Introduction: Free Will and Advertising

First Principles

“We are more master of our thoughts in the morning than in the evening: Fasting, than after a full meal.” (David Hume, 1737)


(Sit expressionlessly still for the painter + boss the silver fox look with a lice-infested wig = Old School philosopher pose 2)

My own brain baffles me.

There are times where all I desperately need to do is remember key mental snapshots, like where I left my keys, what my diary and ‘to do list’ looks like for the day, memorising ‘up-the-sleeve’ data or even just why I’m standing in the kitchen about to open the fridge. No matter how much I attempt to rev up my brain’s RAM for these sorts of things, most of the time I can’t even remember if I’ve forgotten something.


Yet, there are times when I didn’t even know I would need to recall information, and, although I’ve put my brain in neutral, it’s like I have a grey-matter GoPro installed between my ears. It’s picking up the minutiae of casual pub conversation, throw-away comments in meetings, song lyrics to a whole album I’ve listened to just once, whole pages of books I’ve read years ago and quotes I’ve learnt for GCSE English. Even stranger, you only realise it has done so when you receive a ‘trigger.’ It is not until the video plays, almost in slow motion, that you realise why your brain had bothered to hit record at that particular moment. All of a sudden it’s significance is revealed to you by the very fact that you are able to watch the video-memory again.


You wonder, do I really have a choice over what I remember and when I recall it? You wonder, who is controlling who? Am I controlling my thoughts, or are my thoughts controlling me?


Heath would probably call this low attention processing. Kahneman might call it System 1 thinking. For me, it’s a question of whether or not we have free will.

“We learn the influence of our will from experience alone. And experience only teaches us, how one event constantly follows another; without instructing us in the secret connexion, which binds them together, and renders them inseparable.” David Hume


There are two important mental snapshots that made me think very differently about free will and advertising. The significance of the first only became realised when it was triggered by the second.

The first was when a boss told me, “Always remember, what we do is manipulate people.” Their white and blue checked shirt crumpled with their Adland wearied sigh. It was a painful admission.

The second was when a different boss leant in, rest their hand on my forearm (I never felt comfortable enough to tell them that insincere physical contact makes me uneasy) and told me:

“Daaaarling, you have to be more manipulative.” The word ‘manipulative’ made their eyes widen with wicked playfulness.

“Manipulative?” I asked.

“Yes, manipulative. It’s the only way you can get your own way.” Their hands then gesticulated wildly and enthusiastically, like a Bond villain revealing their world domination plans to their minions.


Is it a worthwhile skill or a veritable sin?


Would you rather be the puppet or the puppet master?

If the puppet knows they are a puppet, are they still a puppet?

If the puppet doesn’t mind being a puppet, are they actually the puppet master?

Now, is the puppet master actually the puppet?

In Adland we swing between feeling that our adverts don’t ‘work’, that nobody cares what we have to say, that people automatically tune out and therefore our puppeteer strings have been cut loose and between being ultra-aware that we bombard and pester our way to cut-through.

We swing between wanting to be loved, ‘engaged with’, for the puppets to trust us, and on the other, we want to influence, to manipulate and to control.

Free will is when you have a conscious awareness of a situation that enables you to make a choice about how you interpret and respond to it. Sometimes it takes will power to think more laboriously about the choices you make to stop them being made for you.


Sometimes you just want to renounce responsibility for your choices and leave them to some sort of system – perhaps fate, free market economics, the government, astrology or corporations.


1. Conscious Awareness of Choice : When do nudges knock us over the edge?

Other times, you don’t get a choice of what you are aware of. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could choose what we wanted to take in so that we can make choices accordingly?

2. Choosing Conscious Awareness : When is an interruption an interruption?


Baudrillard: Collector Mentality (Introduction)

First Principles

“… For what you really collect is always yourself” – Baudrillard

Baudrillard with Books

(Stare Pensively into Camera + Surround self with hundreds of books = Generic Philosopher Pose 3)

A few months ago I watched a BBC2 programme hosted by Mel Giedroyc and Mark Hill entitled ‘Collectaholics.’ It was a tragi-comic portrayal of a special kind of nutcase: ‘The Collector.’ As Mel and Mark interviewed avid collectors of the likes of beer cans, salt and pepper shakers and taxidermy (and their long-suffering partners and family), Baudrillard chapters on ‘A Marginal System: Collecting’ intruded my mind. During the programme Mel and Mark tried to hone these collectors’ habits, and, as Baudrillard writes, to find the point at which their “sheer accumulation may give way to a measure of discrimination.”

If you still haven’t read why Baudrillard could be called the first Planner, then you’ve fucked up royally. I’m kidding, but its people like you that have made me feel obliged to repeat myself. If you have read it, I also told you to go and buy ‘The System of Objects’ and to read it backwards. You probably didn’t bother. No worries – I’ll be attempting to translate sections of it here in as plain and un-pretentious way as possible. I’ll be illustrating his thoughts with adverts and slightly tongue-in-cheek ‘reaction GIFs’ as a nod towards shallow populist accessibility belying my evil plan to get some deep shit into advertising. If you have read my first post and want to cut to the good stuff, then please sigh deeply for those who haven’t and click the links below/skip the next two paragraphs:

Part I – Discrimination, Choice and Geeky Brands

Part II – Accumulation and Completion


Baudrillard is a Freudo-Marxist philosopher who also wrote about advertising. Baudrillard made me want to be an account planner. Marxist philosophers often focus on the exploitation of those who manufactured products that their bosses would then sell on at profit. Baudrillard was one of the first Marxist philosophers to realise the importance of consumer behaviour in our Capitalist system. Baudrillard’s work can be interpreted, as I have done, as a defence of consumer-orientated, and therefore planning-orientated marketing. He wrote ‘The System of Objects’ in 1968, which just so happens to be the same year in which the first account planner roamed the earth.

For Baudrillard, objects carry symbolic meaning (that is often fabricated by advertising and branding) in order to transform our world of impersonal, cold, hard, shiny stuff and the metal, plastic and whatnot of an object’s material actuality into something with a metaphorical ‘human voice’. Objects carry symbolic meaning and ‘talk’ to us. Baudrillard writes, “you can look at an object without it looking back at you. That is why everything that cannot be invested in human relationships is invested in objects.” We invest our world and its objects with human qualities to make it more meaningful. We also help to define ourselves through objects and we do this by choosing ones that we feel we can ‘relate’ to or that ‘speak’ to us. As Stephen King puts it in ‘What is a Brand?’ we “value brands for who they are as much as for what they do.” Right, now you are pretty much up to speed.

Sarcastic clapping

Collections, like brands, are about meaning, not function.

Baudrillard wrote that “Every object has two functions – to be put to use and to be possessed… These two functions stand in inverse ratio to each other.” Baudrillard adds that when objects are put into a collection they are taken out of use. This is why a toy car collector doesn’t dare take his treasures out of their original boxes. A collected toy car’s value is not in its use as a plaything, but rather in what it means to the collector, subjectively, as part of his collection. “An object no longer specified by its function is defined by the subject,” Baudrillard writes.

Brands have absolutely no practical function. Although the products they are associated with may be useful, this often isn’t why consumers will choose, say, Colgate over Aquafresh. Brands are purely there to add meaning to something we use so that we desire to possess it. I rarely look at what brand of milk I use in the morning. When its on the supermarket shelf, however, its brand suddenly seems a bit (and only a bit) more important.

When the milk sits on the supermarket shelf, it isn’t in use. That milk isn’t milk until you drink it. In the supermarket we aren’t really thinking about what it might taste like. We are thinking in a very abstract way when we consider whether to buy it. We might try and be practical and think about how much milk is there compared to its sell-by-date. We most definitely consider it’s price. Just before you grab it you might be thinking, “Is this milk organic, is this milk British, is this milk’s brand ethical?” or “I should probably buy red top milk because I am on a diet” or “I liked this last time.” This sentiment is summed up by Michael McIntyre below:

This is amplified when we buy cars, clothes or things that are evidently displayed to others: “How do people perceive this item? Is that perception something I want to associate with myself through associating myself with this brand?” Practical aspects tend to take a bit of a backseat when we buy things, simply because we aren’t using them when we buy them.

The stuff you can touch and use resides in the objective realm. Branding belongs in an abstract realm of woolly things like ‘meaning’, ‘values’ and ‘concepts’. This abstract realm is where subjectivity resides, and this is what collecting and branding is all about: making concrete objects abstractly and subjectively meaningful.

Part I – Discrimination, Choice and Geeky Brands

Elusive 'Insights', First Principles

“Artistic masterpieces may be collected with the same regressive fanaticism as cheese labels.” – Baudrillard, The System of Objects

beer cans

(Stand hands in pockets + Intense stare + Odd background content to contrast ‘normal person’ look = ‘I am just a normal guy on the face of things, but with a weird little secret’ pose for ‘real people’ TV documentary press shot)

Baudrillard, like the BBC2 programme ‘Collectaholics’ I mentioned in my introduction to collector mentality, paints a rather bleak picture of collectors in his ‘System of Objects.’ He writes “So if non-collectors are indeed ‘nothing but morons’, collectors, for their part, invariably have something impoverished and inhuman about them.” If Baudrillard could have got away with writing ‘collectors are losers,’ he probably would have done so.


“Because he [the collector] feels alienated and abolished by a social discourse whose rules escape him, the collector strives to reconstitute a discourse that is transparent to him, a discourse whose signifiers he controls and whose referent par excellence is himself.” – Baudrillard

These so-called losers have been marginalised by the world and thus refashion their own world of collected objects as some sort of therapeutic passive aggressive protest. They regain control of a world from which they have been outcast by deciding what is included and excluded in their ‘own little collectors world.’ Collectors re-articulate the meaning of objects they collect according to their own rules (ie. the rules of their collecting system, a crude example is beer cans, not cider ones) and ordering system that helps them control their meaning.

Sorry Baudrillard, I love you deeply in a platonic kind of way, but I am not sure I can fully agree with you on this one. I believe that we are all collectors. I don’t believe that we all feel, “Alienated and abolished by a social discourse whose rules escape [us].” Yes, a collection of Star Wars memorabilia or beer cans is a bit niche, or, (retch retch) quirky, but our more conventional way of defining what a collector and collection is has taken over. Baudrillard and BBC2 had only looked at the extreme manifestation/stereotypical view of a trait we are all liable to having.

‘A Measure of Discrimination’ : Choice

Most of us drink coffee, slightly less of us drink Nescafe, even fewer of us believe that persistently choosing Nescafe over Doewe Egberts means we are collectors. I can assure you, it does. Our fridges and store cupboards are collections, our bookshelves and magazine racks are collections, our internet search histories or iphone apps are collections, our itunes library or CD or DVD rack is a collection. 

The word ‘collect’ comes from the Latin, colligere, which means ‘to choose and gather together.’ Choice and collecting go hand in hand. Choice is often preceded by two words: ‘freedom of.’ Choice is central to our feeling of freedom in Capitalist society. Choice is the main reason why advertising exists. 

We all know that choice is both our best friend and arch nemesis. On the one hand, it is the dilemma of choice that paralyses shoppers in supermarkets confronted with hundreds of varieties of the same bog roll. 

too many choices

On the other hand, it is the luxury of choice that helps consumers to feel free. Free to ditch brands they have been unimpressed with, free to align themselves with others.


Planners are particularly astute as to the pros and cons of choice. Choice is why we construct ‘brand matrices’ (*shudder* – what a pretentious term) drawn up from competitor audits. Choice is behind spidery flow charts that inevitably descend into chaos as we plot a ‘typical’ consumer’s journey from which to derive a comms plan.

brand matrix

Collecting is linked to choice, but specifically to cutting down choice. Collecting is about discernment. Having the ‘freedom of choice’ in our modern world, stuffed full of shit to buy and things to do, is fucking intimidating. Collecting is merely imposing a defined rationale behind the choices we make. That rationale is very much intertwined with our personal values and interests: “I always buy Andrex Eco as part of my weekly shop. I like to do my part for the environment, this is why I also buy Ecover washing up liquid.”

Brands are also collectors. They collect consumers and the rationale behind their choice of consumers is what circumscribes a ‘target market.’ Planners guide clients when they choose which consumers to collect. Some consumers will make your brand look cool. Some consumers are short-term cash cows. Some consumers are more loyal. Some brands (particularly luxury brands) are very discerning in their choice of consumer. Some brands aren’t and might suffer from an ‘identity crisis’ when they realise that their collection of consumers isn’t very coherent. This is why Disney have subdivided their collection (and is why that horrible term ‘Brand Architecture’ exists): Marvel and Star Wars fans are clearly at odds with wannabe princesses and pirates.

Mainstream collecting is perhaps more about driving associations between brands. For example, Nandos might precede a trip to Cineworld. Jack Daniels + Coca Cola = Jack and Coke. You might order a Dominoes before curling up with Netflix. Planners might help consumers to curate their brand collection through carefully considered partnerships. GoPro and RedBull – for the adrenaline junkie’s collection. Pampers and Unicef – for the caring new mother’s collection. Google Glass and Ray-Ban – for the stylish and tech savvy individual’s collection.


Sometimes brand partnerships work the other way around. Brands loudly proclaim what values they hold by who they decide to partner with. Above we see Ben and Jerry’s calling any self-respecting collector of gay-friendly brands to add Ben and Jerry’s to their collection. Was their partnership with Freedom to Marry opportunist? Not in the slightest. Ben and Jerry’s has forged a deeper relationship with certain consumers and may have even acquired this ‘loyalty’ at the expense of cutting loose anybody who disagrees with their values. They start a debate, then divide and conquer people accordingly.

Geeks and their Pronounced Collector Mentality: a.k.a ‘Consumer Loyalty’

My long-suffering boyfriend often says “I don’t care about brands.” He never wears designer clothes, he shops at charity shops, he thinks big brands are exploitative faceless corporations. In shunning brands, my boyfriend actually has a clear rationale behind his purchase decisions which reflect his personal values. It probably won’t surprise you that my boyfriend considers himself to be outside of the system – he works as a night duty worker in a homeless shelter. My boyfriend also avidly collects and builds speakers.

People who collect strange things don’t feel that they can represent themselves through more conventional means, whether these be sports teams allegiances, political parties or, as concerns us, brands. This is because they feel that brands don’t represent them, that brands don’t ‘speak’ or ‘relate’ to them. If somebody doesn’t collect ‘normal’ things like designer clothes or movies or music, and chooses beer cans or speakers, then we are inclined to call that person odd. We label a beer can collector ‘weird’ merely because we don’t understand his perspective on the world, or understand why beer cans in particular ‘speak’ to him. We don’t understand the rationale behind his choice.


Baudrillard was partially right in thinking that people who collect ‘odd’ things may feel “alienated and abolished by a social discourse whose rules escape him.” These types of collectors, who we might call geeks, however, are only alienated from one social discourse, the ‘mainstream’ or (shudder) the ‘normal’, and choose to follow another that is in line with their values. Geeks are more fanatical – but that’s hardly surprising when proportionally less of the world that surrounds them ‘speaks’ to them. They will ‘collect’ what they can relate to with a pronounced fervour. Many geeky brands, such as KidRobot or StarWars, will leverage their audience’s collector mentality and are happy to consider themselves as geeky brands. Sometimes this turns into geek chic.


I recently did some work on a free video on demand service that hosted particularly bizarre, ‘challenging’ content such as Anime or fetishistic soft-core porn. At first there were calls to position the product to the ‘hipster’ market. I felt that this was lazy marketing which would alienate our real audience. Our real audience aren’t ‘cool’ or ‘hipster’: they’re loveable oddballs who were (wrongly) bullied at school for reading Manga. Arguably this slightly introverted, possibly even freakish, less conventionally artsy audience are more genuine in their interests than the fickle hipster market, who move with the ebb and flow of what’s deemed ‘cool.’ Hipsters, in a way, are pseudo-artsy clones who involve themselves in a bizarre parade of oddness-one-up-manship around Shoreditch on the weekend. Give me genuine odd and pseudo odd and I know which one I’d choose.

I knew that my client would probably have preferred to have attracted the hipster market. Like a nerdy kid’s desire to be acknowledged by the cool crew at school, those cool kids would have dropped the nerd as soon as they wanted. There would never have been a real relationship there.

I don’t know why clients will circumscribe their market as social category ABC1, age 16-35, ‘tech-savvy’ ‘early adopter’ males and females. Not everyone is young, tech-savvy and middle to upper middle class.  We’re emerging from a recession in which young people, having racked up 9K+ debt per year as a student, will now have to undergo a dearth of gruelling unpaid internships living on less than £100 a week. Brands, ‘the youth’ are not your always your audience, you just want them to be. We live in an ageing population and these are the ones who are most likely to be ABC1. Will Butterworth has a great ‘thinkism’ on ‘Early Adopters’, he writes: “Guess what, every dick and his dog thinks he is an early adopter based on the understanding that he adopts every new thing he hears about. Trouble is most of these people aren’t looking for anything.”

Brands need to learn that not everyone aspires to be a hipster.  Not everyone is a ‘wholesome’ mum, and not every person with a child wants to be.  Not everyone aspires to be a ‘time poor, money rich’ jet setter who loves designer labels. Mainstream aspirations are dwindling, fast. Do brands hold up these sorts aspirations in order to appeal to some sort of mythical mass consciousness? No, I think brands hold them up for themselves, because they want to say they are liked by all the cool kids, the best moms or the top professionals.

But what about the rest? What about ‘old’ people or all those women whose children aren’t the be-all and end-all of their existence? What about nerds, or people who see their jobs as a way of earning money to do their hobbies and not for climbing to the top of the career ladder? These people are arguably swelling in numbers, swelling in dissent and disregard for brands and advertising, and they deserve to be heard. They are indifferent to brands. This is why the ‘voice of the consumer’ needs to pipe up and sell the consumer to the client as much as the client to the consumer.

Baudrillard: Collector Mentality (Introduction)

Part II: Accumulation and Completion

Part II – Accumulation and Completion

Elusive 'Insights', First Principles

“He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.” – Socrates

You’re browsing the high street nonchalantly on a Saturday or in your lunch hour, or procrastinating on Asos or Ebay on a slow Friday afternoon at work praying that your boss doesn’t catch you. Then it catches your eye. It seems to beckon you in. You must have it. It appears to glow. It is your holy grail. It will complete you.


Obviously this isn’t the kind of feeling that accompanies buying bog roll, bin liners, kitchen foil, milk and the like. It’s those shoes that you imagine strutting through the office wearing. It’s that car you imagine parking in your driveway that makes passersby do a double take. This feeling is reserved for a specific kind of purchase – a purchase that you consciously feels defines you, a purchase you feel will trump all others. It’s that ‘ultimate buy’ where you gasp at the price tag but somehow find a way of justifying not eating for a few weeks so you can have it.


“I won’t need to buy anything else for a long time,” or “it ties all my wardrobe/living room décor/record collection together,” or “if I didn’t buy it I will regret it, somebody else might get it and it will be gone forever,” are things you tell yourself as you whip out your heavily over-drawn debit card and push it promptly into the chip and pin.

For me, this feeling occurs maybe once a month. That’s right, I find my holy grail once a freaking month. Other than many of our monthly expenditures and earnings, something doesn’t match up here. What’s more, the frenzy with which we buy these objects abates so quickly that we find ourselves relegating them to the back of the wardrobe/bookshelf/attic, stuffing them into bin-liners to drop off at the local charity shop, or even forgetting that they exist entirely within a few months.


Useful vs Frivolous, Work vs Play and Oniomania

For Baudrillard, as I mentioned in my introduction, these such items are not bought with their use value in mind. Rather, we buy their intangible, non-functional meaning. Two sweaters perform essentially the same function, although one may be thicker and more useful for winter, you could not say that a red jumper is categorically more useful or functional than a blue one. A ‘dry clean only’ label has never put me off buying an item of clothing, which is irrational, because dry cleaning anything is expensive and time-consuming. Stephen King writes in ‘What is a Brand?’ “the non-functional pleasures that we ourselves get are more intense and meaningful than the functional.” This is why, on the whole, we get so het up about what colour a jumper is more than whether it can be tumble dried.


We like ‘splashing out’, or ‘splurging.’ Bataille, a Surrealist art theorist, wrote (in a less-kinky-than-the-title-suggests book, ‘Eroticism’) “Our only real pleasure is to squander our resources to no purpose.” Bataille draws a distinction between ‘work’ and ‘jouissance‘ (his poncy term for ‘play’ I suppose). Work is what differentiates us from our animalistic nature and makes us ‘civilised’. Work is man saying no to nature, saying he wants to be in control of his destiny and his surrounding world and not let nature get the better of him. Work, at it’s extreme, is a high flying banker who watches his figure, goes to the gym and only drinks bottled water. Jouissance, however, is going against what is ‘productive’. It’s being a bit rebellious. It’s putting two fingers up at your ‘civilised’ self and embracing an animalistic instinctual desire for pleasure. Jouissance, at it’s extreme, is a couple going dogging.


Making music, getting drunk, nutting one out at a rave, splashing out at a restaurant, procrastinating, youtube-ing at endless cat videos and buying a shit-ton of things we don’t need are all part of our quest for ‘jouissance’. These aren’t ‘useful’ or ‘helpful’, in fact, quite a lot of the time these kinds of activities are downright unhelpful. This is why for many ‘irresponsible’/’freespirited’ people a new pair of trainers is more important than having enough money to buy bog roll or decent food. This is why some people find spending money more fun than saving it.


A Series of ‘Upgrades’ 

“The unique object is in fact simply the final term, the one which sums up all the others, that it is the supreme component of an entire paradigm (albeit a virtual, invisible or implicit one) – that it is, in short, the emblem of the series” – Baudrillard, The System of Objects


(Stereotypical Caricature of a Philosopher)

Collecting is all about ‘series.’ One thing after another. Things that follow other things. The last thing in a series, Baudrillard argues, somehow manages to sum up all the other things that preceded it. If you think of your wardrobe as a ‘series of purchases’ rather than as a collective entity, ‘my clothes’, I think this may shed some light on Baudrillard’s lofty claims.


My ‘wow’ buys are always shoes. Sneakers to be precise. Today I bought some silver brogues (I am a bit of a magpie at the moment) for an interview. The interview was the ‘rational’ justification that I used to try to alleviate some of the guilt that can precede/follow ‘jouissance’ or splurge buying. I already have some perfectly smart black shoes. What was really going though my mind was, “These shoes will make you feel like an adult, it’s time you got out of trainers, trainers are for teenagers. You will feel like an adult worthy of a salary in these shoes.” My big shoe purchase before this was a pair of Nike Janoski’s, all black. What went through my mind was “you have a job now, you need to stop wearing glow in the dark Nike limited edition Dunks.” I bought these glow in the dark monstrosities before the all black Janoski’s because I thought they would suit being a nightclub promoter at Uni. Each of these purchases trumped the ones before in my quest to have my feet taken seriously in the working world.


“This term is the unique object, defined by its final position and hence creating the illusion that it embodies a particular goal or end [making me an adult]. This is all well and good, but it shows us how it is quantity that impels towards quality, and how the value thus concentrated on this simple signifier [my silver brogues] is in fact indistinguishable from the value that infuses [making me an adult] the whole chain of intermediate signifiers of the paradigm [my shoes as a whole].” – Baudrillard

The thing is, I could have bought all of the shoes in the shop. I could have then decided that I didn’t have a ‘grown up’ handbag and needed one. I could have gone on a spending rampage worthy of my bank blocking my credit card for ‘exhibiting unusual spending patterns.’ It wouldn’t have mattered how many items, or indeed, what items I bought, a very similar feeling would have pervaded my shopping spree. All these purchases would be trying to fulfil the same symbolic function. One after the other I would have felt that one item ‘trumped’ the last one in making me the person I want the world to see me as.

“Any collection comprises a succession of items, but the last in the set is the person of the collector”  – Baudrillard, The System of Objects

Baudrillard’s statement might help us understand why fashion fads come and go so quickly. I remember when wearing ‘Geek’ across your chest was some sort of ironic/witty fashion statement. Like Von Dutch caps, this fashion trend burnt out, and burnt out fast. I have a feeling that this is because the more people you see wearing a variant of your jumper, or even your exact same jumper, the less you feel that this item expresses you. You are now just one of the crowd. You ditch it from your collection pretty pronto. We want people to know from a once-over that we are autonomous individuals with our own personalities. This could be why it is considered a bit of a faux pas to turn up to a party wearing the same dress as somebody else.


Yet, at the same time, we might aspire to be like Cara Delevingne or Pharrell. These fashion icons show us how to ‘stand out from the crowd’. They inspire us with new and ‘out there’ shit and they give us the courage to depart from the flock and be ‘out there.’ This courage might see us wearing acid yellow this summer or an over-sized hat. We know we aren’t ‘out there’ alone. We are torn between belonging and not belonging to a crowd. When does a crowd become a crowd? I suppose the answer to this question, is, in a way, an expression of how ‘mainstream’ you are.

Pharrell Williams and Helen Lasichanh arrive at the 56th annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles

I have enough clothes, trust me, but quite often I will feel that nothing in my wardrobe ‘expresses’ me anymore. Quite often this isn’t because the Spring collection has arrived at Topshop or because everyone suddenly seems to be wearing acid yellow. Instead, it is when I’ve had a bit of a personality shake-up. Something important has happened that has affected how I see myself and how I want the world to see me. This could be a break up, a new job or a even a change of address. This is when I go out with my little plastic friend. I hope to find something that will help me to express who I am to the world in this new context. I want to express how I have evolved as a person as my clothes no longer fit me symbolically (rather than physically).

Collections ‘evolve’ because we ‘evolve.’

Tattoo collectors might talk about various stages of their lives when they talk about different tattoos or regret and cover up ones they have outgrown. Record collectors might relegate their trance records to the attic to make way for their current techno phase. Perhaps the most extreme manifestation of this kind of behaviour is when artists destroy all their past works. These past works reflect their former selves in perhaps the most intense and direct way possible. These physical objects represent their previous naivety or warped perceptions of the world and confronting them can make them cringe. It’s that feeling when you look at a photograph of you three years ago, or flick backwards through your Facebook photos. Its that strange uncomfortable feeling when you read your high school diary. You’ve moved on psychologically, but the objects you have left in your wake haven’t. Then comes Baudrillard’s eureka/the-painfully-obvious-that’s-been-left-unsaid-gets-said moment.

“One cannot but wonder whether collections are in fact meant to be completed… The presence of the final object of the collection would basically signify the death of the subject, whereas its absence would be what enables him merely to rehearse his death (and so exorcize it) by having an object represent it.” – Baudrillard


Annoyingly he over-complicates what is actually quite simple. Those ‘wow’ buys are objects we choose to express our personal evolution. If I only replaced those glow in the dark Nike dunks like-for-like and ended my shoe collection with them, then I would probably never feel like I had ‘grown up’. I would feel that I had reached the pinnacle of ‘me-ness’, that I had somehow reached an abrupt end. Would this not be a little deathly?

What Baudrillard is articulating very poorly is that existential crisis when you finish a box set. Or when, as a kid, you collected that last pokemon card. Or when you finish an Xbox game. We don’t like ending things that we have been so caught up in, that we spent hours involving ourselves in. What we are most caught up in everyday is our own evolution, our own lives and this includes the objects we choose to surround and express ourselves with.

Baudrillard: Collector Mentality (Introduction)

Part I: Discrimination, Choice and Geeky Brands

A Ping Pong Match between Text and Image: Semiotics, Magritte and Why Creatives come in Pairs.

First Principles

“Between words and objects one can create new relations and specify characteristics of language and objects generally ignored in everyday life” – Magritte

Rene Magritte Portrait

Rene Magritte was a Belgian Surrealist. Surrealism was a Freudo-Marxist art historical movement of the twentieth century that sought to explain how our imagination can help us escape from an all-consuming (by which I mean consuming us as we consume the world) Capitalist system. Surrealism ran into problems when the likes of Salvador Dalí (a.k.a Avida Dollars, as the movement’s leader, André Breton less than fondly dubbed him) started flouting the Marxist political emphasis of the movement by making ‘Surrealist’ window displays for Bonwit Teller and expensive jewellery. Soon Dalí provided the front cover of that not-exactly-Marxist magazine, Vogue. 

Dali's 'The Persistence f Memory' used for cover of Vogue 1939

If you have read my other post on Baudrillard and the question of Freudo-Marxism and consumer-orientated Capitalism, you could well see how Dalí had managed to flip Marxism into Capitalism via Surrealism’s interest in psychoanalysis and dreams. Surrealism, to make a sweeping generalisation, was born out of the idea that imagination is what sets us free from our worldly humdrum existence. Tickling the consumer’s imagination, as well as helping to humanise brands and objects by giving them meaning and personality, are, for me, two principle components of advertising.

For me, imagination is ‘creativity’ – that horrible word that gets brandished around ‘creative’ agencies. I humbly suggest we all start thinking of ‘creatives’ as being imaginative and avoid that mythical, over-used word that has become so difficult to hear in any sentence that starts with a pronoun. It would be nice if ‘imagination’ was separated from the word ‘spark’, but hey, I’m probably just being a bit grumpy.


Rene Magritte always described himself as a philosopher who paints. There’s a reason why he painted rather than wrote (like any normal philosopher) and there is a reason why he is a philosopher rather than just a painter. This philosophical painting is why:

The Treachery of Images - Magritte

This work is possibly the philosopher/artist’s most famous. Conceived in 1928-9, it encapsulates a whole branch of philosophy, semiotics, in one image. For those of you who don’t read French, this picture of a pipe boldly proclaims that ‘This is not a pipe.’

Well, what the fuck is it then?


It’s a riddle. It’s asking: “Do you believe the image or the text more? Is it a pipe, like the image suggests, or is it, as the text tells us, ‘not a pipe’?”

A clue to help you answer the above questions can be found in the work’s title: ‘The Treachery of Images’ 1928-9



(Place Hand on Chin + Stare Broodingly into Camera = Generic Philosopher Pose 2)

Foucault wrote in a one-hundred page book that there are actually numerous ways in which this painting tells the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth even though it initially seems to be telling one big fat porky. As is the case with most philosophers, he probably could have explained himself in a page. Here are a few of those ways:

Foucault this is not a pipe

The words spelling out ‘This is not a pipe’ are not a pipe. They are squiggles of black paint that happen to suggest to us the idea of a pipe.

The illustration of a pipe is not a pipe. It’s just squiggles of brown, black, yellow and white paint that happen to suggest to us the idea of a pipe.

The whole canvas is not a pipe. (OK, fine, it could be if you were sad enough to fashion a smokable pipe out of the image/canvas – I have trawled the internet and am shocked to have not found some deeply witty [saddo] individual smugly puffing away at such a contraption.)

Foucault not a pipe

Of course it’s not a pipe. You can’t pick it up and smoke it. It’s a representation of a pipe. In fact, it’s two representations of a pipe, one verbal (in the painted word ‘pipe’) and one pictorial. Even the two representations together do not constitute a pipe. It would be deceitful to suggest that the word and image were really a pipe. So why were we so hell-bent on the idea of there being a pipe there in the first place? And why did we immediately think the words were lying? Why did we then think, OK yes the words are right, it’s ‘not a pipe,’ but what the hell is the image then?

Unimaginative people would have got bored fairly soon of being stuck in the mental loop of being presented with a picture of a pipe, then being told that this isn’t true and the picture isn’t a pipe at all. They would have simply labelled it a ‘contradiction’, the artist a ‘facetious pretentious arse’ and moved on with their prosaic little lives.

A planner’s job is to try and rationalise something as irrational and nebulous as ‘creative’ thought for the more rational mind. This is why we are called the left-side of the creative brain. Planners also inject briefs and brainstorms with some creative fodder that transform otherwise dry stats about engagement KPIs and the competitive market place. Planners might put some weights on the bar in order to get people to flex their imaginative muscles.  This is why we might also be called the right-side of the logical, sequential and analytical mind. 

This image is interesting for planners as it helps to explain a way in which imagination can work. A typical Suit will have not seen this image as an opportunity for lateral thought. They may have thought to paint over the ‘n’ pas’ in order to resolve the contradiction and thus apparent problem. A ‘creative’ team, by contrast, together would never have dismissed the possibility of both the word and image being true. One would perhaps have believed that the image held greater truth (likely the Art Director), the other the text (the Copywriter) but they would have found a way to reach an agreement. When a creative team is presented with a contradiction, they use their imagination together to try and resolve it. This is why, I think, a planner might present a business problem to the creative team as a simple tension or contradiction.

Planners will circumscribe the box that the ‘creative’ team need to think out side of. Planners have to think a bit like Magritte.

Think out side the box


This is an imaginary conversation that a copywriter and art director could have had about Magritte’s painting:



Copywriter: “Dur, of course its not a pipe.” *thinks of other meanings of the word pipe* “I mean, a plumber wouldn’t be able to use that to fix a sink.”

Art Director: “Well yeah, precisely. I mean, it could be something else entirely.” *Other similarly shaped objects crop up in their mind’s eye* “To be fair though, that wouldn’t make a great sound if you blew down it. Its definitely not a musical pipe.”

Copywriter: “I get you on that. Well, what is a pipe then?” *Thinks of ways of writing down what a pipe actually is or does*

Art Director: *hastily sketches various tubular objects* “Well, I suppose pipes all look a bit like this.”

Copywriter: “Yeah, I suppose, it’s more like a ‘tubular vessel’.” *types in ‘pipe’ into* “Yeah, see.” *Swivels laptop to face Art Director.*

Art Director: “Yeah, but it could also be any one of these things.” *points at his own google image search results.*

Copywriter: “Yeah, maybe its like a metaphor for what a pipe stands for, because now that I look at it, it really doesn’t look much like a pipe.”

Art Director: “If you turn it on it’s side it looks more like a backwards seven.”

And bingo. The ping pong match between text and image has started, and already the two have branched out by imagining all the possible scenarios that could solve the contradiction inherent in the image. On the one side the copywriter is racking his brain to find a way to conclusively define the pipe, on the other the Art Director is trying to draw what a pipe is, in its most essential visual form. A winding thought process ensues along which they generate and throw out ideas as they crane their heads and minds to see it from a different point of view and more importantly, from each other’s point of view.


“We never see but one side of things. It’s precisely this other side that I’m trying to express.” – Magritte


I see creative teams, particularly working in print, as using text and image to create works that can be arranged along a spectrum of how much they want the viewer to ‘join the dots’ versus ‘tell’ the viewer something specific. When the team want to convey something more abstract, like with Lego and the concept of imagination (appropriately for this post), they will mis-match text and image in order to generate an imaginatively fertile advertisement for the viewer. Abstract concepts, like imagination, exist only in the imagination.


The more the text and image agree with each other, the less the viewer has room for manoeuvre with respect to their own imaginative input. Less abstract concepts tend to be advertised like this.


Like a calligram, this Ronseal ad is tautological. The advert’s function is one of de-mystification, practicality and conveying simple information. ‘It does what it says on the tin.’ There can be no mistake what this image means. There is no room for imagination here.

Semiotics is the study of how we generate meaning. It’s concerned with how words and images are merely approximations of what we experience in the real, tangible world. Words and images are nothing but a code by which we can communicate to other people who know the same code. We use this code to approximate something more real and abstract, or real and tangible that exists either in our minds (as concepts) or in our experience of the world (and experience of things). Both our thoughts and our world are real, but words and images are not. They merely allow us to re-present reality in a way that others can understand by means of a shared code. Reality is ‘present’ and words and images are ‘representations’ of what was once ‘present.’ Words and images point to reality. They are not reality. When both words and images point to the same bit of reality, we are less likely to be mistaken as to what that reality is.

Ron Weasley woah

For example, if a law was passed proclaiming that all washing machines should be called ‘enicham gishnaws’ the real-world object and concepts associated with it wouldn’t change. Just because a dog in French is a chien, doesn’t mean that the English concept of a dog is any different to the French’s. If I went around telling everyone that a hoover is no longer called a hoover, it’s called a Dyson, this won’t change the concept of what a hoover is for anyone. It might change how people refer to it. We can give objects different names, or even change their design entirely, because essentially words and what things look like are not real in comparison to the concepts that we relate to them and our experience of their material existence. 

This is what Magritte explored. He realised that words are essentially meaningless and that images are deceptive too. Meaning only exists in the spaces between words and images, because imagination/concepts, for Magritte, where more real/true than anything else. Thus it makes sense as to why Magritte is both a philosopher (in using words) and a painter (in using images).

I managed to drag my long-suffering boyfriend to a university lecture on Magritte and all he said afterwards was “I can’t believe you are learning about somebody who doesn’t know any basic nouns.” He was joking (he loves state-the-obvious-jokes; his favourite is ‘why are giraffe’s necks so long? because their heads are so far away from their bodies’). My boyfriend had this work in mind:


Imaginative people can genuinely cite a ‘coherent,’ nay even ‘logical’ reason why Magritte labelled a leaf ‘the table’ or a penknife ‘the bird.’ Creatives see more when they look at shapes in the clouds, they hear puns when people talk. They can draw lateral lines between things that seem entirely unrelated, sometimes including each other’s thoughts.

Thus, when I first started in the industry I remember not batting an eyelid when I was told that creative teams come in pairs. I consequently found it strange that a Suit, on encountering the creative department’s peculiar Noah’s arc arrangement for the first time, called it “creepy” and “unnecessary.” Fuck knows how he’d managed to be in the marketing game for three years before coming across this. It was probably born from the attitude that can be found in a lot of agencies and that was summed up by a former colleague in the pub one time after work: “I think it would be cheaper if we didn’t have a creative team all together – we [us suits] are all creative and can come up with the ideas ourselves, together.”


Let me just say here that I have utter respect for this particular colleague. This colleague is fucking brilliant at what they do. There is no way that I could do her job. As anybody who has worked with me will testify, I would make a terrible Suit. But, at the time, I stood gawping at my colleague, incredulous. Is it not a little arrogant to suggest Suits are as ‘creative’ as the agency’s award winning creative pairings? I don’t think I have ever heard a ‘creative’ moaning that they could draw up a better spreadsheet or handle a difficult client better than a Suit. Is it not illogical to suggest that a ‘creative’ agency be filled with Suits and Suits only (many of these types of agencies don’t rate planning as a discipline either)? The bowler hats in Magritte’s most famous paintings represent the antithesis of imagination: conformity.


In my mind’s TV screen I imagined striker Ronaldo picking up the goalie gloves, and, in an attempt to be the hero, he tried and failed to save the deciding shot of a World Cup final penalty shoot out with his feet. I’m sorry to piss on anybody’s parade – but we aren’t all ‘creative’, and some people are definitely more ‘creative’ than others. It’s about using a different part of your brain and interacting with the world in a completely different way. It’s like playing football with your hands rather than your feet.

Emerging from my dumbstruckness, I attempted to reason why creative teams are essential to an agency, but my speech was slightly slurred and my brain was as agile as my one-eyed geriatric arthritic ginger tom cat by that point in the evening. What I was trying to say in my drunken stupor is that I can see why agencies want to work in this way. It’s a way of working born from the golden-hearted democratic principle – ‘together.’ I have a deep respect for the kinds of agencies whose whole philosophies are born from the beautiful principles of democracy and equality. As democracy gives everyone the chance to give what they have to give, great ideas can come from anywhere in such an agency. Democracy is hard to get right, however.

Thus, it was the word that preceded it, ‘ourselves’, that concerned me. This word preceding ‘together’ belies some fundamental human impulses that fight against the noble democratic principles at play. Human beings are hardwired with Neanderthal impulses: to instil a pecking order, to be competitive, to be self-centered. We derive a sense of self, or ego, from understanding one’s position within a hierarchy. Teams are inadvertently plagued with hierarchy. Read Lord of The Flies if you disagree. Hierarchy or ‘teamwork at all costs’ is creatively stifling. Sabotage, put-downs and one-up-manship can plague brainstorms, as we all know. Sucking up to people higher up the chain, or appeasing people to look like ‘the nice guy’ always leads to ‘group think’. ‘Teamwork’ in our often embarrassingly corporate world can mean a room full of non-autonomous thinkers saying “I don’t know. What do you think?” To quote ‘creative’ Hugh Macleod (who wrote ‘Ignore everybody’) “Team players are not very good at creating values of their own” – they need the team’s constant reassurance to survive.

We all rationally know that, in theory, (to quote Neil Hourston from The Corner) “no one of us is as effective as all of us.” You will see on any agency’s website under their ‘culture’ or ‘about us’ tab words to the effect of: “we have an open collaborative environment that allows each of the diverse voices in a room to be heard.”

A little thing economists call ‘Division of Labour’ is what has carried human progress since the Industrial revolution. I am not advocating rigidity, as that too is stifling, but there is something to be said for not invading the ‘creatives’ territory. ‘Creatives’ simply think differently to Suits, and consequently, when they do their bit we must trust that they are doing it right. Democracy also works on trust. Each person in a creative problem-solving situation needs to be comfortable with knowing where their strengths lie relative to those of the rest of the team. This way they can pipe up (no pun intended) when they want to *gasp* disagree with whatever the person with the most inflated job title is saying or have the courage to be in the minority with a certain view.

Suits (although there are exceptions and frustrated creative-suits, my aforementioned colleague is probably one of them) think in rational, sequential, straight lines that join problem to solution. Creatives see squiggly routes from A to B, associations, combinations and the like where most people cannot see any.

Creatives are more than just lateral. They intuitively grasp how imagination exists in the gaps between things and comes from the right chemistry between people. Creative problem solving is not about striking bargains, assigning tasks, ‘feedback’ or getting shit done: It’s about banter, carelessness, freedom and often a lack of sense of purpose that allows people to meander sideways.

Creatives aren’t in a hierarchy either when there’s only two of them. They don’t work in a team, really, they work ‘together.’ They seem to evade the office politics which can be so very toxic for creativity.

Therefore it is what exists ‘between’ the copywriter and art director, however, that Magritte’s peculiar text and image paintings show to be important. Creatives intuitively understand the nuances of being creative together. They understand the ping-pong game of imagination and the optimal conditions for a good game: a friendship of mutual respect.