Desperate to exist
David Cronenberg had an interesting remark earlier this year when speaking about the movie industry:
As a card-carrying existentialist, I can tell you [Hollywood] people are desperate to exist; they’re desperate to assert their existence.
I like his tone. It’s a direct blow at show business and all its variations: the show itself, those who show up, but most importantly those who show off. A classic plague of entertainment, represented by the star system.
Curiously enough it’s also the modern plague of adland, where the discourse around “content” places us all in direct competition with the entertainment industry. Except we still need to sell products in the end.
The problem, Cronenberg argues, is a certain desperation around existence:
It is a very familiar ecosystem, a heightened myth of it perhaps, an ecosystem of fear and greed and desperation.
Which makes me think of all the gurus and visionaries of advertising. In a way, they are also very desperate to exist.
Ever think that, every year, things will never be the same again? There’s always a new trend, prediction, tool or cultural shift that makes everything revolutionary in an age ruled by fashion and trends. Revolutions have become real-time too, victims of a fast-paced stream where timing is essential.
Except these revolutions, like our latest content gimmick, end up being so digestible that, by definition, can never be considered groundbreaking, hence losing the point of being called “revolutions” in the first place.
This makes me wonder if all the talk about the future is nothing but an escape around the fact that we can’t handle (or choose to ignore) some basic elements of the present. Everyone talks about what’s never going to be the same, but what about the things that never changed in the first place? Bill Bernbach once said, “principles endure, formulas don’t.” And oh, how we love the next big formula.
We’re so wired to the future that we often neglect our past. In fact, the more I go back in advertising history — reading Ogilvy, Hegarty, King — the more I believe that, like time, the “death of the ad industry” is a flat circle. We’re all invited to join the conversation again, and again, and again, but fail to realise the conversation has been the same all along. And I see no dead industries — only dead arguments that manage to come back to life every now and then.
Jargon is a way to encapsulate the same ideas in brand new outfits. Gurus, in that sense, are the result of an inverse relationship of factors. The higher the volume of words, the less meaning they carry. It has been written, word by word, that “programmatic simply means automated”, which begs the question: why not say automated in the first place?
Some days we‘re in the content industry, others in the entertainment industry, others in the ad industry. But every day we’re in the semantics industry, where everyone wants to coin their own term for the same things we’ve all been discussing all along. And variety, in this case, is not necessarily the spice of (agency/marketing department) life. More often it results in a bitter taste around a factory-processed line of thought with zero nutritive level.
Harry Frankfurt wrote the philosophical essay “On Bullshit” in 1986, in which he defined a bullshitter as someone who was not a liar, rather the opposite. Liars do lie but often as a means to conceal a truth they know. Bullshitters, however, struggle to distinguish truth from lies. As do gurus with their desperate need to assert their existence in a world that can’t stop talking about the same things (and everyone’s a self-proclaimed thought leader).
If we’re not careful, our desperation to exist will have a nasty side effect: rather than making our clients famous, their services useful, their products loved, we will end up making our words famous at the cost of relevance, credibility, critical thinking.
But they sure do look good on that pitch deck.