At times in our lives, we all reflect on the age-old proposition of right vs. wrong, and I’ve discovered that in advertising this is especially easy to do. It usually goes something like this: “Is what I do for a living making the world a better place? Oh! Pizza’s here!”
Now I don’t know about you, but sometimes when I seriously ask myself that question, I struggle. Because depending on your worldview, the answer could cause a sleepless night or two. You see, in advertising we have the tools to shape our reality, culture even, and that’s something I think is worth reflecting on; a gut check if you will. Here’s an example.
Not long ago I was waiting at a stoplight on my way to the gym. The sun was out, my windows were down, life was good. Two young boys, no older than 5 or 6, were playing on the corner. The one had an open water bottle, flinging water about and sort of dancing I guess. His friend seemed less engaged with his back turned, looking toward the street. Now here is where everything goes to shit.
Out of nowhere this boy with the thousand-yard stare, turns and throws a monster haymaker at his friend. As if his buddy was having too much fun and he’d had it. This was followed by the boy dragging his “friend” to the ground and standing over him throwing hard, ugly punches, like you see in those gang initiations on History Channel. Finally, I yelled out the window, “Hey! Cut it out!” The aggressor stopped what he was doing and went back to staring toward the street. His friend’s face was streaming with tears as he struggled to crawl away.
Messed up, right? Well, there are two levels to this whole ordeal. The first being, that’s messed up, right!? I mean, these were just little kids and the violence was so over-the-top. The second though? Irony. You see, I was on my way to spar Muay Thai, a popular skill among fighters in the highly publicized UFC. Now I’ll spare you my reasoning behind why I participate in combat sports, but at that moment, I got a little depressed. All I could think about was the fact that this little boy was growing up in a world where violence was a pastime. Commence irony.
So what does one make of that? Was I somehow part of this? Did convincing that kid’s mom to buy a box of Frosted Flakes fill him with hate? Doubtful. Did his access to the glamorization of violence via TV? Possibly. But I’d encourage you to look even further upstream, to discover the real common thread here, which is influence. Whatever the reason, that poor kid has become a product of his environment, part of which I’m willing to bet was fueled by some kind of publicized negativity. Whether it be musicians toting gun violence as a way of life, or a teacher simply giving up, it was failure by those in his life to counter this bad influence with good.
Advertising hall-of-famer William Bernbach once said, “All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarize that society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it onto a higher level.” Now I’m not suggesting that we ban Call of Duty, or in my case hang up my gloves and start baking cakes. By all means, be competitive, be unique, but be aware that we have a responsibility to be influencers of the good as well as the bad. There may be no perfect world, but there is still right and wrong.