Times are a changin’ – but in what direction?

I am a son of the advertising business.  The year I was born, my father was a senior writer  working for Guy Day in Los Angeles prior to the 1968 merger with Jay Chiat that would produce the industry powerhouse known as Chiat/Day and is now known as TBWAChiat/Day. In the late 1960s, my father’s contemporaries in general, and Chiat/Day in particular, represented a revolutionary generation of advertising professionals who changed the game demonstrably from the world we see fictionalized in the hit show Mad Men. Up to about the mid-1960s, a job in the ad business was often a favor granted to young, white, protestant men by old, white, protestant men, who generally had few talents beyond the art of the three-martini lunch. By the 1970s, the ad business had diversified culturally and geographically beyond the aeries and saloons of New York and Chicago, and with this came a renaissance in which writers, art directors, and filmmakers all took creative risks that were unthinkable just a decade before.

d046472bf2477f706780aaa1a5d8246bSo, what are we to make of this campaign?  Does it represent the visionary legacy of the agency just keeping in step with our digital times? Or is it a reversion to the days of old-boy networks selling Lucky Strikes in the schoolyard? One thing it is not — is  terribly creative.

For the next couple of weeks, Times Square will include among its multi-million-dollar outdoor placements, a stark display headlined by the declaration Piracy is Progress.  This provocative lead is justified by the pretense that it is merely a benign attention-getter inviting “artists” to a website where they can vote Yay or Nay on the question of whether piracy as a good or bad thing.  The campaign itself is claimed to be the concept of the band Ghost Beach as a means to “stimulate discussion” on the issue, and the agency of record is TBWA Chiat/Day. But let’s guess that there’s no way Ghost Beach is paying for the campaign alone, if at all, especially the quarter ton of raw bullion it costs to buy space in Times Square.  So, who is paying for the campaign to declare that piracy is progress on the world’s largest ad stage? Chris Castle is dead right to call the headline Orwellian, and I have to say that the brain warp induced by an encounter with this particular sampling of Newspeak jostles a not-too-distant memory of an award-winning TV commercial for Apple Computer based on 1984 and produced by…guess which agency? Well, one must roll with the times, I suppose, and maybe Big Brother is cool now.

The fraud in this campaign barely warrants discussion, as I think it would be obvious that the online poll question about piracy is exclusively a diversion being used to sell one particular answer (and maybe a few Ghost Beach albums). I’ll give the guys at TWBAChiat/Day this much:  it is the quintessential ad for our times — creatively facile, a careless abuse of a complex issue, and shrouded in the guise of phony populism. It is exemplary of the worst in communications in the digital age in that it pretends to invite participation, pretends to ask what you think while telling you exactly what you should think. And let’s not spend too much time considering how absurd it is to claim that an online poll can invite one particular group to participate and then state with any accuracy that these are the people responding.  Here’s a random Tweet from one “artistforpiracy”:  Any artist that disagrees I would love to hear why you prefer record labels ruining your music instead.  In other words, more of the same hackneyed presumptions from people who don’t make art for a living and have no idea what they’re talking about.

When I was in my early teens, I remember asking my father if there were any clients he wouldn’t pursue — by this time he was running his own L.A. agency with an art-director partner he met at Chiat/Day — and his one-word answer was, “Cigarettes.”  Interestingly enough, in a 2004 Adweek Interview with TBWAChiat/Day’s current Chief Creative Officer, Mark Figliulo, was asked the same question, to which he replied, “The George W. Bush campaign.”  Fair enough, and I guess I can count Mr. Figliulo as a fellow progressive; but then I’m confused by the failure of social responsibility here. After all, Mark Figliulo has done a lot of really solid, creative work in his career, even directing some of his own TV spots or working with talents like Spike Jonze on commercials for Miller Lite.  It is, therefore, somewhat surprising to think that professionals like Figliulo and his creative team fail to consider the intricate relationship between their own careers and those of artists and rights holders, who might choose not to be exploited.  Just as one obvious example, Miller Lite has a pretty strong brand association with the NFL, and last I checked, those guys are rather serious about protecting their broadcasting rights from piracy.

Whoever paid for this campaign is probably a very attractive client, and maybe the short money says screw the artists. On the other hand, maybe the creative team at TBWAChiat/Day really do believe they’re on the leading edge of the next renaissance.  I don’t presume to know their minds, but I do have to say this campaign has all the integrity and cleverness of “More Doctors Smoke Camels Than Any Other Cigarette.”

See follow-up article here.

© 2013, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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