‘The Unacknowledged Legislators Of The World’
By Augustine Cerf
It’s that time of year. I’ve taken a wife and settled down on a big plot of land with her dowry. We’re trying to figure out what kind of work we want to make. We kept thinking we might want to come up with smaller, wittier stuff – something sarky and British, something that makes us laugh. But I’m starting to realize that might not be quite right. I’ve got to go back to the core and remember why I want to work in advertising. I usually think best by writing, so I’m going to just write myself into this one – bear with me.
Here’s a thought that drives most of my thinking: language is a trap. We’re hostage to vocabularies that limit our ability to see. Definitions harden into Assumption, wearing a fact-like expression on his smarmy face.
See, polarities within language make it impossible for us not to divide up our world into black and white, partitioning off the likes of good and evil, truth and untruth. These oppositions trap us into an identitarian logic that only allows us to be one of two things. Identity politics level life into morality and herd-mentality, by linguistically binding us to an antinomy between belonging and not belonging. And the more these categories become stale, the staler we become. Language needs to be continually disrupted in order to allow for spontaneous being-in-process, to rejig the potentially dangerous or mistaken assumptions we gobble up as truth.
Vocabularies that cement us into fixed ways of being must be uprooted. Through interruption, we can expose the limits our current ways of thinking, our established political or democratic ideals, before they begin to rot our bodies from the inside out. Before they become dogma and channel our singular intensities into rigid belief systems.
I’m going off on one and I suspect I’m being deliriously unclear and intense in a semi-misplaced way, but I really believe this to be of paramount significance: the vocabularies we inherit when we become acculturated into language start to deaden us when they fossilize into a will-to-truth. When we start to blindly trust them. We’re in real trouble when our symbols begin to fade and to fail us – especially if we’re still quasi-irrevocably espoused to them.
Shelley said of poets that they’re the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’. Because they keep language fluid. They shift the metaphors that we use to organise life. They smash old ones or push them into new spaces; they make up new words, new images and reinvent the human every time they reinvent our language. What if advertising could do something similar? I’m not for a minute claiming we can be poets (what sacrilege that would be) but I am saying that advertising can be more ambitious in the ways it seeks to culturally and humanly impact people. Let’s be inspired by the potency of poetry.
We need to make up new languages to talk about the stuff that matters. We need to keep renewing and reinvigorating our discourses. And what if you could do that through mass media? You have all this advertising space. What if you could use it to shift the way people think? To invent new ways of speaking, new vocabularies that modify behavior? Not just to make people buy more stuff they don’t really need, but to allow us to uproot putrescent assumptions, to vitalize language, keeping it in flux, so that we don’t all become dead inside, espoused to a finite, dried up totalising worldview that falls short of life itself.
During D&AD, Rollo and I were working on Desperados. We got into a really interesting space around the problem of femmephobia in gay culture – the shaming of men for being ‘feminine’ or ‘camp’, the persistent homophobia and celebration of a precariously outdated model of masculinity. No one’s talking about this problem; the conversation isn’t being had. The word femmephobia has been used in a few online articles, but it really has no valence. It’s not being used. It hasn’t been defined properly: what we swiftly realized is that there wasn’t really the language to talk about it. We needed to make it up (we’re still trying to do that because it’s easier said than done). But advertising can use its power and reach to do that.
I was at the pub with an old school friend recently and he posed a really interesting question. Pointing out that all the boys at our school way back when had been really sexist, he asked me whether I thought that it was just a symptom of being that age, whether the kids these days are still behaving and thinking like that, or whether I thought that the language to talk about sexism simply hadn’t been invented yet. Maybe the kids in the playground these days are different because they have the right words. We didn’t have the word ‘slut shaming’ and therefore we just couldn’t identify it. We hadn’t had the conversations or developed the vocabularies and therefore we simply couldn’t see it or understand it. ‘Victim-blaming’ and ‘white feminism’ weren’t words that existed for us. And so the concepts didn’t exist either. But that’s why this is really interesting. Advertising, if it’s done right, could help the gay community to uncover vocabularies to start their own wave of Femme-inism, the words to identify the harm that’s becoming so deeply engrained and naturalized into common parlance. Words colour the way we experience and allow us to access emotions – and ideas – that we otherwise could not. Just read Orwell’s ‘1984’ – without the word for freedom, you can’t fathom the concept of freedom. Take away my language and you take away my liberty. And, with it, my very ability to question my captivity.
What I’m trying, in a rather long-winded way, to say is simply this – that I want to make ads that uproot the established through language. Ads that invent new vocabularies for new ways of challenging and shifting the status quo. Lauren and I are currently seeking a language that will make people rethink their relationship to money. Our question is this: what if a bank like Monzo could allow you to take control over your spending in a different sense? What if it could change your mentality every single time you part with money, to make you think of it as a vote for or against something? And to make you realize that you are putting your money behind a certain set of values. Monzo could become the first green bank. The first future-facing bank to realize –and to champion the fact – that in a fast-paced future we’ll have to slow down the rate at which we consume. As a brand, it could strive to change our very relationship to money by shifting the terms, references and images we use, by smashing the current language we use to talk about money and spending. To smash the current systems through which we think and experience.And if advertising can do that, but, more pertinently, if it actually does that, it’s worth the sleepless nights.
Let’s use mass communication to poke and poke at the comatose acceptance of the established.