With the death two weeks ago of Congressman John Lewis, we’ve heard a lot lately about his belief in “good trouble.” As near as I can find his exact quotation, it goes like this: “Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
I’m not for a second going to compare what John Lewis did in his lifetime to what we in advertising do. His life was loaded with import. Our aim is to sell room-freshener.
But I will draw this similarity. Neither an ad person nor a leader can succeed if they do not break through the dominant complacency. Neither an ad person nor a leader can succeed if they do not get noticed. Neither an ad person nor a leader can have an impact if they don’t make an impact.
In short, agencies—and viable in-house units too, I suppose, exist to cause good trouble. They exist to create messages that get noticed, that motivate people, that make people want to act.
If you think about some of the signposts of the civil rights era in the American south in the 1950s, you had people doing controversial things to make a point.
- Emmett Till’s mother insisted on an open-casket so the world could see what hatred did to her slaughtered son.
- Rosa Parks refused to move to another seat and risked imprisonment and physical threats.
- And John Lewis and hundreds of cohorts decided to march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, the state capitol.
In the parlance of advertising today, we would call these big events. They are statements. They are platforms.
They were, each one of them, spitting in the eye of the establishment so they could get what today we call “earned media.”
They might have, instead merely posted a thousand signs and knocked on ten-thousand doors to raise support. But they had the resolve to believe that their causes were best served by big, disruptive, nasty ideas. Ideas designed to annoy the fuck out of people.
I don’t think it’s wrong to say that in the three examples I cited above—and countless others I didn’t mention (like the Vietnamese monks who burned themselves to death protesting against the corruption and bigotry of South Vietnam’s government) the brave people did in real life what we only flap our gums about in advertising.
Carl Ally, whose agency I worked for for five years, used to say, “Advertising should afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”
“Afflict the comfortable” is likely as good a definition of “Good Trouble” as you’re going to get.
If Lewis, or Parks, or Mamie Till came to a modern agency with their cause, they would have been talked out of being noticed.
“Can’t you march at night, or around the high-school track? It will be cooler and safer and no one will get hurt. Or send out a series of tweets. "Yo, we wanna vote."”
“I’ll tellya what. We’ll get you a “What’s in Your Wallet?”-branded seat cushion and even though you’re sitting in the back, your seat will actually be more comfortable than the other seats.”
“Showing Emmett’s face will be in violation of community standards.”
“Pouring gasoline on yourself and burning yourself—it’s extreme. Can’t we do something carbon neutral.”
This is not to trivialize Lewis.
But Good Trouble should be the guiding light of the advertising business. TBWA\Chiat\Day, whose work succeeds more often than most, calls it “disruption.” That’s fine.
Without causing good trouble in service of a brand, without disrupting in service of a brand (or a cause) your advertising is really doing nothing more than pissing up a rope.
When I think about the thousands or millions of aggregated hours spent blanderizing tweets and banner ads and social posts that fly into the ether and have no impact, when I think about the countless nights barking about directors and casting and wardrobe and craft tables when the spot itself is as flat as a plate of piss, that’s when we need, as an industry, good trouble.
Not reaching an accord.
Not being a collaborator.