Thursday, April 20, 2023

Say What?


Back so many decades ago when I was a sullen teenager (in contrast to today, when I'm a sullen octogenarian) I had an English teacher who worked--above and beyond--to make sure I'd become more than just another angry young man.

Mrs. Chapin got me and slugged me into semi-human.

While I tried assiduously to escape into the deep blonde winsomeness of various adolescent crushes, she would assign me libraries of mandatory extra reading. Somehow while being caring, she was also stern. It never occurred to me that she couldn't really do anything to make my life difficult if I decided to say 'fuck the complete plays of Eugene O'Neill, I’ll just shoot the shit with my friends.' So I obeyed.

One day, Mrs. Chapin wrote me a poem--encouraging me to read. Sadly--that was almost 200 years ago and I've lost it. But I do remember the closing couplet (which was based on a poem by the great Dudley Randall which you can read here.)

"If praise from me you wish to brook,
Go stick your nose inside a book."

More than any other advice I have ever received, I've followed Mrs. Chapin's. Come to either of my homes--my city or my country seats--and you'll leave covered with generative booklice that will probably change your life in unimaginable ways. And itchy.

For the last week, I have been nose-deep in the laborious "Magesteria: The Entangled Histories of Science and Religion" by Nicholas Spencer. You can order the book above and read a review from "The Economist" here. But I warn you, this ain't exactly "The Real Housewives of the Holy See." 

In fact, if you're a contrarian--and I'm rounding into a point, Magesteria might be one of the year's top books. It aims to upset a couple thousand years of pre-conceived notions in its 600-pages, thus recalling Galileo's apocryphal "eppur si muove," "and yet it moves."

What I quickly realized in reading Spencer is that every organization--from the aforementioned Holy See to a Little League baseball team in Bridge Mix, New Jersey (population 17,429) has its own code and its own Codex--a listing of "acceptable" thought and its more austere and grudging cousin, an "Index Librorum Prohibitorum." Its listing of unacceptable thought.

The advertising minindustry is no different. 

There are reams of things you can't say on pain of being either "out" and ostracized and/or fired. I can only imagine if someone at a place I used to work said, even after their fourth client-expensed cocktail, 

"Borderless creativity is a crock."
"Award shows are an even bigger crock."
"Our diversity efforts are all show and no dough."
"77% of our award-winning ads never ran."
"Our creative-staffing as a percentage of client spend is lower than ever no wonder our fees have plummeted."
"AI is not an answer much less a panacea."
"NFTs, Crypto, Web 3.0 and the Metaverse are modern-day abracadabra."

Statements like these, true or not, would all violate the unwritten "Index Librorum Prohibitorum." The utterer would have his utters removed and be subject to, at the very least, "low-level background corporate terrorism." Been there.

Conversely, there are an equal and opposite number of Codex-endorsed statements, which in the absence of an investigative function don't get examined any more than the 16th Century Catholic Church asserting that the sun and the planets rotated around the earth. (In fact, the Catholic Church did not repeal its abnegation of Copernicus until Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical  "Providentissimus Deus", issued in 1893--about 200 years after Newton.)

So, agencies expect their people to talk about the salutary effect of targeting and cookies. The efficacy of triple-play bundles and horrible telco commercials. The verity of customer journeys and the vaunted funnel. And of course, people dancing because their wash smells good.

Most of these affects--woven within the accepted language of our industry--don't stand up to SHIT (simple, human, intelligent, tested) but we spew them nonetheless. 

They're truths we all buy into. 

We're paid to.

And it doesn't matter, of course, if none of those truths are true.

It only matters that we have to say them.

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