Alex Steer

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The massive importance of absolutely everything

580 words | ~3 min

Since moving to the US, I have learned a very important lesson, thanks to advertising. Which is that everything is massively, unbelievably important. Every issue, every previously trivial-seeming purchase decision, every household chore is effectively a matter of life and death. Pick the wrong shampoo, insurance policy or generic family car and you might as well shave your head, take up professional shark-punching and sell the kids into the slave trade.

So I think most of the ads here are ludicrously over the top. I started wondering if it was just a cultural difference - whether British (or for that matter South African) ads would just seem ridiculously round-the-houses and unclear here. Or whether this is a shift brought on by the recession, forcing marketers to reframe and reinforce their value propositions at a time of mass reconsideration by people about what's worth spending their dwindling spare cash on. There may some truth in both options.

But now I'm wondering whether advertising, on the whole, just lacks a sense of the trivial.

An essay on creative direction by Luke Sullivan, which I read today, used a phrase that will always remind me of someone I learned a lot about this industry from (because he used it a lot too). 'It's only advertising.' It struck me again how few pieces of maketing communication seem to have that sense of proportion.

For all that we'll tell you that the best brands are the most idealistic ones, or that engagement is all about rallying people around a big idea, in a lot of cases there's something a bit daft about the upshot of this: campaigns which try to make you feel like you're joining a social movement or extending the bounds of liberal democracy every time you choose a tin of beans. This may be good for the consciences of those of us that spend too much time with brands, but it stretches credibility a bit.

All this hard sell feels particularly wrong these days, because many of the most vibrant parts of popular culture, and especially Internet culture, thrive on the idea of not taking things too seriously. From Wikipedia to lolcats to #iranelection to blogging, the internet is the domain of the part-time project, the after-work spare-time pursuit, the collection of amateur enthusiasts making something great, taking it at once very seriously and not seriously at all. Wikipedia was built in people's spare time.

The kind of things we used to do in sheds, we now do on the web. Andrew Keen called it The Cult of the Amateur, and meant it in a bad way. I mean it in a good way.

The light touch of amateurism is one of the best things in the world. The combination of obsession and lack of seriousness is charming and powerful - the fact that we can spend so much time and energy on something, yet recognise that it's a bit trivial. Contrast that with so much advertising in which things are treated like the Holy Grail, and the ads end up sounding like the guy in the pub who never stops talking about work. (Again, irony noted.)

So maybe we need to tread carefully before we launch another 'massive idealistic movement brand' on the world. Maybe we fewer Brands With Causes, and more Brands With Hobbies.

In the words of every ad made in the last three years: What do you think?

# Alex Steer (27/10/2010)