During a 2008 episode of Screenwipe, Charlie Brooker lamented assumptions that are often made about ‘weird’ programming (‘The Magic Roundabout’ is a particular focus) being tracked back to drug usage. Despite the typically Brookerian(?) irreverance of this segment, his comments effected something of a revelation for me. It had never struck me before just how needlessly and reductively demeaning the assertion that ‘(s)he must be on something’ is when it concerns left-field but sincere artistic project. This does not mean that intoxication has never been a muse of sorts – psychedelic musicians, for instance, from Os Mutantes to Jimi Hendrix to the Flaming Lips have acknowledged the role of drugs in their creative process. Unfortunately though, the conclusion that an artist has produced a work with the aid of drugs is too often jumped to without any knowledge that that was indeed the case. Surrealism seems the obvious example to point to: an ideologically complex phenomenom that made serious and influential claims about the merits of living irrationally, the entire output of the movement, with all its nuances and vacillations, is too easily chalked off by public opinion as ‘crazy,’ ‘random,’ or ‘druggy’.
Two spirit producers, Smirnoff and Bacardi, are currently running adverts in which a group of creative young adults organise adventurous gatherings that are explicitly communal and social. The scenarios – an ornate, furnished, fancy dressed party in the woods and the creation of a temporary urban island for the purposes of a raucous, transient party – are memorable, but there is a less flattering implication here. Bacardi conclude that the driving force behind this endeavour and creativity is ‘The Spirit of Bacardi,’ whereas Smirnoff asserts that to ‘Be There,’ you first need to purchase their spirit. Typical advertising conceits, one might assert, but I can’t help noticing a glaring inconsistency between the films themselves and the subjects they celebrate:that individuals can come up with these ideas, even in theory, is a great advertisement for human imagination, and presumably the advertising executives that dreamt up the scenes were not intoxicated when they were hatched; yet the link between intoxication and imagination is inescapable in their own adverts!
More insidious, perhaps, are the efforts of a recurring target of this blog: what adverts for mobile phones have specialised in over the last few years is commodifying experience, self-affirmation, and even basic human rights, by brazenly casting themselves as essential to the realisation of these elemental aspects of life. T Mobile, for instance, have for years been staging elaborate and highly planned mass flash mobs, passing them off as spontaneous gatherings, and then suggesting that such a gathering of people can only be accomplished if you have a T-Mobile phone. Not only are they attempting to sell the human quality of spontaneity, but they are suggesting that only they can provide it. Meanwhile, Vodafone are currently running an ad campaign which places their product at the centre of familial relationships: the advert in question shows a distraught woman calling her father for comfort, and portrays Vodafone is some sort of benevolent company that uniquely allows such communication to exist, as if, had the woman owned an Orange phone, she wouldn’t have been able to contact her dad in her hour of need. The logic of these campaigns are patently ludicrous, and the messages – dare I say it – downright lies, but by far the most objectionable advert came from the 3 network a year or so ago. This advert questions whether it’s even possible to communicate, to tell someone you love them, if you don’t have a 3 Network phone. Even worse, it sells itself as the gatekeeper of freedom of speech. That’s right, they were selling freedom of speech, something that not only should be available to everyone (whether they have a 3 Network phone or not), but should surely be free!
Maybe it’s naive to get angry about this. After all, if this is so obvious, surely we can just ignore the way these products are swathing themselves in the dress of freedom, spontaneity and society and choose to buy them or not to buy them on their relative merits as commodities. It comes with the territory of advertising that companies will exaggerate the need for the products they are trying to sell, but the problem here is that thay is not all they are trying to do. They are trying to create a belief that we are dependent on their products, to interact, to survive, to ‘live life to the full’. Happily, I trust that people, at least in those regions where human rights are not a genuine problem, will be able to remain skeptical of this dependency, and continue to communicate, be spontaneous and live a happy and carefree life, no thanks to mobile phones or alcohol, but thanks to themselves.
By David Jackson