2019: my year in failure

But the burgers are great.

New year, new you. But in the time-honoured tradition of social media, there’s a perverse need to brag about the old year first. With the nominal end of a decade, the annual rite of accomplishment accounting has seemingly reached a fever pitch, and, per usual, it makes me deeply uncomfortable.

Last year, I wrote about social media and how it commoditises success. I still stand by that: trying to find universal denominators for individual triumphs is reductive and dangerous. There are exceptions, of course, and there’s a role for ensuring that under-heard voices get their chance at the platform. But, ultimately, you are the only audience that matters, and when we turn to the digital hordes, even for polite validation, we’re outsourcing our personal resilience.

The other thing about success, of course, is that it is it is finite.

Not to go all ‘journey, not destination, but success is a point on a line, not the final destination. You aren’t ever done. One thing leads to another. A PhD to a professorship, a degree to a job, a car to a new city. Or if it doesn’t directly contribute, the closure of the first thing often allows the freedom to do the second. Finishing study to starting a career, finding yourself so you can find someone else, reading fifty books so you can read fifty more.

(And as any advertising agency knows, there’s only so long you can keep a great campaign on a showreel. After a few years, its presence raises more questions than it answers. Why haven’t you done anything lately?)

Success is also fickle. Things come undone. Other things stop mattering. Events happen, the context changes, priorities shift.

It is appropriate, then, that after arbitrarily declaring four personal “successes” last year, three of them subsequently, well… un-succeeded.

  • I’ve got a booth. That restaurant closed. Oops. Setting up a booth was a matter of engraining a habit - visiting repeatedly and establishing the relationship. Alas, if a few hundred other people had done the same, the restaurant would still exist. Alas, sometimes you can do everything you can do to achieve an objective, and the context (rising rent, absence of other diners…) still triumphs. The success was lovely while it happened, but was overly reliant on external factors. The important thing is to learn what you can about what you did; study the process, if not the result.

  • All our books are off the floor. About 99% of our books are in boxes right now. The remaining 1%, are, I’m afraid, in a heap on the floor. I trip over them every day. This is a good thing. We are finally doing long, long overdue repairs to our home. It was painful to take down all the perfectly shelved and ordered books. Really painful. But objectives also need to be prioritised. Sorting books was a priority, but it stood in the way of future improvements. There’s no point in clinging to a minor achievement if it prohibits a major objective.

  • I finally achieved a resolution! After taking five years to achieve my resolution (play cricket), I neither set - not achieved - a new resolution last year. I can honestly say I haven’t thought about setting a resolution since writing that email a year ago. Playing cricket is great, but it didn’t build into anything more. And the objective of setting an objective was meaningless in and of itself. Sometimes the objective just doesn’t matter any more. There’s nothing wrong with being ruthless.

On the other hand:

  • I can reverse sear. Without making too much of a meal of it (fnar), the one success that’s stuck is one that:

    a) is unaffected by context (Even the grill goes away, I can’t ‘unlearn’ a skill.)

    b) comes with tangible rewards in and of itself (I get to eat great burgers.)

    c) builds to other, future objectives (I can move on to other, trickier tasks than burgers.)

As an objective, it is robust, rewarding, and relevant. Let’s call that the “Three Rs”, because alliteration is a sign of great planning. To add a fourth - review. Don’t just set objectives, meet them, and move on. How often do people review their New Year’s Resolutions from previous years? Learn from what you achieved, or didn’t; why, or why not. Use your “knowledge of the past as an aid to the understanding of the future” (your morning dose of Thucydides). Failure may be unavoidable, but only the first time around.

* * *

Stress test versus a random objective: my attempt to read every Edgar debut winner (begun here).

Is that robust? Mostly. There aren’t many external circumstances that could derail this. Some of the damn books are really elusive, I suppose. And my time is stretched, but then, I don’t have a deadline.

Is it rewarding? Yes. Reading a good book has an immediate payoff.

Is it relevant? Yes. I’m skimming across a half-century of fiction, so this can lead to future challenges, for example, reading more deeply into particular authors, series, or even eras. As this is a list of debuts, I’m effectively reading seventy-odd jumping-off points.

That’s a pretty niche example, but it works. I may not have a booth, but at least I’ve got a lot of mysteries to read.

* * *

Recommending Neuromancer is silly, but in case you’re the one subscriber that hasn’t read - or haven’t reread it for years - it feels incredibly appropriate to life in 2020. Neuromancer, unlike a lot of quite hardish SF from the mid-‘80s, holds up.

Simply because it is never, ever about the technology (which is vague and indistinct), but always about people’s relationship to it.

The aesthetics of the book have proven infinitely trendy, but the themes are what make it a legitimate classic. Also this.

(For collectors, you can pre-order signed copies of Gibson’s latest via Blackwell’s.)

* * *

For fun:

An analysis of the content of 50,000 American sermons. Curious, but, right now, largely focused on things like ‘length’ and ‘specificity of Biblical references’. I’d love to see another wave of analysis that captures sentiment, tone, topic, contemporary issues, etc.

Beautiful photos of Britain, as captured by Darran Anderson.

Personality and place. (I’d never heard the term ‘WEIRD’ before, but it is really useful - and makes for a useful cautionary note as we apply Western communications practices to international behaviour change tasks.)

Meat.

If we aren’t hanging out on Twitter - I’ve begun using the Goodreads automated thinger to post whenever I finish a book. They look like this. Please see these tweets as an invitation to chat about the book.

(I don’t leave reviews on GR, but I’m always happy to talk about books. My ‘rating system’ is a bit bonkers as well. The only rating I give is 5 stars, and that’s less about subjective ‘quality’ than a note-to-self so I can find it again easily.)

Have a very happy New Year. Fail well.

My (50) Books of the Year

As with last year, fifty books that I read in 2019 that I would gleefully recommend.

I’ve tried to organise them by why I would recommend them, to scramble the genres a bit (and, let’s be fair, to save me the effort of writing fifty individual reviews).

A * means “If you threatened my cat and made me choose my five favourite books, you’d be a genuinely terrible person - who threatens a cat?! -, but this is one of those books. Now put Peep down, you monster. Oh, did she scratch you? Serves you right. I hope that hurt. Enjoy the book!”

* * *

For learning how to be sneaky

Slow Horses by Mick Herron

Beyond This Point are Monsters by Margaret Millar

The Thomas Berryman Number by James Patterson

Go, Lovely Rose by Jean Potts

The Cold War Swap by Ross Thomas

For freaking yourself out

When Darkness Loves Us by Elizabeth Engstrom

The Hours Before Dawn by Celia Fremlin*

We All Fall Down by Daniel Kalla

And The House Lights Dim by Tim Major

Death of a Nationalist by Rebecca Pawel

For feeling a bit smarter

Culture and Environment by FR Leavis and Denys Thompson

Kill All Normies by Angela Nagle

Ogilvy on Advertising

Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard

The Happiness of Blonde People by Elif Shafak*

For discovering new authors

Haunted Voices: An Anthology of Gothic Storytelling from Scotland

An Invite to Eternity: Tales of Nature Disrupted

Tales from the Shadow Booth

Unthology

We Were Always Here: A Queer Words Anthology

For getting lost in time

The Smile of a Stranger by Joan Aiken

Faro’s Daughter and Bath Tangle by Georgette Heyer

The Essex Sisters by Eloisa James

A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

For sharing with iguanodons

The Serial Garden by Joan Aiken

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

The House at Pooh Corner by AA Milne

Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein

The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

For inspiration and admiration

In the Heat of the Night by John Dudley Ball*

On Grand Strategy by John Gaddis

The Gameshouse by Claire North

Do You Dream of Terra-Two? by Temi Oh*

Baghdad Burning by Riverbend

For wanting to read a great big hug

The Bromance Book Club by Lyssa Kay Adams

The Rest of the Story by Sarah Dessen

Ten Blind Dates by Ashley Elston

The Grey Mask by Patricia Wentworth

For admiring clever people

The Fabulous Clipjoint by Fredric Brown

Florentine Finish by Cornelius Hirschberg

Ra by Sam Hughes

Friday the Rabbi Slept Late by Harry Kellerman

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by KJ Parker

For escaping it all

The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh

Radio Silence by Alyssa Cole

The Pastel City by M John Harrison

Bloodlust & Bonnets by Emily McGovern*

The Galactic Football League by Scott Sigler

* * *

Elsewhere…

I contributed to Tor.com’s annual Reviewers’ Choice. You’ll see some familiar names on that list.

Also, a reading guide to one of my favourite authors: K.J. Parker. I was joking on Twitter that ‘making it’ as a reviewer means being asked, every other year, to write an intro to K.J. Parker. And in the alternate years? China Miéville. No complaints here.

I was at Oxford Brookes, lecturing to some (very bright and extremely chatty) undergrads about ‘visual storytelling’ - specifically in advertising. With no explanation given, here’s the playlist I used. Print got into the mix as well, with examples from Stella, KFC, Lucky Strikes, and the Necronomicon.

And, of course, I would be remiss to leave off my very favourite books of 2019: The Outcast Hours and The Best of British Fantasy. Excellent presents for the whole family.

Newsletter Newsletter

Here’s a long over-due digression: some other newsletters.

I had mentioned, waaaaaay back in the day, that one of my January rituals is to revisit my newsletter subscriptions.

I’m fairly brutal with unsubscribing. If several issues in a row get archived without reading then that subscription goes into the bin. But even with that ruthless state of mind, I was surprised to find out that I was reading quite this many. Golly.

People

What's the golden thread here? I call this the ‘People’ category because that’s what unites them: these are all written by charming weirdos who are passionate about their fields.

I think if there’s anything the recent Deadspin debacle has shown us (one of many summaries), it is that there is still a market for ‘personality’ in content creation. Deadspin created fanatical loyalty not by churning out interchangeable, banal sports coverage, but by writing controversial, entertaining, intimate and personable non-sports coverage.

Which links to the big lesson of this category: I'd rather read interesting people on irrelevant subjects than boring people on relevant ones.

News

A combination of highlights (Journal, Quartz) and long-form reads (Popular Information, Bellingcat). There’s a good, functional reason I like Politico’s London Playbook - it is perfectly timed: always landing in my inbox right before the tube goes underground. Frantically downloading the email is part of my morning routine.

And Popbitch is Popbitch. I could make a long, impassioned plea about the importance of understanding the, um, semiotics of popular culture, but really, I just like reading about which celeb was caught huffing hamster bladders on Mick Hucknall’s sex-yacht.

I’ve left off magazines, organisations, those sorts of things. I don’t really view their communications as ‘newsletters’ - they serve a different purpose. Organisations like the RSA, for example, tend to send emails that are simply a stack of links all pointing somewhere else: events, the website, the magazine, whatever.

Similarly, there’s something uniquely boring about magazine newsletters. I’m subscribed to a lot - as an offshoot of being subscribed to the actual magazine - but they never have any intrinsic value in their own right. They exist to remind you that other, better content will be arriving in another, different format. It is less of an ‘added value’ than ‘part of the price you pay’. If anyone has an example of a magazine that also provides quality newsletter content, I’d be curious to see it.

In conclusion: I am defining a ‘newsletter’ as self-contained content. A newsletter’s ‘To’ is (primarily) to read the newsletter. An organisation or a magazine is using email for another objective, a ‘To’ of ticket sales, subscriptions, whatever. Even the link aggregator emails (see below) are intrinsically useful, and not just marketing for the ‘real’ content someplace else.

Research

I really like research. I really, really like it.

I think about research newsletters as a pyramid. At the pointy bit are the advertising-focused research aggregators like WARC and Mintel. They crunch numbers, do interviews, write case studies, add sexy quotes, and present the package as an off-the-shelf ‘trend’ or ‘insight’.

Next step down on the pyramid: folks that also aggregate research and form conclusions, but do so outside of communications. For me, that's primarily folks like RAND, Ideas42 or MIT’s Innovation Lab (The Download folks) who are interested in specific social, demographic, technological, or financial activities. (Also in this category - some of the orgs mentioned above, like Demos and RSA, as well as the Behavioural Insights Team, SuperFlux, Mad Scientist Laboratory…) Is their work going to be relevant to my pitch for discount Snickerdoodles? Probably not. But in the off-chance it is… that’s a brief cracked.

Even further down - the big broad base of the pyramid - sits the unaggregated research. To me, Pew, BPS, Imperica, Useful Science are all ‘must-subscribe’ options for planners, as they just churn out stuff. Will the newsletter be relevant to my Snickerdoodles challenge? Almost definitely not. But you never know where inspiration can come from.

MOAR RESEARCH

These newsletters aren't 'the base of the pyramid' as much as ‘the nearby quarry’. It is up to me to do the hard work - both by constantly refining the search, and also by recognising which articles or studies might be useful later. 

There are some absolutely brilliant search engines out there that collect all the latest research for you and then send it to your inbox on a regular basis. This is like Web 1.5 technology! And it is still really, really useful! Save your searches.

My research filtering has evolved into a (rather therapeutic) routine. Steel yourself for some nerdiness:

  1. When my research, data or super-long-list-of-links-type email comes in, I skim it immediately.

  2. I save any links that sound even vaguely interesting into Pocket.

  3. I delete the email. (Bit Literacy, folks.)

  4. Once a week, I sit down for an hour with a pot of coffee and have a nice leisurely read through all the Pocketed stuff.

  5. If the article isn’t even potentially useful, I delete it.

  6. If the article is potentially useful, I save it to Tumblr, and tag it appropriately. That way, if I’m pitching Snickerdoodles in 2022, I know where I can find everything relevant on the Millennial sugar consumption.

  7. If the article is immediately useful, I become That Guy and email it immediately to the relevant team. Be warned: this is a behaviour that happens as soon as you become a parent. I also put the entire content of the email into the subject line, call in 20 minutes to see if the email was received, and then follow-up with a few forwarded jokes about golf.

Culture

This is a pretty diverse group. Some are link lists; some are content rich. Some are daily; some are quarterly. Some are long; some are short. Some are automated updates; some are purely a matter of personality.

I'm not sure that's useful to anyone, but there's something oddly reassuring about looking at list of one's "influences" and thinking, ah, yes, that's why I keep talking about perfume.

* * *

What's also interesting - at least to me - are the newsletters to which I unsubscribed in 2018.

'STOP SELLING ME THINGS AND SAY SOMETHING INTERESTING' 

  • Publishers

  • Authors

  • Magazines

  • Trade Press (STOP FLOGGING CONFERENCE TICKETS)

  • Anything I backed on Kickstarter

These aren't really surprising. There's nothing that gets me to ‘nope’ out like a hard sell. There are a few publishers that I’m still subscribed to - Verso and Strange Attractor both spring to mind - but, again, not as ‘newsletters’, as much as a willing invitation for them to nudge me about new books.

What's most surprising is that most of these people/organisations should know better. Publishers, authors and Kickstarter creators all literally make a living out of creating content that audiences want. So why are they so bad at this particular format?

Kickstarter is the worst. “Thanks for backing this project. Here is my other project you can back while this project is delayed. And an interview with me, about why my project is delayed. Here’s a photo of my cat, since I don’t have any photos of the actual project. Don’t forget to upgrade your support for my delayed project! It is six years on since you backed my project and you still haven’t received anything, but here are other projects you can back!”

Lesson: When any creator has nothing to talk about besides their own creation, they get very boring, very quickly. Victor Frankenstein wasn’t fun at parties.

Contrast this hard sell, with, say, any of the 'People' newsletters above. I am a guaranteed sale for any of their books or products, when (or if) they do choose to flog them. They've sold me on them. When they include the occasional 'click here to buy more of the same', I'm a-clickin' it. (Case in point.)

Themes

What’s coming across:

  • Personality matters when the reader is inviting correspondence.

  • My time is precious to me. If you’re boring, you’re out. But arriving at the right time, with the right information, goes a long way towards making you more more interesting.

  • A good newsletter is a thing in and of itself, not a portal to other things.

  • A newsletter has to prove why it is the more convenient, useful, or interesting way to receive this information. Functional newsletters have to be functional. If it is timely, it needs to be fast. If it is curated, it needs to be relevant. If it is informative, it needs to be clear. If it is entertaining, it needs to be fun.

What’d you suggest?

Anne:

Martin: Chicken Shed Chronicles from @DoLectures
Fred: Ansible
Dav: Documentally, Austin Kleon and Warren Ellis
Damien: Dan Hon's is always a highlight

* * *
This was the longest - and probably dullest - newsletter yet. But at least I found you someone else to read.

Enjoy!

Faith, trust, and pixie dust.

A new research report - Trust: The Truth? - came out last month from Ipsos.

I was lucky enough to attend the launch event. There was no red carpet, per se, but there were lots of awkward jokes beforehand about the bad news to come. Yet, when the report was unveiled, it wasn’t as bad as we expected.

Ipsos presented the conclusion - and this is a terrible paraphrase of 200-odd pages of research - that the trust crisis was “chronic, not acute”. They reassured us that we may feel awful, but that’s not an objectively sharp awfulness. Rather, things have been steadily awfullating for years, decades even.

Furthermore, the data shows that for some sectors, industries, or individuals, trust is actually kind of fine. Doctors, for example, are still alright. As are dead people, for the most part. We are a big fan of trusting those leaders that aren’t still alive to disappoint us. And for those sectors or industries that aren’t fine… Well, they’ve always kind of sucked. Sorry, politicians and advertising agencies. It may feel like we’re in a trust crisis, but we aren’t. Or, if we are, it has been an incremental one. There’s no more a crisis now than in the past.

Ipsos then handed over to external experts - journalists and a professor - for comment. And said comment was, more or less universally: Nyah. Which, as you might expect, made for an interesting panel: a “data vs insight” smackdown as the numbers were attacked from various anecdotal angles by talented experts.

I found Kenneth Cukier, from The Economist, particularly interesting. He began his rebuttal by polling the audience. How many of us thought we were in a unique crisis of trust before the presentation? (All hands up.) And how many of us still think that, even after hearing the presentation? (Hands stay up.) Cukier proceeded to muse, out loud, why it was that our perspectives were so different from the data: what is it that our perceptions bring (or lack), or what it is the data sees (or misses).

First: the degree of the lie has changed.

There’s been a definitional change as social norms have shifted. Fifty years ago, if a researcher asks you if you trust the President, you think about whether or not you trust him to deliver a piece of policy. In 2019, you’re wondering about whether or not you trust him to not conspire with foreign powers, funnel millions to his own businesses, pander to white nationalists, and commit sex crimes. The question is the same, but the context is entirely different. Cukier argues that - as Arendt did - there’s always been lying in politics. But, he added, what has changed is the degree of the lie: now it is ‘shameless and glorified’. Politicians knowingly commit, embrace, and even repeat untruths. How can data capture the transformation of social norms?

Second: perhaps we crossed a threshold.

Even if trust is ‘merely’ in gradual decline, the erosion of trust may have now gone far enough that’ve crossed a point of no return. A bit like global warning: have we taken that tiny shift too far, and made an irrevocable change to the world?

Third: we could be victims of the ‘biased truth’.

Cukier cited Gladwell’s theory that we are naturally inclined to ‘favourably believe’ other people. This may explain why personal perceptional differs so wildly from mass data. This also puts society in a constant state of tension: individual-to-individual favourability opposed by distrust of all institutions and groups. Or not. But, if this is the case, Cukier foresaw this progressing apocalyptically - to, as he phrased, a new ‘Middle Ages’, where trust is placed solely in individuals, and we no longer hold to institutions of any form.

* * *

To Cukier’s insight, I add one theory of my own.

‘Trust’ is one of those cases where relativity matters. Say you’re polling people on their perception of shoe prices. It would be a bit odd if everyone thought that shoes were at an all-time-level of super-duper-expensive, while, as a matter of objective fact, the cost of shoes was actually rising more slowly than inflation, etc. (I have no idea if this is true; that would actually be a pretty fascinating study.)

But in the case of ‘trust’, the perspective is the answer. If people think they’re living in a crisis, they’re living in a crisis. Crisis is not objective. People measure their lived experience not against a global, quantified mean, but against what they believe should be happening.

If you look for a global and urgent crisis, it may be hard to find. But, as individuals, we don’t live our lives from from that rarefied perspective. Our lived experience is finite: we experience a decline in trust in a local and immediate way.

All in all - a fascinating report. Get stuck in.

* * *

For planners (sup, y’all), the most useful part of the presentation was an analysis of what we talk about when we talk about ‘trust’. Ipsos break trust down into eight different qualities:

  • Reliability

  • Competence

  • Responsibility

  • Transparency

  • Leadership

  • Intentions

  • Shared values

  • Won’t take advantage

All eight individual factors correlate against ‘trust’ in a statistically significant way.

This would make a lovely Powerpoint chart for when you’re trying to convince your skeezy tech client to stop taking DNA samples from their customers’ laundry.

These diverse factors also help demonstrate a greater point when it comes to planning a campaign: make your objectives specific. (The SMART framework has other components, but this email is long enough already.)

We’ve all had briefs based around making x brand the “most trusted brand” in the y sector. But, “trust” qua trust, as Ipsos’ Ben Page was keen to point out, makes a lousy KPI. The eight factors make for much better briefs. Demonstrating leadership is a different campaign than highlighting transparency. Proving competence looks very different from showcasing good intentions. Each of these approaches are more specific, more measurable, and - frankly - more creatively interesting than ‘be trusted’.

* * *

What? You’re still reading?

Sufficient Flop and Throb

Quite a lot of new readers (hello!), which puts me in a bind.

I have no idea why you’re here or where you came from. Let me know, if you like. Or revel in your mysterious origins.

Between vintage mysteries, Julia Quinn and The Survivalist, I do occasionally read more topical materials. Why, just recently, I was perusing a copy of Prose of Persuasion: A Collection of Advertising Copy (1931).

Prose does exactly what it says on the tin: it is a collection of contemporary ads. Given the era, this means a few hundred words extolling the particular product. They’re surprisingly good. A few are heavy-handed, but most are delightfully atmospheric. In the absence of CGI, retargeting, interactivity, personalisation, or even, you know, pictures, each little package of words has a lot of work to do in attracting the reader, engaging them, building a little self-contained world, and selling a compelling call to action.

The best contribution, however, comes fromauthor Naomi Mitchinson, who provides the book’s forward. It follows below.

Reviewers and people like that - I am sometimes one myself, so I know - have a horrid habit of talking about the decline in fiction.

This is so silly of them.

They keep their eyes firmly turned backwards onto Walter Scott and Dickens and Hardy, and they neglect the new and admirable branch of fiction which has sprung up and blossomed like a daisy field round the feet of the great oaks: they do not read advertisements. For what after all is the main difference between Pamela and Clarissa Harlowe and one of the charming set pieces which adorn the pages of this book? Surely the difference is merely one of length. Both works of fiction have a purpose and it seems just possible (though not much more) that several young women have been kept in the path of virtue by Pamela or Clarissa, and that several young men have been induced to buy this or that brand of drink or tobacco through the appropriate advertisement.

Of course this is to put myself into fundamental opposition to Mr. Steel [the book’s editor], which, as a fellow-Scot, he should appreciate. Because, to my astonishment, he says that these lovely, miniature works of art are actually meant to sell things and succeed in doing so. This seems to me to be very odd, but perhaps he can produce Statistics to prove his case, and then one just has to run away. Or else one has to stay and argue the case on moral grounds, because I am almost sure that if advertising really does do any of the things which it says it does it would be quite immoral; but then, why should we believe? No, no, fiction is fiction.

And, as fiction, advertisements are clearly a lesson to us all. This collection is certainly very much better reading than most novels. The novel is as likely as not only a large heart-flop, something that has to be got rid of before the writer can sleep well o’ nights; and so long as there is sufficient flop and throb about it, the quality of the writing matters wonderfully little - to the sales. But the successful advertisement has to be well written in its own convention and completely to the point; it is also short, and one doesn’t have to pay for it, even to the extent of a library subscription, so there is no economic motive to induce one to go on reading it if one doesn’t like it. Best of all it is written not for the soothing of a heart-throb, but - like Shakespeare’s plays - for money.

And now I had better let the advertisements speak for themselves, which they will certainly do. And if at the end you have decided to buy everything which occurs in the book, including the very fetching aeroplane on page 150, don’t blame me.

There’s a lot in here.

  • ‘If advertising really does do any of the things which it says it does it would be quite immoral’. Magic, even.

  • ‘Flop and throb.’ Obviously the words themselves are a joy, an expression of ‘emotional engagement through lowest-common-denominator pathos’. I think floppiness is a quality that’s valued, and valuable, in more than just commercial fiction. Ads have 30 seconds to play your heartstrings like a harp from hell. And by ‘your’, I mean ‘the largest possible audience’. Of course they’re going for the emotion cheap shot. (Six puppies lick Chris Evans’ face. He dies beautifully. Giving birth to twins. They have his eyes. Buy yoghurt!)

  • Mitchinson noting that, in 1931, that the ‘fiction is dead’ complaints are already boring. Sadly, there’s still no end in sight…

Perhaps most important is Mitchinson’s deliberate inclusion of advertising as a form of entertainment, or, more broadly speaking, ‘culture’.

We, the enlightened author/reviewer/copywriter/strategist know that we create with a purpose. But to the consumer, as Mitchinson notes, our product is all part of the general cacophony of life. Some forms of communication are easier to hear; some easier to ignore. See also her description of advertising as fiction that’s ‘free to quit reading’. But all, ultimately, all comms - paid, earned, owned, or rogue - are part of the cultural noise. It is essential to study it critically.

Admittedly, this is a concept I nicked it from another timely and relevant book, Thompson and Leavis’ Culture and Environment (1933). C&E is half-manifesto, half-textbook. It posits that we, as modern humans, need to spend more time studying things like film, radio, and advertisements. They inform our worldview, and, more importantly, we’re stuck with them. Refusing to engage critically with advertising won’t make it disappear: it’ll just make you a bigger sucker.

(C&E is also notable for how grudging it is about all this. The authors don’t even try to hide their editorial stance: modernity sucks, and this stuff is crap. But still they soldier on with writing lesson plans, and occasionally consoling themselves with the odd chapter on traditional wheelwright skills.)

A few agencies go so far as to make ‘creating culture’ a part of their shtick. I can’t argue with the aspiration - and it certainly makes you seem cooler at dinner parties. But I can’t help think that it also reeks of insecurity - an attempt to ditch the pharma bros and Cambridge Analytica to go sit at the lunch table with real artists and the BBC.

As Mitchinson points out, there’s also a very important distinction here. Advertising is culture with a purpose. It is ‘meant to sell things’. Advertising always has a particular behavioural or attitudinal change in mind. Often this is sales - but it equally applies to quitting smoking, renewing your road tax, or voting Leave. Advertising is definitely part of the culture. And, hell, it may even be an art. But it will never be ‘art for art’s sake’. Hiding from your own objectives makes bad ads, not good art.

* * *

If you’re stuck on the train, some more reading elsewhere:

Fun fact: 300,000 people have read classic novels on Instagram. Amazing. (h/t Viv)

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