Riots and responsibility: guilt touches an icy adman’s heart

There was a cartoon in the Observer, the weekend after the August riots, that showed a procession of kids, hooded like the Nazgûls from the Lord of the Rings, carrying looted PlayStations and flat-screen TVs through a burning street. Leading them was a piper, also hooded, wearing a sandwich board saying ‘consumerism’. It stopped me in my tracks, standing out from the hand-wringing, the hunt for complex sociological causes. An oversimplification, some might say. And yet, looking at it, I detected a feeling unfamiliar to my icy adman’s heart. Was it … guilt? I’ve been a copywriter for seven years, and I’ve worked on plenty of briefs for sportswear, gadgets and luxury goods. What was my role in all this?

It’s an unpleasant idea to entertain, in fact the ad industry has a vested interested in never doing so. One of the advantages of the establishment response to the rioting, that it was an outbreak of ‘lawlessness’, without a political motive, is that it absolves anyone but the looters of responsibility. Mark Ritson, a columnist for Marketing Week, reframed this idea from an advertiser’s point of view: “What does this mean for marketing? Nothing. Are there large numbers of greedy morons living in Britain? Yes. What do we do about it? No idea.” In other words: nah, nah, nah. It makes you wonder how he typed that, with his fingers so firmly in his ears.

But let us be clear: we are in the business of encouraging people to want things. Branding is designed to direct their desire toward specific objects: Nike not Adidas, Apple not Nokia, etc. The dogma that we’re peddling is that the only thing that will make you happy is getting precisely what you want. And how much do you need to want something before you’re prepared to break a window, let alone break the law, to get it? At least, the riots provide the public affirmation we’ve been waiting for: our work is not for nothing. We may insist that people take the same responsibility for the management of their desires that smokers do for the health of their lungs. After all, lots of people want an iPad, can’t afford one, and somehow restrain themselves from ram-raiding Dixons. But the fact remains that even in their moment of delinquency these consumers remained consumers – they were like the zombies in Dawn of the Dead, who in death keep dragging themselves round a shopping mall.

The piper can’t stop

Seen in this light, I would argue that the riots do have a political aspect. The left-wing thinker, Slavoj Žižek, points out their “moment of protest, an ironic response to the consumerist ideology ‘You call on us to consume, while simultaneously depriving us of the means to do it – so here we are doing it, the only way we can’.”
In mitigation, we might consider that we – me, you, Mark Ritson – are as trapped in all this as the looters. It seems that the piper can’t stop playing, not even for long enough to admit that he’s playing.

‘Gordon Comstock’ tweets at @notvoodoo

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