Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Like this world, only different

For some time now, I've been trying to get a handle on this peculiar parallel world advertising can sometimes inhabit, the little fictions and palatable glosses on the real world manufactured to make our lives easier.

Like when we call a headline that revolves around a tired play on words "funny".

Or when a campaign is described as "edgy" even though, compared with the articles that surround it in a magazine or the programs that surround it on TV, it's positively Pat Boone.

I fear that, unless you get a handle on these little fictions, figure out their contours, where they're coming from, you start believing them.

The other day I was talking to an AD about a direct mail pack he was working on. He was trying to put himself in the shoes of someone receiving it: "OK, she goes to the mailbox, she sees this envelope and rips it open - she's all excited..."

I'm sorry, but that's an outrageous lie. Nobody over the age of five is excited by a DM pack. Ever.

Fair enough if you're trying to pretend otherwise to sell an idea in, but I really believe this guy had spent so many years making DM packs he'd convinced himself people sat by the mailbox waiting for his next elaborately folded acquisition piece.

That's one of the reasons this piece in the Media Guardian interested me. It's about the campaign for the Underground Writer competition currently running on the tube.

Why, asks Alastair Harper, are we using Bill Burroughs and Jack Kerouac as examples of underground literature?

It's a good question. These guys have been around for 50+ years. They're taught on university courses. Any technical innovations they made have long since been assimilated into the mainstream. They are, in fact, mainstream. Your grandparents probably read them as teenage rebellion.

The only place you could still consider them to be heterodox iconoclasts is in an ad.

So why not choose a genuinely underground figure? Because then the ad wouldn't communicate: if someone's really in the vanguard, they by definition will not be recognised by a mass audience.

Only Bill and Jack pass the Family Fortunes test.

So maybe that's one of the keys to our parallel universe: perhaps because we often have to use something that represents a class of objects or people, rather than an actual example of that class, we sometimes sacrifice the ring of truth?

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