By Augustine Cerf
Musings On ‘In Therapy’
I picked up ‘In Therapy’ more or less at random from an enticing Daunt Books display. It turned out to be the playscript of a Radio 4 series in which Susie Orbach, a psychotherapist, reenacts therapy sessions with improvising actors. The sessions are interrupted intermittently by the voice of Susie herself, explaining the thinking behind her handling of the intensities that make up each conversation, of which there are five. It is full of insights into what makes people tick, but I will focus here on what we might be able to learn by mapping the terms of psychotherapy onto advertising.
As I write, my thoughts are as of yet unprocessed, dotted about in sprawling marginalia, so I ask that you be patient with me. Reading ‘In Therapy’ threw up questions rather than answers, so I will pose them here.
The therapist’s job in a couple’s session is to influence the tempo of the dialogue in order to take it into a space in which communication can happen. Essentially, the therapist works to make the couple hear each other, rather than fall into patterns in which they inwardly retreat and avoid addressing their issues. Susan must pick her battles. She chooses when to let arguments run their course and when to intervene. Like the folks of adland, she picks one insight, one direction in each session. Take note, kids. She understands the manifold energies and motivations underpinning the discussions, but she chooses to work with the single insight that will be most productive. Adverts, similarly, choose to say one thing in order to open up space in which communication can happen (although, often, it’s one-way). Susie works to “reshape those places which [couples] once valued in each other but which aren’t working now”. I wondered whether this might be a useful way of expressing what advertising can do for brand and audience who have fallen out of love. Could the vocabularies offered by psychotherapy provide routes into thinking about the problems that preoccupy us in our work?
In one of the sessions, a woman who has just left her partner after the failures to conceive through IVF is going through an emotionally strenuous period. She struggles to give coherent iteration to her anguish. The therapist at this point, and it is the only point in the book where she really does this (I found it rather poignant), offers the patient the words she needs to grant her feelings appropriate gravitas. “You are heartbroken, and bewildered, and lost, and it is going to hurt like hell and be incredibly confusing.” The clarity of these words clears the path for the patient to enter a different pace of thought, an ulterior avenue of thinking in which she can readdress her problem from a new angle. The therapist is constantly working to find novel ways into the problem that open it up to new possibilities. When working on briefs, we do this in our own thinking all the time: say it straight, then say it great. We go back to the drawing board to rephrase and to recast the idea, finding new ways to tackle the problem creatively.
Getting locked into vocabularies binds us to dogma and does away with the fluidity on which creativity so relies. Reading ‘On Therapy’, I asked myself whether advertising could provide new vocabularies for people that create new inroads into experience. Might it be possible for ads to give our audiences the needed words to express states of being they otherwise can’t verbalize or access. Can we create communications that ask the right questions, that draw people out of adapted selves into their true selves, that translate emotional states to create greater self-reflexivity? Is it wildly idealistic, even delusional, to think that advertising harbors the potential to achieve any of these things?
One of Susie’s patients has spent her life taking the ‘right’ path; she is a privately educated Cambridge graduate, doing well in a commercial law job, thinking of marrying her boyfriend of three years from a similar background. Yet, being bound to an inherited idea of ‘success’ pushed onto her by her mother, she has become a false and adapted self, following the lead of others rather than discovering her own. The ambition handed on to her has failed to give voice to her fears, struggles and psychological complexities, resulting in anxiety and internal alienation. Susie relates this to consumerism and branding – in an age where everything is becoming simplified, with a focus on individualism, on making it big, on just doing it, life becomes a performance acted out on the surface. You are sold a ‘brand’ of you that is unfaithful to who you are, involving subscribing to socially-sanctified rituals that only further alienate (going to the gym, socializing lubricated by alcohol, clean eating etc…) I wondered if advertising is contributing to a variety of branding that stamps out the complexities that come with being a human or whether it might be possible for branding to go beyond the surface-deep idea that Susie Orbach has of them and their impact on the human psyche. Brands like Dove don’t just sell soap. They strive to craft a brand identity that embraces the multifarious nature of human life, without creating stagnant dogmas out of which adapted selves are born. In fact, Susie was co-originator of the Dove Campaign For Real Beauty. So perhaps her suggestion that consumerism entails a ‘making it, doing it, being it, selling it’ attitude that is nefarious to women is now slightly unfair. Brands are starting to embrace diversity and imperfection and, in doing so, becoming truer to what makes up a human being. As young creatives, the move into this grittier territory is what drives and inspires us.
How can we make ads that are brilliantly simple yet which celebrate the complexity of life in ways that allow people to access truer versions of themselves?