Hello, it is time to rant again!
And because of my blogging schedule, this rant is proximally—though not entirely—inspired by a thing that happened two weeks ago. Breaking News, 1870s Style! (Fox did just show “RENT” live, though, and God knows that’s relevant.)
If you’re unaware of the Gillette ad telling men not to be dicks, that happened. A lot of guys freaked the fuck out about it, because a lot of guys get really angry at the suggestion that they should maybe try to get their shit together, like, you suggest that maybe some of their shit could be in the same room (and there could maybe be less of it, but the KonMari thing is another can of rage) and you unleash an avalanche of HOW DARE YOU, I HAVE NEVER ACTED BADLY AND ALSO THE FOUNDING FATHERS FOUGHT AND DIED FOR OUR RIGHT TO BE ECONOMY-SIZED DOUCHEBAGS.
This is not about those guys. I get those guys, not in the sense of understanding or condoning them or not wanting spiders to lay eggs in their nasal passages, but in the sense that they are a familiar and easily-explained phenomenon. You check the Defensive Inadequate Ragewad box, you giggle at the guy who tried to flush his razor down the toilet, and you move on.
What I don’t get are the people who smugly point out that, well, Gillette just did this for marketing purposes and therefore it is totally invalid and nothing to celebrate, because clearly the rest of us were under the impression that large corporations ran entirely on the love of small children and the tears of fairies and needed a harsh awakening from the only people who truly understand. Some of these people are clearly guys trying to disguise the aforementioned Defensive Inadequate Ragewad tendencies behind a transparent veil of anti-corporate sentiment, but some are not, and some are women, and…I don’t get this.
I am not a fan of capitalism, as a general rule, and definitely not a fan of the unrestrained US version where basically our leaders openly masturbate over Captain Planet and/or Dickens villains. My political tendencies are best described as “pragmatic socialist.” Some of what advertising does is a legitimate problem, because it misleads people (whether factually or via the “buy this thing and you will be happier” model), feeds into stereotypes or destructive ideals, and so forth.
Objecting to the presence of ads in general, or the use of existing media for them (I am no fan of Yoko Ono either, but every time someone brings up the Nike thing, my eyes roll: so she made a little money by letting them use a song, so what? The song is still out there in the original version), or the equation of sincere with worthwhile and profitable with insincere…is fucking insufferable, not to put it too strongly. It’s the Reality-Bitesiest, RENT-iest approach to life ever, and all of the point-of-view characters in those works are awful goddamn people (except Jeanne Garafolo and the gay guy in RB, and maybe Mimi in Rent).
First of all, as I may have hinted before: yes, we know. WE KNOW. You aren’t the first person to note the distinction between corporations and Santa Claus. We are adults. We live in the world. We know how it works, and you? Do not sound smarter by pointing it out. You’re being the equivalent of the “friend” who slides up when you’re eating a hamburger and starts talking calories and saturated fats: dude, if I wanted a nutrition lecture, I’d have stayed awake in PE class, NOW SHUT IT.
Second: sincerity is bullshit.
Let’s say the motives are completely amoral and the company would have put out a pro-murdering-puppies ad if it thought the revenue was there.
The ad is still out there, which means that the message is out there—and yes, you can be all iconoclastic “well advertising doesn’t shape *my* ideals” but it does for a lot of people, and also nobody fucking likes you, Gary. There have been a number of studies showing that, while ads are not the only deciding factor in how people think, they are an influence for most of the population (and those of you about to use the word “sheeple” can go die in a fire right now). Seeing particular concepts used to sell things means society, or a part of it, sees value and appeal in them. It’s related to the reason we don’t use “fat” or “gay” as an insult, no matter how awful the person we’re insulting is.
And frankly, if the result is good, I could not give a shit about the motives behind it. (Obvious disclaimer that this doesn’t apply if we’re talking one step in a long con to steal your kidneys—that’s a difference between short- and long-term results, not results and motives.) It’s like when a Painfully Earnest chick in high school was whining about people who joined Habitat for Humanity just to put it on their college application—you really think the folks who get housing out of the deal care, Elizabeth? Really? Well, you’re a fucking idiot, then, and one who cares way more about purity policing than effectiveness, by which I mean a completely nonhelpful fucking idiot.
Plus? The fact that enough PR wonks at a big company think LGBTA rights or feminism or whatever make for profitable messaging is a sign that those ideals are doing pretty damn well. If a spreadsheet puts “love is love” or “maybe don’t be a rapey asshat” in the same category as family Christmas trees, Little League games, and supermodels in Corvettes, it’s because it thinks enough of us do, too—and PR spreadsheets don’t, I’m given to understand, come to those conclusions absent of evidence. How is that not a good thing?
Third, and bearing in mind that I do not love the megacorps, companies are made up of people, and people—you may want to sit down for this—can have more than one motive.
I know, right?
Hold on and have some clean pants ready: that’s true even when one motive is money.
I write books. I enjoy writing books, and I try to do it well. Odds are I’d write even if I wasn’t being paid, but I really like to get paid. Money can be exchanged for goods and services, and those include vodka. So, while a lot of what I write is what I want to write, I have absolutely worked toward markets: I’ve gone with one storyline rather than another because the subject matter is more popular and I’ve made revisions to avoid weirding out audiences too much. There are lines I won’t cross—jealousy as love, “oh my god it’ll never fit” virgins, and so forth—but if by going with one story I like rather than another I can make more money? I’ll absolutely do that, and I’m not ashamed.
(I’ve done some of my best work that way, because really, the inside of my own head is not a magical garden that births perfect specimens of Art. Listening and responding to an audience is an excellent quality even when you leave money out of it.)
Final decisions about ads are based on profit, absolutely. However, it’s not impossible or even unlikely that a number of people in PR really do believe in the message they’re sending, especially in these cases, and are doing their best work because of it. Working for money doesn’t invalidate that at all. (I remember the reactions to the end of “Mad Men,” and how people were insisting that if Don did make the Coke ad then HE HAD LEARNED NOTHING AND ALL WAS IN VAIN because there was no way he could, say, go back to working at an ad agency and supporting his family while sending a genuinely good-if-schmaltzy message in said ads and maybe having his ducks in some kind of row personally, nope, either you run off into the sixties and reject all works of The Man or you are forever lacking a soul. I remember thinking that these people were morons, and I still think so.)
Anne Shirley going into full-on drama mode because her story mentions baking powder is not a role model—she was a college student at the time, IIRC, which is a fairly insufferable age—and neither is whatever juvenile pouty Holden-Durden-Hawke conglomeration of suck spawns the But It’s All Just Selling Out, MAAAAAN hordes.
These people irritate me partially because they’re pretentious assholes, but also because this particular form of pretentious assholery feeds into a mindset that really hurts actual artists, like, the ones who are trying to make a living from it. If earning money from what you make—if making it to earn money–taints it, or means you can’t celebrate that creation or its message, then the conclusion is that all artists should work “for exposure” and your art is only worthwhile if it’s obscure and you die in a garret. On a social level, it’s also fucking terrible: if I’ve heard one story about a nonprofit that paid its workers sub-minimum wage while expecting them to do sixty hours a week because it’s “in a good cause,” I’ve heard fifty.
This is awful for artists (and it’s also hyper-privileged, because it means that only people with substantial personal resources can make True Art), and it’s even worse for art. As a reader, and a viewer, and a listener, and someone who’s bought a painting or two, I don’t want the predominant standard to be obscure iconoclastic Visions made by people who can’t take criticism. As one of those social justice warriors you hear about, I don’t want the only venue for messages of social change to be street-level movements with hand-painted signs, much as I’m fond of them, or organizations whose claim to fame is never having made a buck.
Yes, that ad is made by a large corporation. Yes, that corporation can probably do better in many ways, and no, the ad doesn’t excuse it, nor does it mean we shouldn’t hold the company accountable on those issues. (We, also, are capable of doing multiple things! No, really! No, even multiple things with the same entities!) But it’s good that it got made, and it’s good on the company for making it, and for the people who complain about “cynicism,” I’d much rather have cynicism in a good cause.
Cynicism gets things done. Sincerity is bullshit.