How The End Of Conflict Is Killing Advertising

Sir John Hegarty is the godfather of British advertising who rails against the risk-free approach of modern-day commericals. Ads used to be punk. Now they're a thirty second slice of Friends.
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Conflict, debate, arguing, challenging and generally causing offence are becoming taboo behaviour.  Reading Hegarty on Advertising, the recently published memoir of BBH creative chief John Hegarty, I was struck by how passionately he embraced conflict as a source of creativity. From his definition of his own style as irreverence and his explanation of the difference between designers and art directors like himself - the former brings order to chaos, the latter creates disruption - to his reveling in the "creative destruction" tearing through adland today courtesy of the rise of online and digital, Hegarty made his name and fortune pushing provactive ideas into culture. Ideas like the Levi’s ad with Nick Kamen stripping to his boxer shorts in a launderette (which inadvertently boosted sales of boxers along the way).

Hegarty’s two-fingers-to-authority attitude was formed in the Sixties. From that decade and right through punk, the belief that conflict could be constructive and creative force was widespread.  But for the generation that came of age just after punk, it's a different story.

Maybe it was the experience of being a child in the eighties while what seemed like class war raged outside between Thatcher and the unions and CND and the Women’s/Black/Irish and Gay rights movements. Maybe it was also the high divorce rates bringing division into their own homes, but that generation began to construct a set of rules for their lives that avoided division at all costs.

In culture, they ditched the mainstream/alternative cultural divide typified by Stock, Aitken, Waterman on one side and bands like The Smiths on the other and flung themselves wholeheartedly into acid house and rave culture. E was their drug and everybody loved everybody. Their TV was Friends, rather than The Young Ones.

In politics they rejected the divisive Little England Tories and also the traditional left for New Labour and their philosophy of a Third Way between right and left.

Hegarty believes that whoever came up with the idea of tissue sessions should be shot

At the heart of all this was a rejection of conflict in favour of consensus, the impact of which we feel everywhere.  Which is why John Hegarty now seems out of place in an industry whose current watchword is collaboration.

The old client/agency divide has been smudged by ideas like ‘tissue sessions’ where work is shared early in the process and great effort is made to ensure everybody is happy, every step of the way. Hegarty believes that whoever came up with the idea of tissue sessions should be shot, a view that sparked a serious feature in Campaign, the advertising trade magazine.

The other day, Terence Blacker had a piece in the Indy about his experience touring the country performing lewd and mildly offensive songs, the most shocking of which were two or three songs about enjoying domestic abuse, sung by a woman, without any apparent irony.  This was felt by many in his audiences to be a step too far.  Whether criticism of offensiveness comes from people on the right wanting to keep ideas they deem dangerous away from the public, or from liberals wishing to avoid anything which might glamorize something which is a source of misery for many people, the effect is the same.  It is becoming taboo to bring confrontational ideas into our culture.

Think what you like of Hegarty but when he and his confrontational peers in advertising were at their peak, the vast majority of the British public believed that many of the ads on TV were better than the programmes.  Few think this is so now.

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