Unsound bites

Unsound bites

The launch marketing of The American foundered on a clash between two cinematic cultures, which is ironic given the subject of the film. The abuse of marketing in US and UK politics threatens social and cultural integrity itself.

When Anton Corbijn’s The American was released it was sold as an action vehicle for George Clooney, set in gorgeous Italian landscapes. I wasn’t excited at the prospect, so when I recently caught up with the film I was pleasantly surprised. Although the film has the semblance of a thriller plot (Clooney plays an assassin lying low after some kind of screw up in Sweden), it was barely an action movie at all, but rather a meditation on the dehumanising effects of living without commitment or the emotional burden of ethics.

Clooney, and indeed all the other actors are very good. Once you’ve worked out where it’s going the story is predictable, but then the story’s not really the point. The film is engaging, in a laid back way. It doesn’t have anything complicated to say, but quite a lot to show.

It’s easy to see the film itself as a working through of feelings about the influence of Hollywood on European cinema. There’s even a pointed scene where Sergio Leonie’s Once Upon a Time in the West is showing on a TV in a bar. Clooney’s presence sets up expectations of the kind of film this might be, and then goes off in a different direction. It’s an acknowledgement of American craft and skill, while insisting that there’s a bigger universe out there.

The American had a limited budget and has made a decent profit, but it didn’t have its producers’ desired impact on release. Perhaps the trailers were part of the problem, editing together some of the film’s few action sequences, so the reality was bound to disappoint people who’d gone along expecting something like Taken.

Marketing is an important part of the Hollywood machine. It can account for 60 per cent of a blockbuster’s budget, which seems ironic when you’d have thought the point of a blockbuster concept is that it should more or less sell itself. The reality is more complicated, particularly in a world where there are so many competing claims on our attention (worryingly for Hollywood, US cinema attendance by those under 24 has fallen sharply in recent years).

But you have to wonder at the wisdom of trying to sell a film (or anything) as something that it’s not. Some kind of backlash will always be likely, and social media will amplify that backlash.

It also goes against what I’d always understood as a fundamental principle of marketing, which is to match the nature of a proposition to its most likely receptive audience, and to make sure they get to hear your story. This means the proposition has to be grounded in truth.

To take another, smaller example, one of my favourite films of the last 20 years is Peter Chesholm’s Funny Bones. It’s a quirky British film, about the nature of comedy, and coincidentally also considers transatlantic influence. It’s apparent from the cover of the DVD that the marketing people didn’t have a clue how to sell it: the box carries an image of Jerry Lewis and Oliver Platt which doesn’t appear in the film, contrived to suggest that this is a zany mainstream comedy, which it really isn’t. Fans of The Nutty Professor are not likely to be pleased. It’s as though the marketing people, faced with a difficult task, decided to perform a different task. In doing so they betray the film, and indeed the audiences they’ve misled. Perhaps they thought that if they could just persuade people to have a look at the film they’d be enchanted anyway, their lives enriched by pleasant surprise, but this for the most part is not how things work.

We can probably blame Edward Bernays for the creep of advertising’s dark arts into practically every aspect of our lives, really from the 1920s and his now notorious campaign to create a female-friendly image of tobacco, but it would probably have happened anyway with the development of mass media (alongside the development of psychology as a kind of science).

The manipulations of advertising, PR, or marketing don’t matter too much when they’re focused on your choice of washing powder, or even which films you might want to see. But they have to be more worrying when used in the service of more important decisions. The disconnect between promotion and reality around The American might have damaged the reputation of the film initially, but the film’s reality could be trusted to assert itself without long term consequences. This isn’t true of the political or social world, where the honing of the soundbite now threatens the democracy it was supposed to serve.

Consider the current favourite with the Brexit camp here in the UK: “take back control”. It took the campaign a while to get to this one, and it seems to be playing well with the disaffected British public, as I imagine the focus groups said it would. It’s not surprising, because the slogan does two simple things. It’s a dog whistle to anti-immigration sentiment (”take back control of our borders”) and an attempt to plug in to the widespread alienation from the political world. It promises power to those feeling powerless and disenfranchised, a power which could start with a cross on a ballot paper.

As a practitioner in this sleazy world of messaging I have to concede a certain amount of admiration for the craft of it. As a resident of the wider world, I can only express my disgust at its cynical duplicity. Immigration is unlikely to change whatever the result of the referendum, because the forces driving it are more complex and economically necessary than EU rules about freedom of movement. Nor will it hand power to ordinary people, but instead will strengthen the hands of those already gleefully tearing up the post-war social democratic settlement in this country.

It’s worse than a lie (though it is, without doubt, a calculated lie). It promises liberation, and a reinvigoration of the political process. When those hopes are inevitably disappointed it will only create further disillusionment and cynicism, as well as ushering in a plague of unintended consequences.

In a sense advertising has always been about crafting dissatisfaction, so it can offer a way forward to a different state. In doing this it’s trodden the margins of the real, the grey zone between the aspirational and a verifiable means to meet those aspirations (typically in the form of product features). But in political advertising we’ve already passed into the Orwellian world of newspeak, where war is peace, lies are the truth, where the most famous slogan in British advertising history (”Labour isn’t working”) ushered in a government that happily trebled unemployment within a year. Although it uses the tools of marketing, it’s actually the opposite of accepted marketing wisdom, and it can get away with this because unlike the commercial world, in the political world reality can take longer to assert itself.

We endure this as we endure the rain, as if it were a force of nature, as if nothing can be done. But it’s not like the rain. It’s more like a cancer eating at the body of society, and we need to recognise it for what it is if we’re ever going to find a cure.

Dinosaurs and dimwits

Dinosaurs and dimwits

In last Sunday’s Observer David Mitchell lambasted the looming referendum on EU membership as a failure of political leadership. He says (more or less) that issues like this are not a matter of personal preference, but demand technical knowledge and expertise. If we’re honest, while everyone might have an opinion, it’s not just a matter of opinion, and Mitchell argues that we appoint political leaders to inform themselves properly and make these decisions on our behalf.

Underpinning this argument is the point that our democracy is not designed to ensure our politicians reflect our views (which may or may not be worth reflecting); it’s to ensure that politicians remain answerable for their decisions to the electorate, and so will continue to govern in the interests of the electorate, rather than (say) their immediate friends. I imagine this is what Churchill meant when he described democracy as the least bad of the available options.

We all know that we’re not having this referendum because it’s important to where we find ourselves at this moment in the world, but because David Cameron hoped (and even this was a stupid hope) to silence the anti-EU majority in his own party. As Martin Wolf suggested recently in the FT, this is possibly the most irresponsible decision by a UK prime minister in living memory.

It strikes me that this kind of abdication of responsibility (as if the problem were too difficult to be addressed through parliament’s normal channels) reflects a much deeper and potentially more serious failure of government. The gravest issue of our time is not whether the British are European (we have been for at least 1000 years), nor whether free markets are the answer to everything (they are not), nor even the problems posed by the rise of religious fundamentalism, but whether we have been inducing a fundamental change in the Earth’s climate, and whether we can still do anything about it.

This matters because we really are facing a global catastrophe, not in my shrinking lifetime perhaps, but probably, devastatingly, within 100 years. My children’s lives are likely to be hit, and if I ever have any grandchildren they will face a very different world, a world where rising sea levels have removed substantial areas of land, where established water and food sources have been devastated and other resources, including energy, are subject to increasing constraints. It’s probably true that these effects will be felt most acutely in the developing world (which would be cause enough for action), but no one can seriously imagine Europe and the Americas will be untouched.

There are still people who want to deny the overwhelming science in play here. It would be a better world if we could simply ignore them, though tragically they have held positions of substantial influence, particularly in the US. The worst of it is that they have helped the world’s governments sit on their hands for the last 20 years, when there might still have been time to set us on a different course.

Our governments continue to pat themselves on the back over “progress”, for instance at the recent Paris summit, but they are still playing to their imaginary galleries, while the hard truth is that it’s probably too late already. Click here for some tough data. As the blog’s author David Roberts puts it “The obvious truth about global warming is this: barring miracles humanity is in for some awful shit.”

It’s probably true that global realities have changed faster than our inter-governmental institutions, and those changing realities have highlighted increasingly pressing questions about what governments might be for. Historically that question might not have seemed so problematic. I’d argue that elites have always deliberately confused “rule” and “government” to legitimise the exercise of their power in their own interests, but as societies have grown more complex the argument has usually invoked some notion of a contract between governors and governed, so that we the people would accept the imposition of laws (and tithes) in exchange for peace, stability (and binding arbitration).

With the rise of nations, standing armies and empires through the 18th and 19th centuries, the dynastic squabbles of royal families and other leaders morphed into warfare as an extension of trade, and governments appointed themselves the guardians of a much broader concept of national interest, while the “people” dutifully lined up behind them. This murderous willy-waving reached its nadir in the 20th century and its global wars. For a while it seemed the horrors unleashed might bring “leaders” to their senses, and in this crucible both the UN and the EU were born, but in one form or another the willy waving continues to define the conduct of foreign affairs, while globalising business interests (empowered by technology) have been rewriting the rules to suit themselves (with suitable proxies in place in government to align those rules with selective national interests*).

If ever there was an issue demanding collective government action and leadership, that issue must be climate change. They’ve talked, and some have set targets, and some countries have tried to set examples, but it’s beginning to look like it’s all been too little, too late. I doubt future generations, dealing with the consequences, will judge this prevarication kindly, though ironically what’s been exposed is a fault line in the notion of popular government, democratic or not. Real leadership would have meant agreeing and imposing measures that made our lives a bit harder, for the sake of a greater good. But our leaders don’t trouble themselves with that kind of difficulty.

In my more optimistic moments I comfort myself with the thought that as and when the consequences begin to make themselves felt, they will force a shift in outlook and conduct, towards the kind of large scale co-operation and co-ordination which is the best excuse for the continuing existence of such government. In these optimistic moments too I can take comfort from the emergence at grassroots of a new communitarianism, which itself reflects a perception of the increasing failures of national governments to address what actually matters. This all looks pretty Utopian at the moment, as relatively small groups of people seek to take back some control over their lives, growing their own food, developing community energy projects and so on. Then again it hardly seems Utopian to want to step out of the fairyland in which many in our society and its politicians seem to live.

In Germany recently there were successive days when the nation’s electricity needs were supplied (and even oversupplied) entirely by renewable resources, many of them based in local communities. What may be emerging is a new relationship between large scale and local infrastructure, with consequences for political organisation too.

A commercial housing development in the Netherlands suggests how this might develop. Concepts like the ReGen village, which are moving quickly from the drawing board to practical reality, promise to redefine the relationship between local self-organised communities and larger infrastructures. It’s unlikely they could be an entirely “closed loop”; health, education, wider transport and telecommunication systems, not to mention justice, are still going to need to work on some kind of larger scale. But where government will fit in this redefined relationship is as yet an open question, particularly if coming generations are asking that question in the light of the failure of our government structures to address the most urgent issues of the day.

Then again this is me thinking in optimistic mode. If I look to present realities and the preoccupations of our politicians, it’s like watching a herd of brontosaurus turning away from that big rock falling from the sky to argue about the threat of velociraptors.

We tend to imagine the future a 100 years from now as a bit like now, but with better phones and spaceships. I doubt it’s going to be like that. I doubt our work, our leisure, or even our basic ways of eating and buying things will be the same. I doubt the way we regard or handle government will be anything like it is now. I certainly hope not.

*I don’t particularly want to blame business here. Setting aside the disastrous notions of “shareholder-led capitalism”, business people are in my experience pragmatic. You can’t expect much in the way of social vision from them, but on the whole they’d rather be part of the solution than the problem and still look to governments to provide the context in which they can be. The trouble is that governments in the last 30 years have given up on that role, because it was getting harder and harder, and short term commercial interest has filled the vacuum (inadequately of course).