive or horny? Disquietude can spur us to action. It can catalyze self-examination more effectively than any other emotion if we are brave enough to look past our own bullshit. The next time something offends you, ask yourself whether you’re offended for the right reasons. Ask yourself whether there’s something you should be paying attention to. And if there is, ask yourself just what the hell you’re going to do about it.
I leave you with this image by Norman Rockwell. It’s called “The Problem We All Live With.”
I saw this picture for the first time when Norman Rockwell’s work came to the North Carolina Museum of Art in 2010. It completely blew my mind.
It depicts, of course, the day 6-year-old Ruby Bridges was integrated into William Frantz Elementary School in 1960 New Orleans, escorted by four U.S. Deputy Marshals. It’s a simple concept elegantly executed. And it’s fucking awful. The first time I saw it, it gave me chills.
To be effective, Rockwell NEEDED to stir the audience’s sense of disgust. By putting us at Ruby’s height, by contrasting her white-clad, straight-backed proud innocence with the vicious chaos of the wall behind her, he absolutely, deliberately manipulates us into feeling repelled. Was he capitalizing on this event to make a point? Yes. Completely. But to do anything less would be to miss the point entirely.
Obviously there is a time and a place for grandstanding. And the line between “frank” and “shrill” is a fine one indeed. Don’t stir shit just to stir it; don’t be “controversial” as just another two-bit marketing tactic. But let’s not kid ourselves about our priorities. We’re copywriters. We’re paid to manipulate people. And if you ever get the chance to write for a cause you believe in, remember: you can be popular or you can be right.
And, P.S.? The arms trade IS a tidal wave of destruction. We should probably look into that.