Today I attended a day-long course called ‘Writing for Advertising’. Now there’s nothing I look forward to more than a day of learning (and a day out of the office), but in the last few days my excitement has been marred by a burning discomfort: I hate advertising.
Advertising is an industry that, minus a few notable exceptions, brazenly profits from peoples’ insecurities. An industry that is institutionally sexist, racist, ableist, classist, homophobic and offensive in any other way imaginable. A bit like politics or religion, but with a bigger budget and, worryingly, a bigger audience. It’s run by people who insist on clutching an old, safe, familiar idea about how things should be in the world and then aggressively and intrusively reproduce that idea over and over again until we all blindly accept our place in life and affirm this with our wallets. Fast cars are for men. Fairy liquid is for women.
But I work in advertising: I’m a copywriter for a cancer charity. Sure, I’m advertising great stuff – Think about the needs of others over your own pathetic pain threshold! Spit into a tube and you could cure cancer! If you donate your stem cells you’re the best person, like, EVER!”1! – but I’m in advertising nonetheless. I leap a mile from the association ‘copywriter’ brings with it thanks to Mad Men, because I’m a socialist. I abhor private wealth bound up by a few of the super-rich at the top and anchored off a boat in Morocco, private business that’s exclusively for profit and bereft of social benefit or goodness. The thought of turning my hand to write for Barclays, let’s imagine, makes me cringe. Why would I pour my energy and passion into copy that, if successful, would convince even more people to give their hard-earned money to Barclays, an organisation so deplorable I can only imagine it’s run by pantomime villains who snatch bags of loot and laugh derisively as they speed off in their yachts driven by moustachioed British butlers? And since I’m neither willing nor capable of shutting up about the deep wounds of social inequality that private finance induces, working there would be pretty #awks anyway.
But as I listened to what the bright young things around me on the course were saying, I realised that there were clearly people in advertising that thought a bit like me. In fact, they didn’t reflect what I perceived to be the “advertiser” trope at all; they were just witty and articulate people who started writing stories when they were six and want to write more. One woman worked for a Pharmaceutical company and when we were tasked with writing 200 words on something that concerned us, she chose the unfair distribution of wealth within America’s healthcare system. Another spoke of how she worried that social media was brimming with cats, gifs and Ed Balls, allowing stories like the kidnap of schoolgirls in Nigeria to be relegated as unsexy and irrelevant. Right on, sisters. If these are the sorts of thoughts that fresh faces in advertising harbour, maybe we’re not all quite as effed as I’d thought. If those same people, benefiting from the hard-won and ever-increasing opportunities of women’s liberation, get themselves into positions of power perhaps the sound of our media’s rhetoric will shift. I don’t doubt that the pressure to stick to the status quo will be oppressive, but small steps by the right people are a lot better than strides in the opposite direction. A gay couple here, a boy with a doll there – I’m not fussy. I should embrace the diversity of those going into the field, not simply mourn potential talent lost from the public sector. If a smart-talking socialist got themselves to the top of Barclays, they’d have to compromise during their ascent, sure, but perhaps our nation’s economic landscape would make for a prettier view from the top.
So while private sector work may not be on my horizons any time soon, it’s reassuring to know it’s not an industry entirely filled with mindless arrogant armpits. Hurrah! This celebration may seem premature but since I’m almost constantly filled with despair, it’s nice to get the optimistic moments on paper so I’m less likely to forget them.