What on Earth can this peculiar noise be? It grows louder, somehow more insistent, and then stops, followed by an urgent hissing in diminuendo that ends with an almost human sigh…
Nervously drawing back the grubby, moth-eaten, net curtain of my hovel in glamorous, downtown Blank Street I see a great shining phaeton or limousine has drawn to a halt outside in a huge, swirling cloud of pinkish steam.
From a tiny door at the rear an equerry leaps, dressed from head to toe in the plangent viridian and heliotrope McKelvey tartan, and unfolds a set of steps in order for the great man to descend in all of his considerable pomp. For it is he!
Lord McKelvey flourishes his voluminous, white cloak of vat-grown ermine, each tiny filament be-jewelled with points of dew from the billowing, rosy steam and bellows mellifluously…
“SPOONER, YOU SPINELESS MAGGOT! I SEE YOU ARE ADMIRING MY VEHICLE!”
I grovel politely amongst the discarded drug paraphernalia that glitters and tinkles like splinters of winter ice along the gutters of glamorous, downtown Blank Street and whisper ‘Yessir!’ as is my wont.
“WATER! WATER YOU VERMIN! IT IS POWERED BY HYDROGEN! SUCH IS THE LOVE THAT I BEAR FOR THE NOBLE PLANET THAT HAS FOSTERED MY GENIUS IN THE FACE OF THE DEPREDATIONS WREAKED UPON IT BY DESPICABLE INGRATES SUCH AS YOURSELF!”
I gesture feebly as if to apologise.
“BAH!”, he booms. “It has come to my attention, Ms Lipizaner, my dressage instructrix, mentioned it to me in the orangery this morning, that you shall have, when this new task is completed to my satisfaction, that you shall have, I say, produced fifty columns for my magnificent organ, Decision Marketing Magazine!
“And I plan to reward you with a new hovel, should you execute my instructions dutifully and with your customary prolixity! Think of it! Tremble at my magnanimity!
I gesture meaninglessly again.
“RIGHT SPOONER! A COLUMN ON THE RESPONSIBILITY THAT THE ADVERTISING INDUSTRY BEARS FOR THE HORRORS OF CLIMATE CHANGE DELIVERED TO MY DESK BEFORE MY DARLING CHANTICLEER, COCK OF ALL MY BANTAMS, CROWS TOMORROW AT AND IT WILL BE SO!”
Upon this bombshell, Lord McKelvey springs athletically back into his gleaming limousine, which settles with a great creaking of springs, rises a few inches on its cushion of steam and with a great, serpentine hiss, lurches away along glamorous, downtown Blank Street.
Pocketa-queep! Pocketa-queep! Pocketa-queep! Pocketa-queep
And who am I, your humble scrivener, to disobey?
We shall start with a message, received from our Northern Correspondent, Melvyn Newton. Please ignore his slightly gauche opening remarks…
“Haven’t read your column for a while but wondered if this letter in today’s Guardian might be grist to your mill. It is wonderful nonsense but, also, I think a lot of people think this about the advertising industry:
“Department for Transport figures have shown that 86% of motorists drive at over 20mph in 20mph zones. I live on a road with a 20mph limit and can assure you that 86% is an underestimate. Drivers can get away with it because they constitute 35 million of the electorate. So what is the point of imposing curbs via a policy that is largely irrelevant? The sad answer is politics.
“The real villains are the advertising agencies that have spent a century locating the car at the centre of our lives – motorists are only driving in ways as shown in adverts. More generally, the advertising industry is probably just as guilty of generating the climate emergency as the much more maligned fossil fuel industries.”
Peter Taylor, Tynemouth, North Tyneside (published in the Guardian August 1)
Well, where to begin?
Even as a conceited and probably quite unpleasant young man in the early nineteen-eighties, swaggering, drunk, into my first advertising agency, I probably realised that my task was to become a successful pimp in the seedy whorehouse of late-stage global capitalism. “Have a look at this credit card, go on, you know you want it, sleek and full of promise, think of the glamorous things you could do with it!” as my jejune copywriting might have had it.
And, of course, there is no moral or ethical content or context to what we do. In my time I have flogged fags, booze, gambling, nuclear power, holidays in nations run by appalling regimes, and, most shamingly, innumerable forms of credit that are now, quite rightly, illegal.
But this issue feels very slightly different, especially now that I have bred.
I have punted out Porsches, lionised Lexuses, oversold Citroens, lauded Land Rovers, talked up Toyotas and even pimped out Peugeots. And now those gas-guzzling chickens are coming home to roost with a carboniferous vengeance.
It’s worth mentioning here that I have never held a driving licence. But I have been one miniscule siren-voice in the great paean of praise to petrol that has sounded and resounded through the echoing galleries of commerce for (as Peter Taylor reminds us) a century or more.
And, of course, that’s long enough.
But think of all the great songs, the exquisite bits of film, the astonishing futurist paintings, and the objects themselves enfolding a thousand cultural markers to do with glamour, sex and status.
Were cars sexy because they were bad, or were they bad because they were sexy?
The false sense of independence they conferred on a war-mangled generation, the sense of autonomy (hah!) that they granted, whether one was whooshing down the Corniche in a Bugatti, or sleeping in a Ford Anglia outside the labour exchange, oh how true it felt! It felt real, it felt like life!
Well we shall all have to stop it now – as the AI-generated TV commercials for hygienic, soulless electric vehicles so clearly confirm.
Let’s have a word now from my friend Leo Rayman, one-time chief executive of Grey Consulting. He is a person who is striving valiantly, in the face of a world on fire, to get advertisers and their agencies to clean up their act…
“I am the founder and CEO of EdenLab, a climate tech company that helps businesses create a better future for all of us. We scout design, and assemble new business models, propositions, products, and organisation designs that actively contribute to a net zero fairer world.
“Sometimes I feel that attacking the ad industry is like screaming at the petrol pump attendant about the fossil fuel industry. It’s not that agencies aren’t complicit in perpetuating a damaging system, they are, but really, they’ll serve whatever master the brief serves up. Perhaps it doesn’t have to be that way. If no one wants to be a petrol pump attendant… eventually they’ll just automate the role out of existence. Bet the fossil fuel firms are all over ChatGPT for copywriting 😉
“Look at tobacco. Even once we knew it was cancer causing, there was always an agency somewhere hungry enough to service them. Oil and cars and flights will be the same to 2050. We’re looking at it through the wrong end of the telescope. Creativity would be better applied to the problem itself, not to comms about BAU.”
I think Leo has it about right, there’s little point crying about what has gone before as I know from bitter personal experience. But we can all do our small bit to, perhaps, make things a little better. Here’s one small thing you can do right now…
Duncan Meisel is executive director of Clean Creatives and a digital strategist for Progressives. Here’s what he has to tell you:
“Early in 2022, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change identified ‘corporate advertisement and brand-building strategies’ by major polluters as a significant contributor to the climate emergency.
“Since then, the fossil fuel industry has spent effectively none of their record profits on renewable energy, and rolled back their limited climate goals – while continuing to advertise the exact opposite to the public.”
“Clean Creatives is working on a new report documenting the agencies that have continued their work with polluters during this historic rollback of their climate goals. We are focusing on the fossil fuel work happening now, with the full knowledge of the impacts it creates.
So that escalated quickly – from nonsense in the style of Peter Simple’s column in The Telegraph all those years ago – to a request for you to snitch on your agency. I feel that the trajectory is absolutely appropriate to my 50th column in Lord McKelvey’s august and upstanding organ.
Wish me joy in my new hovel!