I think the world would be a better place if there was no advertising. I happen to think that the advertising industry has become a powerful and negative force in our society. It has destroyed our news, for example, funding free until people are unwilling to pay, then flocking to Facebook and Google; making real journalism unaffordable and causing our current hellish descent into fake clickbait. It has eroded the ability of writers and musicians to make a living. It has permeated every public space: our buses, our hospitals, our parks, until there is barely anywhere we are not positioned as consumers. It stalks our every (online) move. It sells gender stereotypes and racial stereotypes and heteronormativity. It sells selfishness and greed and vanity. It sells eating disorders and bleached coral reefs, child labour and pointless plastic, obesity and disappointment. And advertising is clever. Because it takes youth culture and avant garde art and wild music and grassroots politics and literature and any real creativity that might threaten the current system and it tames them. It strips them of subversion then sells them back to us.
There’s been a lot of talk on social media about poets doing adverts. I only noticed really when I saw this poem by Luke Wright on Youtube criticising them. My immediate thought was that it’s a great poem, there are some lines that really made me laugh. (‘So what if Iggy sells insurance and Lydon sells us butter? / I preferred their early work, the greedy motherfuckers’) I also thought it was quite brave – he makes a living as a poet and has the profile to get approached for these things, so he is burning a few bridges here, drawing a line.
However, most people I saw online seemed to be annoyed with him. Like he touched some kind of nerve. Apparently adverts are good profile for poetry. And naturally poets need the money. Apparently, no one has a right to criticise. Fay Roberts defends those ‘feeling stung and belittled by the unsought judgement’. Sophie McKeand argues: ‘The world is becoming more and more judgmental and intolerant and it’s depressing to see that, at times, poets are leading the charge on this instead of focussing on things that really matter.’
Well I suppose it depends what you think matters.
I disagree with this assumption that ‘judging’ is inherently wrong, as though critical engagement is for meanies. Agreed, we all make compromises and we don’t know the poets’ financial situations. Lots of poets have day-jobs – they might run hedge-funds or work for Google and this is none of my business. But once you write a poem and perform publically then judgement is not ‘unsought’, even if you’re doing it for a large cheque. You’re putting it out there for people to judge, and not just your line-breaks either – your opinions, your motivations, your feelings. That’s what makes being a writer scary. It’s exposing.
I think the adverts under discussion contain some pretty poor poems. To be clear, I’m not condemning the poets generally, just these specific poems. George the Poet’s rhymes are used to suggest that individuality (which ‘doesn’t come off a production line’) can be purchased in the form of an expensive, environmentally unsound jeep off a production line, and urge the viewer to do various things which sound kinda cool but are totally empty (‘Defy your alibi’.) The Nationwide ads are strung together from soft-focus cliches (churning stomaches and melting hearts, knees-up and cuppas, dad dancing and hero’s welcomes) and reinforce, in the juxtaposition of poem and product, certain messages: that a building society lending money is doing you a ‘kindness’, or that house ownership is a necessary part of creating a family home.
So I don’t see these adverts and think ‘well at least they used real poets’. I don’t see anything better in them than any other jingle. And I think we’re allowed to question whether presenting these words to people as poetry actually does poetry any good.
In a statement Jim Thornton, VCCP deputy executive creative director of the Nationwide adverts, said: “Each of these poets brings a raw honesty to the words they have written, the subjects they’ve chosen and the way in which they are performed. It’s rare and refreshing to see such authenticity in a world of advertising artifice. Sometimes, advertising is at its most effective when the hand of the client and agency can be least detected.”
I find that last line faintly chilling. And do you see what he’s buying there? Honesty and authenticity. If that’s what he’s buying, then that’s what you’ve sold.