These Unprecedented Times

Posted on May 3, 2020

A couple of weeks ago, I saw this video making the rounds on the social medias. It’s a brilliant supercut, funny all the way through, and at the time of this writing it has over 1 million views. (The rest of the videos on the channel all have a couple thousand views. They’re mostly commercial compilations too. Art is just as much about timing as it is craft.)

If you’ve seen it posted on a friends wall and read the attached comments, a few common perspectives emerge. Lack of originality is normally at the top of the list. Sometimes posters shrug and say “well, these actually are unprecedented times and there’s not much else to say.” Others use it as evidence that companies will say anything to make a quick buck, and bristle when the attempt is so obvious. Then there’s the dismissive refrain of “I could do better than that” normally reserved for postmodern art. Calls for more creativity, as if it were a dial we could just turn up (Picture a director giving the note “Act! Act more!”) https://youtu.be/8L76Ne4AYx8

To me a few things stood out:

  • We don’t know how to grieve
  • The power and prevalence of myth
  • The speed limit of creativity
  • Shared vs In-group language
  • The importance of being seen doing good vs actually doing good
  • Commerce as comfort

And ultimately, the limits of brand communication.

We don’t know how to grieve

We don’t really know how to collectively grieve—it’s no wonder in a place that can’t even have a reckoning with its own past of genocide and slavery.

When a friend experiences a tragedy, we all know the wash of awkwardness when we don’t know what to say. We pull out the standard platitudes, we sit in the middle of the opposing feelings of wanting to stay out of duty, and the urge to escape an uncomfortable situation. We can’t collectively acknowledge how bad things are without breaking the illusion of plenty and safety.

The marginalized and the poor certainly know how bad things are.

But Commerce has the solution for everything. Can’t find the words to say to a friend that lost a parent? There’s a tasteful sympathy card you can buy when you’re picking up some baking soda and toilet bowl cleaner. When someone dies there in an entire industry that will carry your loved one away, dress him up in his favorite clothes and give him a makeover. For an extra fee they’ll even make a you a slideshow of photos set to somber music.

What we really need is actual relief. Think back to when you’ve experienced tragedy, the people that brought you food because it’s all you can do to just get out of bed, let alone make yourself a meal. The people who would come to just be with you and sit with you in your loss, without trying to fix the unfixable. The sense of togetherness you have with people that have experienced the same loss, each of you having a chance to express what the loss means to you, and having someone hold you or squeeze your hand with a look of shared understanding. You can show your love and support any number of ways, but I guarantee you it’s not bringing you food while you’re grieving, only to send you a bill 6 months later for a tuna casserole.

Grief requires acknowledging the loss, and we’re still in the middle of pretending that this thing is a temporary dip, a bad day, a hurricane that knocks down a couple of trees in our back yard, fueled by media narratives that have a vested interest in making sure reality doesn’t drown out their advertisers.

The power and prevalence of myth 

I’m not speaking (nor do I ever speak) of myth as tales of old that are exchanged over a campfire or repackaged for Disney films. Myth in the sense that Roland Barthes spoke of. He was a French essayist who defined myth as a ‘second order signifier.’

The setup: the word ‘car’ refers to an actual car, that’s the first order of signification. Words refer to things. Actual Ball vs The Word Ball. It sounds obvious, but it’s a fun exercise in your day to day life to examine that relationship. It makes the world a lot more malleable.

When you look at a laptop computer, you can trace what we call it back to its possible use, but even the word ‘lap’ has no real relation to the tops of your legs when you sit down. They’re things that we group in the same box—the thing itself and what we happen to call it—but there’s no natural law that says they must be grouped there. It’s not physics. 

Myth is the second order signifier. It takes images (sounds, music, etc) and uses them as placeholders for larger concepts. An N95 mask means a lot more than it did in January, and when you see one, you have a whole rush of feelings, or at least an understood set of deeper concepts. A picture can be worth a thousand words of description, but when manipulated correctly by a skilled crasftsman, it’s also worth pages and pages of well written copy. A photo of a woman in a fatigues instantly and effortlessly brings to mind service, duty, the humanity of the armed services, and for those of us that can remember that far back, the controversy of Women in the Military.

Each of us has their specific interpretation of them, and even when a myth is not fully effective, you understand the intent. You know what somber piano music, slow cinematography, shots of employees looking directly to camera are supposed to mean. “We’re taking this seriously” 

One of the limitations of myth, though, is that there needs to be some kind of pre-requisite. So when people say “unprecedented times” it’s true. There’s no deep well of images to draw on, and for an industry whose stock in trade is myth, this time there’s slim pickings. We don’t have the vocabulary required of these times, and certainly not for the full scope of the human condition.

To take it further, the purpose of the well worn images – images of old people holding hands, children playing with dogs, the slow motion drone shot of the lone motorcycle twisting its way through the mountains, woman laughing at salads – is to stoke aspiration. The life that you want is just a car loan or prescription, or diet away. But now there is no amount of kind words or clever ideas that will enable you to escape something so destructive and so unknown. Creativity in the service of commerce (and therefore limited in its function) is even more neutered in ‘these uncertain times.’

The speed limit of creativity

Deep creativity takes time. The nature of emergency messaging normally doesn’t lean towards the sentimental. It’s informational. But informational advertising is long gone. It’s all aspirational now. Once our needs have been met, a new wave of messaging has to come around to generate new need. A new set of tools must be developed to manufacture that need.

Unfortunately for advertisers, sentimentality is one of the only tools they lean on when it’s not about domination or machismo, irony and absurdity, playful insult, fulfilling your potential, or resolving your inadequacy. These commercials reveal the relentless nature of the economic machine (that we all built, or at least didn’t do enough to stop) and the absolute need of these companies to keep revenue coming in at a steady rate. In this instance they are playing on fear in the sneakiest of ways. When someone says ‘there’s no need to be afraid’ it makes you question what there is to be afraid of. 

Ad campaigns are crafted over the course of weeks and months. Marketing that you see during the holiday buying season is crafted in the summer. While the administrations’ bungling of the pandemic response was inevitable, the nature of the disease was not. COVID-19 caught world class advertising firms off guard just as much as the rest of us. Do you really think that what they came up with wasn’t their best effort? That armchair generals and Monday morning quarterbacks could have outperformed the creative departments at international ad firms? Or could it be that we’re not as creative as we all think we are. And that creativity is less a special skill and a gift from the gods, and more a practice that you hone and something any human is capable of?

The hype machine has been so finely tuned that it just didn’t have room for such an unexpected variable.

Shared vs In-group language

Slang is stylish, slang is a badge that one wears to signify an in-group. Slang is a pretty quick way to determine who is part of the club. That’s why it’s such low hanging comedic fruit to misuse slang to refer to an out-group. “On fleek? Is that what the kids are saying nowadays? This coffee is on fleek.”
“Mom. Just…stop.”

Corporate executives, skate culture, the performing arts, sports, tabletop gamers, comic enthusiasts, gay culture, music scenes, geographic regions, socio-economic groups, everyone has language that they use that is not only shorthand, but shows that the speaker is part of the group. Language is just as much a uniform as a style of clothing. Society is a mosaic and thanks to the internet the tiles can be as small as your system can bear, so we all have to navigate life with multiple roles and lenses. I’ve heard it referred to as code switching as if it were some acrobatic trick that not everyone has access to, as it it weren’t a natural part of human nature. 

Movies and shows now give us our common language (not just words. Camera movement, line delivery, music, they’re all grammar, just not verbal in the literal sense). The purpose of which is to strengthen a simple narrative, to clue the audience in to how they should be feeling.

When you run a business that requires massive profits to stay afloat, and something like this pandemic hits us all, the only effective language is the one that approaches cliche. The only reason why we recognize it as actual cliche is when it’s used in service of commerce, or used so much that it becomes obvious. Storytellers are magicians, and when you know how a trick is done, it’s easy to spot everywhere. 

The importance of being seen doing good.

Individually, it is a greater sin to be thought of as racist than actually being racist. Being thought of as part of the problem (any problem) often stings a lot more than thinking about the problem itself. And of course there is a corporate version of this as well.

Some of us will remember the crying Indian PSA, showing someone littering, then the camera panning to an Italian actor dressed as a Native American with a tear in his eye. This PSA feels silly in a way that also comes across as sincere. Please keep America Beautiful. What’s not often discussed is that this commercial is a result of a responsibility shifting campaign by large industry. At the time there was a conversation about product packaging, how wasteful it was, how it sullied the natural environment. The Cuyahoga was always on fire. There was public pressure for companies to use more responsible (but more expensive) packaging. As a response, they put it on us to properly dispose of their poisonous products, and framed it as a community effort. Just pitch in and you too can do your part to keep America Beautiful. As you can imagine, public perception changed and the industry remained under-regulated. 

The corporate machine has gotten very good at this. Toms will donate a pair of shoes to a developing nation for every pair you buy (thus taking opportunity away from local businesses to sell shoes to their own community.) Your local grocery store will ask you to round up your purchase price to the nearest dollar for some cause or another (allowing them to bundle your donations, and get a tax write off at no actual cost to them.) Millionaire celebrities will put on a telethon to raise money (not theirs) for various causes. Companies participate in pride parades, etc. 

It is the principle of being seen doing good taken to it’s logical corporate conclusion. So when uncertainty is turned up to 11, there is already a communication framework to rely upon. Volkswagen (you know the company that rigged their engines to reduce pollution only when hooked up to a measuring device?) is a member of your community. They are there for you and there to remind you that ‘we’re all in this together.’ 

We may all be ‘in this together’ but there are varying degrees of ‘in.’

Commerce as Comfort

And ultimately one of main purposes of commerce is comfort. In the modern age, Identity and Consumption are close siblings. Apple, Star Wars, Disney Princesses, sports paraphernalia, the comic scene, car brands, gun ownership, all of these bolster identity, and when we rely on the external to define who we are, the survival of these companies is linked to the survival of our identity. And our identity centers are very strong. Just look at the study where people strengthen their existing opinions when presented with evidence that threaten their identity. https://www.nature.com/articles/srep39589

We have tied our existence to the wheel of commerce, and when that wheel slows who wouldn’t want to be comforted by our good friends at Toyota?

These are unprecedented times (at least in the modern age, and especially for corporations), but it’s also an opportunity to retool the mechanics of how we self identify. It is painfully obvious that brands aren’t people, and they more they try to act the way real people do—with all their nuance and depth, flaws and beauty, everything that makes you feel alive—the more false it feels. The reason why the somber music works when we watch a movie is not the music, but the performances and the artistic merit of the whole piece.

The machine of commerce has hijacked the ways in which we define who we are. We can waste this moment by catching up on our shows and games, but while we have all this time, just spare a thought for why you think you are who you are.

And if some factory somewhere, run by people you will never meet (or truly know. A signing table at Comic-Con doesn’t count) stops producing the raw material you use for your identity, look to our rich cultural, philosophical and scientific heritage, actual community, family (biological or acquired), craft, or just person to person kindness. It’ll certainly last a lot longer than those Jordans.

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I highly recommend reading The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property by Lewis Hyde