When safe is not sound

The spirit of the age seems to be one of scaremongering, with ads feeding on all our fears. Alex Cameron calls for a more positive outlook as we enter the new millennium. Alex Cameron is director of Ice Design.

As we approach 1999 and the 365-day countdown to the new millennium, we should expect a host of documentaries, exhibitions and books about the current and future prospects for humanity. A tall order, but an irresistible project nonetheless. Who could shy away from a debate about religion, science, technology and, indeed, creativity, as we approach the dawn of a new age?

In light of recent discussions, which put a new premium on the creative industries, emphasising the important role they play in modern society, such a debate about the future is bound to feature prominently in Design Week. And so it should. Many recognise that creatives have an important contribution to make to the development and streamlining of the communication process, and to the enhancement of everyday life. This all sounds like good news. As a creative, I am pleased that our work is being taken more seriously, and I am excited about being at the centre of things. But I have some concerns: creatives seem to be drawing on “safety-awareness” and fear of the future for much of their work. A potted survey of some ad campaigns illustrates this and begs the question: what does such an emphasis say about our industry and, more importantly, about society?

The recent reworking of Zanussi’s “positivist” slogan, “The appliance of science”, is one worrying example. Zanussi’s new ad campaign offers a series of contrasts on roadside billboards – contrasts between good science and bad science. One image shows an atomic bomb exploding, with the slogan, “The misappliance of science”. Another shows a woolly jumper being taken out of a washing machine, with the slogan, “The appliance of science”.

The message of this campaign may sound harmless enough. Better a washing machine in the kitchen than an atomic bomb, and more affordable too, many will think. But when I spotted another ad for Zanussi showing Dolly the cloned sheep, complete with the slogan “The misappliance of science”, I couldn’t help wondering where this judgement of modern science will end. Who says genetic cloning is a bad thing? Or atomic power, for that matter? The Zanussi campaign is implicitly critical of some of the most important scientific developments of the century, while hailing a home appliance like a washing machine as the height of scientific achievement.

Monsanto also broke from the norm with its recent ad campaign. It not only advertised its own product, genetically modified foods, but also the details of groups which oppose the production of genetically modified foods. Even ads for organisations which are breaking new scientific ground feel the need to provide a public information service for their doom-mongering opponents.

Then there is the campaign for the VW Polo car. A powerful TV ad shows a series of slow-motion, black-and-white shots of people crouching down and covering their heads to protect themselves – a boxer protects himself from his opponent, a fireman shields himself from fire and demonstrators take cover from a water cannon. The ad ends with a shot of a Polo and the slogan, “See how safe you feel when you make yourself small”, flagging up the car’s petite size. This is a far cry from when car ads were aimed at speed-hungry, freedom-loving individuals. By contrast, watching a recent documentary on the Beach Boys, Endless Summer, I was struck by one account of why the band was so successful: it drew on the optimism of a generation which enjoyed unprecedented freedom and had the spending power to match. Surfing and driving cars, two of the Beach Boys’ favourite themes, captured the sense of individual freedom and the almost limitless opportunities brought about by mass production. Today, though, we seem to be offering the stuff of nightmares instead of dreams.

Perhaps this is to be expected. If society in general is fearful of the future, it is inevitable that those fears will be represented in society’s creative output. And if they are as widespread as they feel, such fears cannot simply be counteracted by saying, “The future is bright, the future is…”.

The “I really like it” school of thought versus the “I really hate it” school is a debate that will neither convince nor inspire anyone. Maybe what we need is a more critical and thoroughgoing approach to the issues of the day. Creatives should draw inspiration from our times without falling in line with the fearmongers and the purveyors of “safety-awareness”.

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