Money, Art, Fear and Passion

What is it about money that tends to drain the lifeblood from art?

I think it’s the same thing that poisons so much of the human condition.

Fear.

Fear blunts creativity. It silences intuition. And it takes a great deal of courage to overcome.

Art done for money is fraught with compromise. There are patrons to please and shareholders to appease, not to mention the layers of people who want to put their two cents in, often in the mistaken belief that their job is to second guess “what the public will accept.”

It’s easy to find so-called faults with something, especially if it’s new or different. Whether the art is a painting, a play, a movie, a book, or a building, money brings out what Stephen Pressfield calls “the lizard brain.”

The Fear Monster.

And fear leads to making safe choices. Ideas that are already tried, tested – and done a million times.

But art done for art’s sake is different.

It isn’t created for committees. It’s bold and truthful and unapologetic. Love it or hate it, art done for art’s sake doesn’t give a damn. It’s content simply to be.

Making safe art is impossible, but a lot of people still try.

For years I’ve watched writers, art directors, illustrators, actors, musicians, photographers and directors pour their creativity into advertising. Too often – probably 95 percent of the time – that creative spirit is squelched.

It’s strangled at birth by an agency employee fearful of his client’s reaction.

(“I like it, but Steve hates ads with animals in them.”)

Or it’s euthanized in a boardroom by a client who’s afraid of one angry customer in Regina.

(“I love it, but we can’t make fun of the Swiss.”)

Or failing that, it’s gunned down at close range by focus group.

(“I’d buy it, but I don’t think other cereal eaters would.”)

Little by little, they chip away at what made the idea great. Until all that’s left is pablum.

And yet, there is a pattern. Again and again at award shows worldwide, the same ads keep winning Gold.

Ads that have an opinion. Ads that are funny or heartwrenching or shocking. Ads that demand your attention.

Just like art.

And in almost every case, the way these ads got made is the same.

“We didn’t have time to test it, so the client just approved the script and we ran with it.”

“There wasn’t any money in the budget, so we shot it the way it was presented, and everyone worked for free.”

“It was a tiny project nobody cared about, so there was no one around to second guess it.”

Ads like these don’t pay much, if anything. But people do them for something more valuable than money: they do them because it lets them share their art.

The results are often spectacular. So why is it so hard to sell great work?

Because art is scary.

Art will be noticed, and therefore judged.

No one judges wallpaper. It’s not interesting enough to have an opinion about.

Of course, it’s easy to like art after the fact. Once it’s produced and has gained recognition and acceptance, people are eager to jump on board. That’s why advertisers pay handsomely for hit songs.

When Royal Caribbean used “Lust For Life” to sell cruises, they had to edit the references to sex and drugs. It would’ve been easier and cheaper just to pay someone to write a G-rated jingle. But it wouldn’t have had the same energy and authenticity.

I used to think artists who licenced their work had “sold out,” but I’ve since changed my mind. Whether it’s a David Shrigley t-shirt or a Weezer song in a KFC commercial, it’s still art, because it wasn’t created by compromise.

Bands don’t write sit around thinking, “How can I make a Ford truck sound sexy?” Picasso didn’t ask a dozen people if they liked Weeping Woman before he painted it. He just painted it.

The same is true of everyone who’s ever put up a fringe play, filmed their own web series, put out their own music CDs, or dozens of other passion projects.

It’s one of the reason I love improv. Some of the funniest, coolest, most interesting people perform for zero dollars.

They do it because they have to. Because they love the connection with their team and the audience, and because they have something they want to share.

It takes guts to go onstage with nothing prepared. It takes guts to paint the first brushstroke, or type the first word on a blank sheet of paper.

Clients aren’t the only ones scared of being judged. So are artists. But they share their gift because they’re compelled to.

I’d love it if everyone got paid for their art, but I’m grateful for those who do it anyway.

For everyone who fights the fear, follows their passion, and makes art, bravo. And thank you.

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Feel Good Inc.

A lot of people who’ve probably never read a book on nutrition are shocked by the movie Food Inc. I think that’s a good thing.

It’s good to question long-held habits and beliefs, in my opinion. But there are companies out there who want to change your opinion about their product or service for specious reasons.

I’m talking about the new wave of do-good, feel-good advertising.

The Nescafé “Brew some good” campaign uses cheap footage shot on video. We’re told, via supers, that they donated money to children’s charities instead of making an expensive commercial.

It’s nice that they donated that money to charity. But there’s something about using charity to get me to like your product that doesn’t quite sit right with me.

Pepsi’s Refresh Project is another example. You can vote online for how you think they should spend their charitable dollars. One of the options is ways to “Refresh the Gulf.”

If chugging carbonated water with 10 teaspoons of sugar would help clean up the oil spill, I might do it. I’m just not sure I see the connection.

Kia’s new campaign uses time-lapse photography to show how they transformed a concrete jungle into a kids’ playground. It almost seems like a PSA, except for the Kia conspicuously parked in frame.

Hellmann’s, purveyors of fat in a jar, started a “Real Food Movement.” They’re encouraging people to eat locally, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, except that a lot of local produce is genetically modified – like the soybean oil that’s the main ingredient in Hellmann’s.

And of course, the Dove Self-Esteem Fund helps girls feel better about their body image. Events like the Dove Sleepover For Self-Esteem and Dove-branded “educational” materials for Moms drive home the idea that Dove is benevolent.

I’ve discussed my feelings about Dove and Unilever at length here, so I’ll only say it’s too bad their products are toxic.

Product formulations aside, there is some good being done by these companies. So why don’t I feel good?

When the Tropicana “Arctic Sun” commercial first aired, I thought for sure most people would see it as I did: a self-serving excuse to promote Tropicana.

I might have been able to stomach the spot, if not for the gratuitous shots of Tropicana crates being unloaded and Inuvik people drinking the product.

To me it represented the very worst of the ad biz: an event masquerading as a public service, but with no real benefit for the people involved and a very large one for the company funding it. I thought a line had finally been crossed.

I was wrong, of course.

The spot won gold at every award show, including Cannes, where it was lauded as though it were a Nobel Peace Prize contender.

You may think I’m overreacting. After all, it’s not like they were using doctors to sell cigarettes. But no matter how I tried, I just couldn’t see it as anything other than a PR stunt. One that used very poor, very isolated people to make Tropicana look like heroes.

What’s amazing is that the Whopper Virgins campaign got slammed for doing something similar months earlier.

In the end, maybe feel-good tactics do benefit some people. But the only reason advertisers change their marketing is always the same: profits.

Maria Soklis, Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Kia Canada had this to say about their new  campaign:

“Drive Change will be the conduit to heightening our brand awareness by reaching out to establish an emotional connection with consumers through both traditional and social media, thus differentiating Kia from other automotive manufacturers.”

The key word is “consumers.” Not people mind you, but potential customers.

If you think Pepsi or Kia or Dove is a beneficent company, chances are you’ll buy their brand next time you’re in the market.

And perhaps their competitors don’t deserve your money. But that doesn’t mean they do, either.

American Pie

There’s an ad right now that grabs my attention whenever I see it.

Maybe it’s the spareness of the layout: just a photo of a young woman lying on a beach, and a logo.

Or maybe it’s the fact that her back is arched so severely she looks like a scoliosis patient.

Either way, I didn’t know much about American Apparel until recently. I’d read that their clothing is “sweatshop-free,” which was almost enough to make me consider buying a t-shirt there one time years ago.

I’d also heard that they use their employees in ads, because they  like to promote a “real” image.

Then I happened to read about their employee appearance code. I decided to check out their web site, to see if I could find some more ads online.

This first example features another unfortunate victim of spinal problems.

It’s not enough that her is head fused to her shoulders; her torso sits cruelly sideways on top of her legs, and a single hand – more of a flipper, really – sticks forlornly out of her stomach.

I gave a silent prayer of thanks for Dov Charney, the Canadian founder of American Apparel. Despite the girl’s horrifying disfigurement, it’s heartening to know she found gainful employment with such a progressive employer.

This next ad is for something called a “romper.” Just the thing for wearing to swinger’s clubs, or meeting a client in your home office, like the young lady here.

And finally, in case I still wasn’t sure what they’re really selling, they spelled it out for me in neon.

Thanks, American Apparel, for giving young women everywhere something to aspire to.

And Now For Something Completely Indifferent

A friend of mine wrote a house ad years ago that was stunning in its simplicity.

It was a double-page spread, an unheard-of expense for an agency to purchase for themselves. The left-hand side was jammed with words in 48-point type; the kind of stuff you see in ads for car dealerships, cheap furniture, and electronics warehouses.

On the right was a sea of white space. In teeny, tiny type were the words, “In space, no one can hear you scream.”

That ad could run today.

I have a theory that 99% of ad agencies share a single brief. Someone – a planner perhaps, or the account director’s wife – comes up with a thought that makes them go “Aha!”

They jot it down, type it up, and hand it out at work the next day. Everyone looks at the brief and nods. Then they make copies and send them out to every other agency, and no one writes a new brief for the next five years.

Usually the brief can be summed up in one word.

Fifteen years ago, the word was “Badge.” Everything from cars to chocolate bars could be viewed as a badge by consumers. I know this because I worked on Ford and Hershey, and that’s what the briefs I got told me.

Ten years ago, the new buzz word was “Empowerment.”

At the time I worked on the direct trading arm of BMO. It made sense to me that people who invested for themselves would feel empowered by InvestorLine.

Then I was given an identical brief for Monster.ca.

I told myself it was just a coincidence that I worked on two empowering accounts. Curious, I plunked in “writer” to see what kind of jobs Monster offered. Let’s just say I didn’t leave the site feeling empowered.

It wasn’t until the empowerment brief for Canada Savings Bonds that I started to wonder if the Brief-O-Matic really existed.

At the time, CSBs (as the cool clients called ’em) were earning less than 1% interest, or half the cost of inflation. Somehow buying bonds that earned negative interest just didn’t seem very empowering.

I mentioned it to one of the other writers. He looked at me with jaundiced eyes. “You mean you got the empowerment brief, too?”

Thankfully, agencies finally realised that no one believed driving a Plymouth, eating a Twizzler, or giving all their money to the government was empowering anyone in the slightest.

Which brings me to today’s word. (Get ready to scream real loud, kids!)

Riding home, two transit ads caught my attention. Not because they were different, but because they were so similar.

In an unfortunate (some would say amusing) turn of events, ads for RBC bank and ads for Bell are running side by side in subway stations.

Both ads feature blue type on white. Both ads are urging people to “Switch.” And the RBC ad even ends with the URL “rbc.com/better.” Kind of like all those Bell ads that ended with “bell.ca/better.”

Not to be outdone, TD bank is running an in-subway campaign entitled “Reasons To Switch.”

Yes, I’m ranting. But I don’t know any creative teams who like to write boring ads. And when every brief has the same angle, the same so-called insights, the same “me-too” voice, then writers and art directors aren’t the only ones who switch off.

Dear God

God’s been advertising a lot lately.

It makes sense, really. No one reads the Bible anymore. Last time I checked, no one reads. Who has time? Everyone’s too busy writing their own blogs to read what anyone else has written.

So God got smart and wrote a twitter campaign for buses.

Today I saw three streetcars go by (which, in itself, is nothing short of miraculous) all with photos of clean-cut young people posing questions like, “Does God care if I’m gay? Text doesgodcare to 74747,” or “Is Jesus God?” or my favourite, “What’s for dinner, God?”

When I saw that one, I figured I’d make my own list of questions. Some of them are more pressing than others, but as long as He responds before 2012, it’s all good.

Here goes:

Plasma, LCD or LED? Visit answerme.ca/HDTV

Now that Ricky Martin’s out, when will Matthew Broderick finally man up? Text answerme/bueller to 74747

Which is correct: “tomayto” or “tomahto”? Visit answerme.ca/frigginlimeys

If we really are all connected, why don’t we share one umbilical cord? Visit answerme.ca/muthaload

Is Ann Coulter his real name? Visit answerme.ca/justwondering

Are tomatoes a vegetable-fruit, or a fruit-vegetable? Text answerme/ friggintomatoes

Xbox, Playstation and Wii? Visit answerme.ca/notatypo

Why did you let Phil Hartman die, and Andy Dick live? Text answerme/dammit

And finally,

Is “fucktard” a swear word, or a slur? Text answerme/fucktard

Focus Group

SFX: (coughing, white noise)

Moderator: OK everyone, before we get started there’s a few things you should know. First, this session is being recorded. Second, that’s a two-way mirror. Behind it are the people who hired me, and they’re very interested in what you have to say.

In a few minutes I’m going to show you some concepts, and I want your honest opinion.

If you think something’s crappy, tell me. If you think it’s the stupidest idea you ever heard, and your grandmother who’s on anti-hallucination drugs could do better, tell me.

That’s why you’re here: to help the folks behind the mirror make their ideas better.

Jennifer: What if I like something, but no one else does?

Moderator: That’s a great question Jennifer. Let’s say everyone hates a particular idea. They’re hurling abuse at it, giving it the finger, and twittering under the table about how lame and pathetic the concept is, and how only inbred retards would like it.

In that case, I want you to forget all your past social conditioning – even though you’re in a room full of angry, possibly violent strangers – and speak up. Tell me your opinion, even if you think that everyone in the room, including me, will lose respect for you. Is that clear?

Jennifer: Y-yes.

Moderator: OK, let’s look at the first concept. This one’s called “A.”

SFX: (board being placed on easel)

Moderator: Take a good look, then write down your first impressions.

SFX: (scribbling of pencils on paper)

Moderator: No censoring, remember. Just your honest opinion. Is everyone finished? Let’s start with you Amy. What did you write?

Amy: I wrote, “It’s weird.”

Moderator: Good. Anything else?

Amy: I don’t like the colours.

Moderator: What in particular bothers you?

Amy: There’s a lot of red. I hate red. It reminds me of Nazi Germany.

Moderator: Good point. Brad, what about you?

Brad: I wrote, “It’s kinda gay.”

Moderator: What exactly did you find gay about it?

Brad: Well for starters, it’s two guys holdin’ hands. One of ‘em’s naked and the other guy’s wearin’ a pink dress. Plus there’s a buncha naked kids.

Moderator: So basically you’re saying it reminds you of gay porn, with some child porn thrown in.

Brad: Look, I’m just sayin’ two guys shouldn’t touch each other in public.

Moderator: So they’re touching each other and that bothers you?

Brad: OK, maybe they’re not touching yet. But you don’t hafta be Alfred Einstein to figure out what’s gonna happen next.

Moderator: Got it. Clay, what about you?

Clay: It is an abomination against God.

Moderator: Could you explain that a little more?

Clay: Clearly this is an image of Jehovah creating Adam.

Moderator: And that’s wrong.

Clay: The Bible says, “Thou shalt not make any graven images.”

Moderator: That’s a really good point, Clay. Do you think the artist should be punished, like Salman Rushdie? Do you think there should a contract put out on the artist?

Clay: The Bible says, “An eye for an eye.”

Moderator: If I’m not mistaken it also says “Thou shalt not paint really stupid paintings.” Am I right? (laughs) Seriously, this is all terrific feedback. Jatinder?

Jatinder: I wrote, “It doesn’t speak to me.”

Moderator: I see. So it would be better if there were people who looked more like you?

Jatinder: That’s not what I meant.

Moderator: Would it help if there was an elephant in the picture?

Jatinder: I don’t know. Maybe.

Moderator: OK, I’ll just put ‘Needs elephants.’ Jennifer, thoughts?

Jennifer: Well…

Moderator: Say it, Jennifer. We’re all friends here. Just spill your guts. Don’t be worried about the artist’s “ego.” Tell us how you really feel.

Jennifer: I like it! I really, really like it. I-I think it’s a masterpiece.

Moderator: All right, I got it! Now, what if I told you this painting is for a chapel…and the artist wants to put it on the ceiling.

Amy: That’s ridonkulous.

Brad: I knew it. Only gays’d put something that fancy on their ceiling.

Clay: It is profane to look up at anything but the Lord God.

Moderator: This is all good stuff. Really helpful. Now let’s move on, and see what you think of this next one. Call this one “B.”

SFX: (board being placed on easel)

Moderator: Take your time, and write down any thoughts that come to mind.

SFX: (scribbling of pencils on paper)

Moderator: All right, let’s go around the table again. Amy, what’s your impression?

Amy: I love it.

Moderator: Is there anything in particular you love?

Amy: I love everything. The flowers, the cottage. It’s just really pretty.

Moderator: And pretty is important?

Amy: Of course, that’s what paintings are for. To draw attention to your sofa.

Moderator: Gotcha. Now, there are a few red flowers. Are they too Nazi-ish?

Amy: No. I’d say they’re just the right amount.

Moderator: Brad?

Brad: Much better. Definitely. I could see people payin’ money to see this.

Moderator: Is there anything you’d change?

Brad: Uhhh…maybe add a few more fireflies.

Moderator: Clay?

Clay: The Holy Spirit speaketh to me from this painting, and sayeth, “It is good.”

Moderator: Okey-dokey. Jatinder, there are no brown people in this painting, but there are no white people either. What do you think?

Jatinder: I’ve never seen so many colours in one painting before.

Moderator: There are no elephants in the picture.

Jatinder: I do not think elephants belong in a cottage.

Moderator: Agreed. Jennifer?

Jennifer: It looks like a paint-by-numbers. It’s soulless.

Moderator: Tsk. There’s one in every focus group. (claps) OK everyone, you’ve seen both concepts. By a show of hands, who prefers “A”? Now “B”? Thank you everyone. Your comments are invaluable in helping my client make the right decision.

SFX: (people filing out of room, door closing)

Moderator: Well your holiness, looks like the Kinkade painting’s a grand slam home run. Just don’t put it on the ceiling.

The ugly truth about Dove

I am a beauty product junkie.

As a little girl I’d sneak into my mother’s make-up drawer, try on lipstick and perfume, and pretend to be a “sophisticated lady.”

By my teens, I was trowelling on layers of make-up and spraying my dyed-black hair into spikes. I bought shampoo because it smelled good, and chose whichever skin cream felt smoothest.

It never occurred to me to consider the ingredients.

Once in a while I’d glance at some packaging and see a long list of scary-looking, quasi-numeric words. But whatever fears they might have aroused were quickly forgotten. It’s not like I was eating the stuff. Besides, they wouldn’t put anything in there that was bad for me, right?

The truth is, scientists have known for years that our bodies absorb chemicals from make-up, cleansers, creams and lotions – even shampoo and conditioner. This fact first reared its unappealing head when I worked on a project for Dove.

It was early 2006, and the Campaign For Real Beauty was just gaining momentum. I was thrilled to be involved. Unilever seemed like a company that really cared. About its products, and its customers.

Then I discovered nottoopretty.org, a database of thousands of beauty products with analysis of their ingredients. Curious, I typed in “Dove.”

Over a hundred products came up, all containing varying amounts of known carcinogens, hormone disrupters, and other toxic chemicals. I was horrified.

Surfing some more, I found this on Unilever’s Australian site:

“Most of the chemicals that Unilever needs to use are not considered hazardous (although, strictly, everything is hazardous – you can drown in water).”

It was the most cynical sidestepping of an issue I’d read since “educational” materials proudly comparing the nutritional value of an Oscar Mayer weiner to a 12 oz can of Coke.

The site continued:

“It can be difficult to predict the exact behaviour of certain chemicals in the environment – making it hard to assess the precise risks that they might pose to human health and the environment.”

Despite that difficulty, it’s a risk Unilever seems willing to take. But what about the millions of women who use their products? Don’t they deserve to know the risks?

I learned that the FDA doesn’t review, and isn’t allowed to regulate beauty products. The beauty industry is in charge of policing themselves.

It’s like letting the tobacco business regulate themselves – and we all know how that turned out. Almost 90 percent of cosmetics ingredients haven’t been evaluated for safety by any publicly accountable institution.

A short time after I worked on Dove, the viral films “Evolution” and “Onslaught” made headlines worldwide. Their message, that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, resonated with women everywhere.

I’m sure the people who created those ads believe, as I did, that Dove products are safe. My issue is not with them, but with the people who know that what’s in those pretty bottles is, to put not too fine a point on it, poison.

The “Onslaught” video ends with the line, “Talk to your daughter before the beauty industry does.” It suggests that somehow Dove isn’t part of that industry; that it’s other manufacturers who are at fault.

Yet Unilever has refused to sign a compact that would eliminate toxic ingredients from their products – a compact hundreds of other companies have already signed. You can read more about it, and check products you use daily, at http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com

A portion of the profits from Dove products goes to the Dove Self-Esteem Fund. It’s another reason for women to feel good about buying Dove. But how good would they feel if they knew they were ingesting a chemical cocktail with no independent testing? And now with the launch of Dove for Men, Dove is seeking to inculcate the other half of the population.

Dove’s message that we should love and respect our bodies is a powerful one. But it’s a message at odds with the products they create.

Companies respond when consumers vote with their dollars, and their voices. Unilever changed their palm oil practices after Greenpeace created this video:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=odI7pQFyjso

It’s up to us to tell corporate shareholders what is and isn’t acceptable in our products.

Because like the Dove ads suggest, beauty shouldn’t hurt.