Alex Steer

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To graduates: Why I work in advertising

563 words | ~3 min

George Monbiot is on fine form in the Guardian, pointing out all the jobs that he regards as tantamount to a nihilistic death spiral for graduates who choose to do them:

Those who graduate from the leading universities have more opportunity than most to find such purpose. So why do so many end up in pointless and destructive jobs? Finance, management consultancy, advertising, public relations, lobbying: these and other useless occupations consume thousands of the brightest students. To take such jobs at graduation, as many will in the next few weeks, is to amputate life close to its base.

In the face of this, the temptation is to go on the attack. Instead, I'd like to go on the defence.

So here, for the record, is why I chose to work in advertising and why I believe it's a meaningful way to spend a large proportion of your waking time.

I believe that ideas are the only things that make our lives better. Ideas can be good or bad, dangerous or consoling, humane or cruel, but almost no positive change in the human condition happens without an idea. An idea is, after all, a conception of how the world could be different.

But to create change, ideas need a voice. The world is full of ideas and most of them don't get heard. There are so many that even the ones that are heard need to go very quickly from being heard to being felt, or they are forgotten.

Advertising is the practice of giving ideas a voice. Good advertising gives ideas a voice that people will listen to, and makes ideas felt, not just heard.

There is bad advertising, and there are bad ideas that are advertised well; but if we want to live in a society where ideas circulate and have the chance to create change, the advertising of bad ideas is a risk we accept. This does not mean we shouldn't take away the ability to advertise some ideas in some ways, but it does mean we should do so with great caution. We should, at least, be careful about who gets to decide which ideas can and can't be advertised.

Advertising is not a particularly noble end, because it is not an end at all. It exists to improve ideas' chances of making change. And yes, for all we talk about big ideas most of the ideas we are paid to advertise are very small: a warmer home, a better razor, a slightly faster train journey. Taken together they have amounted to a revolution in the lives and living standards of hundreds of millions of people over the last century, though, so perhaps we should treat them with less contempt.

We cannot advertise big ideas without advertising small ones, or even good ones without bad ones, because we do not know where the next good, big idea will come from. Advertising is necessarily neither virtuous nor vicious, neither ingenious nor dumb, though its practitioners may be all of these. It is a means to uncertain ends, and for that reason I find it a hopeful discipline as well as an interesting one. To say we can do without it is to say we would rather not hear any more ideas, thank you very much; and I can't accept that as a creed.

# Alex Steer (06/06/2015)