To fill the thick silence between people who have only just met there is often the most dreaded question in small talk:
"So what do you do?"
If you work in advertising, this question is to be dreaded. You'll get:
1.The armchair creative geniuses who love to pound you with reasons why they don't make any decent any ads any more ("What was that gorilla all about?"), before unleashing their own gems that will re-write the creative lexicon.
2. The (wrongly) envious, bored jobsworth who refuses to believe you don't enjoy a swanky, overpaid lark for layabouts while coked up to the eyeballs.
3. It's this one I'd like to draw your attention to. The 'no logo' protagonist. You know, the one who believes advertising is an evil capitalist conspiracy, hoodwinking defenseless people into buying things they don't need, that brands are evil and represent everything that is wrong with capitalism. And cannot resist letting you know.
Now, before I go further, I totally agree that capitalism needs to take a long, hard, look at itself. If the mess we're in right now proves anything, it proves that.
But advertising and 'brands' isn't simply about making people want things they don't need. It's everywhere and it always was. Information to help people make informed decisions has always been important. We wear wedding rings to advertise our unavailability, we wear religious symbols like the cross to communicate our beliefs and let others identify with us, or modify their behaviour. Clothes code all sorts of messages for us, what group we belong to, availability, mood and even rebellion.
Now of course, the easy response to this is that straightforward information isn't the same as artful persuasion intended to make us do things and think things. I say there isn't anything more carefully calculated and well executed as religious propaganda. But then there's personal propaganda too. A push up bra greatly distorts the truth and could be construed as false advertising (yes I know women dress for themselves a lot, but sometimes they really don't).
And what's the difference between a well crafted headline and the witty market stall patter?
Amazingly, within the same breath, there will be depictions of the brand alchemist, a terrifying magician capable of incredible feats of manipulation, followed by assertions that it's mostly an annoying waste of time.
The thing is, it mostly is isn't it. The public doesn't care about advertising, they don't lay awake at night thinking about brands. Nor should they. Most brand communication is annoying, crass and just not very good and doesn't really work.
But some do of course, very well. But we're making far too much stuff, we're buying far too much stuff and there's too much choice, we need a guide through the clutter. Without all this choice, brands and their communications help us navigate on our own terms.
Now we could do away with the choice, but the economy would grind to halt. If there was just one choice for everything, the jobs would disappear very quickly.
Even if we could find a way to just make one of everything and still make sure everyone is fed watered and have all their needs taken care of, I don't believe that's enough. We need novelty, we like choice, we want ways of both belonging and expressing who we are.
Many science fiction films depict humans eating food concentrates -convenient, simple and reliable. But no would want that, food is so much more than fuel. It's tasty, congregation, fun, novelty, surprise, discovery, indulgence. We don't need it to be that way, we WANT it to be.
We don't need sex (how often in your life have you only had sex to reproduce?), telly, more than a few clothes, sport, holidays, reading.
We could just go back in caves and hunt, but that's not fun, it's also bloody hard. Where's the play? Where's the joy?
We need brands and advertising because we NEED the things we DON'T NEED. It's the same joy as finding the perfect black dress, playing your favourite song (we don't need music either) or arriving in a new country for the first time. We need novelty, we need to dream.
Like we need people who are more glamorous than we are, like monarchs and aristocrats in the old days or film stars now, we want a release from the realities, the banality of everyday life, some magic dust spread over the humdrum.
If it's not brands, it would be something else. It still is... religion, sport all pointless, but very necessary releases from the reality of life. Life can never be perfect, so we all need to dream. Brands are a part of that. This. Is. A. Good. Thing.
Final point. Belonging, self expression, play they are all basic human needs. We all need to both discover who we are, express it and belong to communities who share our beliefs and interests. That's prettymuch what brands do for us, they both help us find who we are and demonstrate it.
By the way, don't worry, I don't bore people with this when they ask me what I do, I just try and explain what a planner does. The conversation tends to move on very quickly...