Sunday, October 26, 2014

Some Philosophical Bullshit For You


I studied Philosophy at university. Well, in theory I did. Like many students I was more interested in going to discos and eating kebabs, so I only really got around to seriously looking at Philosophy in my last term, which was probably a little late.

Nevertheless, occasionally I observe something in advertising that dredges up a Philosophical memory.

Last week I was wondering... are many of the disagreements that we have with Clients, and among ourselves within an Agency, real disagreements, or are they just disagreements about language?

The splendid fellow with the pipe you see above is Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), one of the founders of the Analytic School of philosophy, who believed that most philosophical problems aren't really moral disagreements or religious disputes or whatever, just disagreements about language.

He argued that if we could just be super-clear in our use of language, the problems would go away.

I reckon that's a cool tip we should try to adopt in advertising. I mean, so many problems arise because you show someone some ideas, but what they wanted was what you call strategies (although they call them ideas). Or you ask someone for ways-in, and they come back with scripts, which is what ways-in means to them, although you meant something else.

So, can we not just agree upfront what we all mean by terms like 'idea', 'strategy', 'thought', 'execution', 'territory', 'way in', and 'platform'? 

Then we'll hopefully spend less time floundering around like a fish in an empty bathtub.

9 comments:

Chris T said...

If only we could stop making up words with which to confuse ourselves.

Anonymous said...

As a recent member of the advertising club I think you have hit the nail on the head.
No one tells you what these things mean, there is no University or TAFE course out there that explains what is meant by these terms. Where is the advertising dictionary that defines these terms?

jeff said...

What's standing in the way of this is people often don't know what they want. So they use jargon to cover it up and hope that through some stroke of blind luck the person tasked with the task finds the magic solution.

Dave Trott wrote a bit about this back in 2011 (and surely other times). So maybe along with clarity of language comes just plain clarity?

Martin said...

Ha! I did philosophy too. I remember when I started out someone showed me a "proposition". So I explained that a proposition should be along the lines of "If A=B and B=C, then A=C".

That went well.

Anonymous said...

A platform contains territories and territories contain ways-in and ways-in contain executions.
So you present 3 platforms. Each platform contains at least three territories. Each territory must have at least three ways-in. And each way-in must contain these executions. TV ads, Press, Posters, Digital, Ambient and Content and Social Media and the same again for what we'd do in year 3 and the same again for year 5.
You will end up making one shit ad and an unsuccesful social media campaign for which you will have to buy clicks from Indian children.

Either that or platform and territory can mean whatever the fucking hell you want them to mean at the time.

What they actually mean is the speaker is saying "I have no idea what I'm talking about."

Daniel Barnes said...

OK, so some contrary philosophical bullshit for you.

Russell's proposal - that if we could just be super-clear in our use of language, the problems would go away - was a common belief amongst logical positivists as well as others.

It certainly sounds plausible, even commonsensical in principle. It's a shame it doesn't actually work in practice.

Why? Well, as that arch critic of logical positivism Karl Popper pointed out, it's almost impossible to get "super-clear" and precise in the use of language. There's several reasons for this. Some of the more fun ones include the fact that words are defined by…drumroll…other words. Which in turn have to be precisely defined by other words…and so on. This is what logicians call an "infinite regress", which is basically a no-no. So rather than make communication more quicker and more accurate, worrying overly about defining terms can have the opposite effect: dragging out the issue, always sharpening your pencil but never writing anything.

Another problem is that words are inherently vague and ambiguous. This is not a bug, but a feature. After all, while there are lots of words, there is an infinity of things. Words often have to do double/triple/quadruple duty to try to cover them all. Words also have deep, crisscrossing historical roots and associations; they are rich in content, but this comes at the price of precision. (In contrast, numbers are precise but nearly empty - there is a content/precision tradeoff).

The upshot is that Russell's proposal turns out to be simple, beautiful, and wrong. What then should we do? Well, the bad news is that there's no quick, easy fix. Writing clearly and concisely is a never ending struggle, especially if you're dealing with words like "strategy", "territory", "platform" which are inherently vague and general. Rather than debating terminology, it's more about working to phrase your sentences so they're as fresh, clear, and compelling as possible - its not the words themselves, it's the way we combine them. So the good news is that us copywriters are not going to run out of work anytime soon. For the last word I'll hand the mic to Karl Popper:

"We are always conscious that our terms are a little vague (since we have learned to use them only in practical applications) and we reach precision not by reducing their penumbra of vagueness, but rather by keeping well within it, by carefully phrasing our sentences in such a way that the possible shades of meaning of our terms do not matter. This is how we avoid quarrelling about words."

And that's quite enough philoso-bullshit for now.

Scamp said...

Um, yeah, like I said, I did basically 1 semester...

Ciaran Murphy said...

"I studied Philosophy at university. Well, in theory I did. Like many students I was more interested in going to discos and eating kebabs, so I only really got around to seriously looking at Philosophy in my last term, which was probably a little late."

Holy shit Simon, are you me?

Scamp said...

We are all One.