I'm reading a book right now that ain't exactly a beach read. In fact, though I'm at the beach for another week, it's as challenging a book as I've ever read. It's not that it's abstruse, it's that it deals with big complicated life issues and you can't plow through it like you're reading a torn-bodice page-turner.
A lot of people when they praise a book say, "I couldn't put it down." My belief is opposite. When a book really makes you think, you have to put it down to consider what you've just read. For better or worse, books that give me pause are the kind I prefer. I'm not sure if there's any causality involved, but I am getting more out of my brain at the age of 65 than I did at 15 or 25 or 35. I think that's because I read things that upset me into questioning what I know.
Right now, I'm about 35-percent through "Life is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way," by Kieran Setiya, the head of the philosophy department at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. You can read The New York Times' review of the short (240-pages) book here.
Before I even got through the Preface, Setiya had drawn me in because he began by writing about the difference between theory and living in the real world. Setiya was talking specifically about the academic discipline of Philosophy but I was quickly able to make the leap to advertising as it is constituted today.
Setiya writes, "As a teenager, I loved the abstract theories of metaphysicians, plumbing the basic structure of mind and world. Philosophy was, for me, an escape from ordinary life....
"But philosophy is, and can be, more than that. To study the discipline is to become an artisan of arguments...Yet I’ve come to want a philosophy that can speak more intimately to life."
Satiya goes on to tell a story about an evaluation he got from a professor having taken his qualifying graduate exams. He did well, of course, but his examiner remarked that Satiya's ideas, had not been “tested in the crucible of direct moral experience.”
The crucible of direct moral experience hit me as being like the exact place advertising must make an impact if it's going to work.
Most academic practitioners, dilettantes and award-aficionados don't base their work on real life. They can ratiocinate their way into telling you why something is brilliant. They can judge the judges and tailor work directly to them. They can make the perfect Petri-dish communication. It can be beautifully crafted with all the precision of a sensitive watch that breaks the minute you wind it.
But that's not the crucible in which advertising must work in. Philosophy and advertising are meant to be tools that work in the real world. One helps you handle the everyday horrors of life. The other helps you sell stuff.
I fell out with sports about three decades ago. And I never got interested at all in "Fantasy Sports," where people draft teams and play games based on things that never happen.
It seems to me that the prefix "Fantasy" can be applied to many spheres today and without exaggeration. They're things that could happen under circumstances and events you happen to set up and agree with.
I have a more guttural view of life.
I worry about how advertising will affect the living. Not decks and personas.
When I was an ECD at R\GA more than a decade ago, a planner started criticizing some scripts I had written for a retirement company saying that they didn't make her want to "lean in." (Sheryl Sandburg's book was all the unread rage at the time.) I got up, I'll admit on my elevated equine and said something very close to this:
"I don't know what life is like in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, but when I get home from work, I sit in my favorite chair and turn on a ball game. And I lean back.
"I'm tired," I said, "exhausted, beat. The last thing in the world I want to do is lean in."
That's how I see what's happened in advertising. It's theoretical now. It's academic. It's pundit-ed. Impaneled and therefore enfeebled. We no longer believe it has to be “tested in the crucible of direct moral experience.”
It's no longer created to (in Carl Ally's phrase) "afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted." It's created to give its creators a sense of their own importance.
That should be about the absolute last criterion for judging work.
But I'm afraid it's first.