People power: STFU and do the right thing

Farrah Bostic isn’t buying any sob stories about advertising being a victim. She says it helped mess up this world we live in and needs to help fix it.

What makes me angry? You do. Because you are not helpless, but you act like you are. You are not mere salesmen with typewriters.

You are much, much more than that. You are part of that great culture making machine, a handmaiden and a muse, to film, music, fashion, the performing arts and the fine arts. You are a close reader of trends, a devourer of data, a finger on the pulse of this moment in the culture in which you operate.

You are not helpless. Yet you plead helplessness at every turn. You respond to charges of sexist tropes in your work with the plaintive mewling of, ‘Well, it’s just that sex sells, innit?’ You’re even worse when it comes to sexist tropes in your hiring practices.

You leave representations of people of color – whose money is the same color as everybody else – to the ‘multicultural agencies’, which also saves you hiring people of color in your creative teams.

You allow your clients to believe that women don’t like technology or cars, that African Americans don’t have money to spend, that Latinos aren’t full citizens. You sit there in that client briefing, with a straight face, and accept faulty premises about who does what out there in the real world. And you know better! You’ve got the data, right there in front of you. You could rock their world and transform their businesses if you would do that one thing we know for sure you’re hired to do: persuade!

For fuck’s sake, if your clients knew so god-damned much about what was happening out there in the real world, about how culture really is and how to shape it, they wouldn’t need you, would they?

You are not helpless! Yet you point fingers. There’s always someone else who’s worse: the internet, Facebook, Google, bots, hackers, trolls. Why don’t you fight back? Have you forgotten the power you wield? You have the brains to know when you’re being manipulated and the creativity to stop it (and yes, still, the budgets to make a difference), but you turn the other cheek and look! Now, Google is slapping you in the face, Facebook has more power than you, your clients make end runs around your media teams, martech is coming to automate your jobs, and you find yourselves in the business model death spiral of having to pay more for talent while being squeezed ever tighter by procurement hawks.

Yes, I most definitely intend to ‘blame the victim’, because you’re no victim. You helped build this moment – you helped invent media fragmentation and micro-targeting and fake news. You bastardized the meaning of the idea that ‘information wants to be free’; you helped create a world where the user is not the customer, she’s the product; you break browsers and ruin broadcasts and interrupt people who are already struggling to pay attention.

As the heat began to rise, you put blinders on and earplugs in, and you muzzled yourselves and you wore all your money and identification on the outside of your clothes and you stood in the middle of Red Square while your house was unlocked and your kids were by themselves and the oven was left on. You did all that so you wouldn’t have to be responsible for the toxic sludge and simple dreck you produce. Because you think you’re helpless. Or maybe you just don’t care.

But you are still part of that great culture-making machine. You could decide that the definition of ‘what pays’ includes ‘what is good’ and ‘what is right’. You can do that. You’ve done it before. You’ve shown us what it is to be ‘us’ in all our messy, diverse, funny, energetic, determined, powerful, creative, competitive, cooperative, compassionate glory.

You’ve inspired people to go from couch to 10k, to try something new, to see beauty all around them, to persevere, to express themselves, to dance, to laugh, to feel compassion for others, to give back.

You even, from time to time, put your own money on the table: you give your time and talent to work that helps to end hunger, to improve people’s health and wellbeing, to promote safety, to empower people to make better choices, to prepare us for inevitable disasters caused by climate change, and so much more.

You want the brands you work for to be their best selves, for the consumers you reach to lead their best lives. You know it’s good for the brand, the work, the business. But it’s also right.

You can do this. Because you are not helpless.

Farrah Bostic is the founder and head of strategy at The Difference Engine.

This piece was first published in The Drum's Anger issue in November 2017.

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