Who are you, and aren't you better than this?
There's a game I'm playing right now.
It's called Guess The Me-Too TV Advertiser.
Is it Google?
Is it Apple?
Is it Cotton?
Is it someone else who can't figure out how to look different in the calamitous face of the pandemic zeitgeist?
The word "zeitgeist" comes to us from those comic geniuses of 18th-century German philosophy.
It's most closely associated with that laughmeister himself, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.
Fact: Hegel was quite a dancer.
Hegel is best known for such quips as, "We learn from history that we do not learn from history," and "Whatever is reasonable is true, and whatever is true is reasonable."
It was always fun having Herr Hegel at the philosophers' cocktail party.
He'd quaff one too many weissbiers and start coming up with timeless banter like, "If you want to love you must serve, if you want freedom you must die." And everyone would laugh and laugh!
But I digress.
A word referring to the spirit of the age, "zeitgeist" translates literally as "time ghost."
Which is fitting.
So much advertising right now is the faintest ghost of its former, smarter self...
Granted, it's hard to produce new advertising at the moment.
You can't get a group of people together in a room to do much of anything related to commerce.
But that shouldn't prevent better writing.
Last week, we gave props to Budweiser. They've resurrected and then reimagined the "Whassup!" commercial for these uncertain times without ever using a phrase like "these uncertain times."
There has never been a time of certainty.
So that phrase should go into the dumpster of hackneyed copywriting and be lit on fire.
In a time when everyone's stressed out, it only makes sense to be sensitive to the zeitgeist.
But it's also good to remember that nobody needs ongoing reminders of how bad things are.
It's gotten so ridiculous, ad agency owner/Creative Director/cartoonist David T. Jones has created a new font: Times Uncertain. (You can download it here at his agency website: https://www.takethirdstreet.com/times-uncertain)
Better than reminders of the badness is reassurance of our badass best.
Maybe it's not a good time for comedy.
But it is a good time for humor.
At the very least, it's a good time for reaffirming the character and the spirit that defines good people in a crisis.
Without being partisan or political, I'm going to steal from the late, great Hal Riney.
It's morning in America.
It's up to us to decide what kind of a day we're going to make it.
And better writing will help.
Like Mary Heaton Vorse said in one of the best single quotes about how to do this thing with words, "The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair."
And so worth it.
Your Lean, Mean Creative Director in
Psychologist and entrepreneur Dr. Rachna Jain is back with insights into how these crazy times can be good for business and good for you. Ironically, social distancing is leading to all kinds of new ways to meet new prospects. And, there are more opportunities to put new skills into your tool box.
I DID NOT WRITE THIS
The following two paragraphs, that is.
Rather, they are the words of a man much smarter than I.
You may know of him.
You've read his words.
You've heard his voice.
You've seen his films.
He is an iconoclast.
Some consider him intolerant and boorish, possibly even irresponsible.
It doesn't matter.
What matters is that his words will force you to think, they may be polarizing, and they may even make you hate what you do for a living.
Ready? Here it comes...
WE ARE NOT SALESMEN, WE ARE CRAFTSMEN...
...of what may be the most powerful art form on earth.
Art is (this is the shortest definition I know) something that reinterprets for people the life that they're leading.
Art allows you to re-experience what you know about life. We crave art because we are unable to fully enjoy or understand what happens to us while it's happening because we're in the middle of it.
But advertising is everywhere. Also, because advertising deals with the minutiae of everyday life, any art that comes out of it is going to be particularly relevant and powerful.
Part of the reason painting doesn't have much power over our lives today is because the subjects have become esoteric. I can look at a Rauschenberg and say, "Well, that's interesting, and I do get a feeling from it, but I'm not sure how it relates to me."
But with advertising, you know what it's about--it may be about something that affected you that very day.
I AM COGNIZANT THAT MORE PEOPLE CONSIDER ADS TO BE GARBAGE THAN ART.
But I believe that a case could be made that no other art engages people around the world as deeply as advertising does.
If you consider how little of what's inside us is actually touched by politics and compare that to how much of our day-to-day actions are informed by the new attitudes, different style choices, and exposure to other people's thinking we glean from advertising, I believe it would not be silliness to say that advertising may have more to do with the German citizens bringing down the Berlin Wall than any diplomats did.
SO, WHADDA YA THINK?
Yes, this is your relentless scribe again.
Is that iconoclastic and bordering on pretentious?
It comes from a man whose name you may or may not know.
Mark Fenske is an advertising copywriter, college professor, director, VO performer and all around pain in the ass (at least by the barometers if certain advertising professionals).
It's possible Mr. Fenske revels in all that.
His rant is part of a longer screed that appeared in Viewpoint magazine--no publication date indicated.
Regardless of the date, the interview speaks to ambitions and pretensions that could make one dislike Mr. Fenske intensely.
WHICH IS A GOOD THING
People with a punk attitude are periodically necessary for the rest of us to give ourselves a reality check.
One of the reasons I went looking for this magazine interview is that The Fabulous Honey Parker and I spent time with family last week.
Honey's niece, who is now in college and possesses the ambition to be a poet, is at the point in life where she eschews commercial art as somehow impure and unclean.
She is uninterested in marketing, as it is apparently "Not creative enough."
(She is also probably uninterested in paying her bills, a mindset that will eventually turn her supertanker of antipathy for commercial pursuit on something resembling a dime.)
I understand this mindset to some degree.
Honey does not, as she apparently knew in the womb that she wanted to be an advertising art director. (She later became a copywriter because the hours are better.)
But all this to say, I do not begrudge the young woman her artistic pretension.
But the idea that marketing "is not creative enough" is an interesting challenge to Fenske's allegation that advertising "may be the most powerful art form on earth."
NO, NONE OF US CREATING ADVERTISING WILL END UP IN THE LOUVRE
But when we do our job at its best, we will touch people.
We will indeed help them to better put their lives in perspective and effect change.
Yes, commerce will be at the core of the effort.
But how much historically great art was created on behalf of a commercial relationship with a patron--often a church?
Yes, this will sound sacrilegious to a number of my devout readers--but understand that I'm not talking about your church.
I'm talking about long-ago churches that commissioned artists of the time to create masterpieces depicting the divine nature of the relationship between God and everybody. (And just incidentally, the way of thinking about that relationship was much different pre-Renaissance than it is today.)
Great art was arguably a sales tool to help bring the unsaved into the fold and become supporting members of the church. The word used to describe the relationship between the church and artist is "patronage."
That word derives from the Latin patronus, meaning one who gives benefits to his clients.
WERE THE MOTIVES PURE AND THE INSPIRATION DIVINE?
I leave that up to you, dear reader.
Probably depends on your particular church.
But it's hard to argue that the art was not intended, on some level, as a persuasive tool.
A promise of something better than mere earthly existence.
Art has long been a vehicle of persuasion.
And to fast forward to 20th century history, the idea that the Berlin Wall was brought down in response to free-market western advertising isn't so crazy.
Eastern Bloc teens and adults had long coveted the products, fashion and music of the free west. (Back during Glasnost, a friend of mine knew a Russian who was making a killing by loading up shipping containers in the U.S. with second-hand blue jeans and sending them off to the USSR.)
Yes, the cynics among us will argue that advertising often represents a crass commercialization of artistic sensibilities in pursuit of filthy lucre.
So be it.
WATCH A NIKE TV COMMERCIAL AND SAY THAT IT ISN'T ART
There is so much extraordinary, evocative art that parades as advertising under the Nike banner.
In fact, Mark Fenske has been responsible for some of it. He has both written and directed it.
In this space, I've previously told of the crass, written-to-strategy, hard-core direct-response ads for a replacement window company that were always outperformed 4:1 by a spot I'd written--a commercial that went with the mere idea of art and art galleries connected to replacement windows that represented an aesthetic ideal.
Recently, in the context of a project Slow Burn is doing for a client connected to the NFL, I was told that a piece of copy I'd written made an important person fall in love with her city all over again.
Did I think that what I was writing was art?
Not as I was writing it, by any stretch. But, as the man said, "Art allows you to re-experience what you know about life."
And I'm glad that someone who knows the city found the words moving--exactly because I wrote the piece hoping to be evocative and to make the reader care and feel good about a truly special and unique place.
So, yes: despite my lack of artistic pretense (which is probably a good thing), it may have been art. Possibly even because the effort possessed no pretense whatsoever.
LITTLE, EMOTIONALLY EVOCATIVE EFFORTS CAN CRYSTALLIZE REALITY
They can make the reader or viewer or listener feel moved.
The crystallization of reality is something that art aims to do.
Doing it with images is the aim of film and photography and painting.
Doing it with lyrics and melody is the aim of music.
Doing it with words is the aim of poetry.
And if any of these media do it with the aim of persuading you to buy a product or service or a candidate, they are doing so under the banner of advertising.
"The mountain sees through you to the small, frightened child within, but it doesn't laugh, it smiles, it holds its 2,003-acre arms wide open, and it says come, I take you as you are."
QUESTION: POETRY OR ADVERTISING? ANSWER: YES.
It's also from a 1995 print ad for Aspen Snowmass written by Mark Fenske.
The copy is set amidst artistic images of jagged, snow-covered peaks and peaceful, snow-drifted aspen groves.
It's arguably some of the most engaging and creative ski-resort advertising ever.
Certainly more evocative than, "More skiable terrain than any other resort in the country," which is a) a flat-footed bullet point and b) a cold, uninspiring feature without benefit reserved for someone who can't figure out anything more engaging to say about their resort.
And yes, in his punditry, I do believe Fenske can move from being an iconoclast to gadfly.
We all have our moments. I may be having one now.
But Fenske is still an iconoclast and quite possibly a genius.
Not to mention one hell of a VO performer.
All this to say, heed the man's advice.
Regardless of your role, whether you're a business owner or a marketing professional, you are working in one of the most powerful art forms on earth.
Don't be afraid to make the most of it instead of the least of it.
Blaine Parker is prone to ranting about any and all things related to brand. In many ways, he is a professional curmudgeon. While there is no known vaccine for this, the condition is also not contagious. Unless you choose it to be so.