Friday, November 21, 2008

Think and drink and the post-consumer society

This morning I am thinking and drinking (a weird-tasting soy au lait from across the street) about the discussion series I am kicking off for the Oregon Council for the Humanities in a couple of weeks.

I got the gig because someone saw the presentation I gave a month or so ago at the Portland Creative Conference.

I was nervous before that speech because I have bombed so often as a speaker.

My troubles started with a speech I delivered about ten years ago, I think it was at the AAAA or Adweek conference in San Francisco. I was all hopped up from my experience living in Amsterdam for a couple of years, reading Mander and Postman and Chomsky and Campbell and Krishnamurti non-stop, cigarettes and coffee for breakfast. The speech essentially was a critique of advertising and consumer culture which ended with my proposal for a revision to the ad industry's code of ethics. I connected the very obvious dots of the consumer economy we were propagating and our environmental (and mental!) health.

It clearly struck a chord. People tackled me afterwards, industry professionals all saying the same thing: I'm so glad somebody said that. This was pre-Seattle/WTO protests, pre-Adbusters. It was an exciting time, a lot of energy quickly developed around these issues. The First Things First Manifesto came out again, lots of discussion in the business about our responsibility to the world. "Sustainability" was beginning to become a mainstream word.

A written version of that speech was published in Communication Arts and Emigre, and then in Michael Bierut and Steven Heller's Looking Closer 4, critical writings on graphic design. I was invited to join the advisory committee for a United Nations initiative on sustainability and marketing. Heady, fun times that also messed me up a little bit. I became ethical ad guy, which was great in letting me carve out a place for myself in a business I didn't fully identify with, but it was two-dimensional, hardly an accurate summary of who I was or am.

I started getting asked to speak a lot and began to bomb with regularity. Years of bombing. I bombed at an event at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art where I think people paid 35 dollars a ticket. I felt like such an asshole. I was sort of going schizo, feeling the responsibility of saying something important and trying to recreate a moment, and of course also knowing this was a bad strategy, so I'd wrestle myself and write drafts that were thousands of words long only to trash it all the day before the speech. This happened for ten years maybe. Ugh it's hard to even think about.

A couple of years ago I was sitting on the beach in Santa Monica with a client and good friend, Mark Ritchie, and I asked his advice on how to get past this issue. As a rural activist and organizer for 20 years, he had given hundreds of speeches. He was clear and direct: Say what you know to be true.

I took his advice for the speech at the Portland Creative Conference. Mostly that meant telling my story. I had a couple of observations about advertising, but nothing "important," and I wasn't trying to convince anyone of anything, or certainly address anything ethical or moral.

The simplest explanation of this slide: GM is the fourth largest advertiser in the U.S., Google doesn't advertise.

We were at a dinner party the other night and when one woman found out that I worked in advertising, she asked me, picking her words very carefully, "What do you think about truth in advertising?"

The biggest lie in advertising is not that the product doesn't perform as promised, it's the consumer fantasy of how to achieve a happy and fulfilling life. That script has stopped being credible. Eventually, inevitably, we stop seeking status and fulfillment through stuff. We seek connection and meaning through experience. We are entering the post-consumer society.

Post-consumer brands help us experience our humanity, joy and connection. The iPhone, Google, Facebook, Obama, Guitar Hero, the Wii, the Toyota Prius. Nascar. The amazing growth of the local food movement and Farmer's Markets. We seek connection, and we seek experiences that make us feel connected. The post-consumer society. That's what I'll talk about on December 3.


Ashly Stewart said...

Revising the advertising code of ethics. Post-consumerist society/culture.

Thank you-

I love this.

Jason Glaspey said...

As an ad student at U of O 8 years ago, I remember getting a copy of that speach to AAAA. I think Jason Pollock gave it to me. Photocopy of a photocopy of a...

We read it and reread it. It definitely gave us focus on what was possible and who was leading what directions in advertising. As students, this was critical. It definitely had significant impact on me, and I still remember quite a lot of it.

But it's also funny how daily work in "the real world" can obscure those ideals so quickly, and they can be forgotten during the actual process of the work it's supposed to impact.

Anyway, it's really interesting to me to hear your story AFTER that speech, and how it's success affected you. Hope the future holds fewer bombs and less stress. Really sorry I missed the recent speech in Portland, but hopefully I'll catch your next one.