I love words. I love playing with grammar for effect. I love using words for their power. Words are a huge part of my creativity. They are for ad creatives like Rob Morrison too. Words can also be a minefield. Especially in this weird woke world. Rob could not have told that story better. Keep reading…
Why racist, sexist, homophobic and ageist words survive in a woke world.
How wonderful is the English language? It allows us to express the full range of human emotions. Love. Joy. Wonder. Anger. Hate. Regret. But its greatest trait is how it constantly evolves. New words and phrases appear with constant regularity. Equally, ancient expressions are suddenly recognised for being completely inappropriate.
It’s a moveable feast.
Language is the only element of our modern world that’s changing as rapidly as technology. Of course, as creative problem solvers, we need to be aware of those changes. We need to go where our audience go. Speak to them in their language.
But, as ever, there’s a wrinkle.
The world of words now has to, quite rightly, account for the world of woke. We’re all desperately trying to navigate the newly defined pronouns without causing offence – ‘they’ doesn’t have to be plural. Occupations are littered with hidden gender references – with clunky solutions like ‘businessperson’, ‘salesperson’ and ‘cameraperson’. And phrases innocently used suddenly seem sinister.
And I’m as guilty as anyone.
I recently used a metaphor which I hadn’t even considered had racist overtones. We were in a meeting doing a post-mortem on a recent client presentation. I was describing how the company had too many layers of approvals. How it was thick with red tape. How it was top-heavy.
I said; “There are too many chiefs and not enough Indians.”
It was naïve, said without malice, but I still breezed over it without thinking about the context. But, and here’s the key, I was called out for it. Rightly called out. Someone in the room felt uncomfortable with me using the phrase and said so. No hysteria. No accusations. No anger.
I’ll never say it again – regardless of context.
The incident reminded me of an article I wrote years ago which was vetoed by agency leadership. I was working for one of the large networks when I wrote an opinion piece titled “N*ggers, Sl*ts and P**fters.” Except I didn’t use the asterisks. I used the words. To be fair, I was looking to provoke a response. I got one. The OpEd never left the building.
But it wasn’t just click bait.
The column itself talked about the power of the language. That the words we choose are important. But what’s more important is the context in which we use them.
One of many examples I gave was Kanye West. He frequently uses “N*gger” in song lyrics (Again, without the asterisks). He greets his friends by it and often uses it to describe himself. He’s taken ownership of it. That’s very different from an elderly white man screaming it at him from under a white hood.
Equally, I’ve seen a group of powerful, intelligent women happily greet each other with “Sl*t”. In the right peer group it’s a glowing compliment.
Sub-groups of the LGBTQIA+ community are now owning “P**f”. Don’t believe me? Take a walk along George Street, Sydney on a Saturday night and hear the echoing bass of The Ivy’s “P**f Doof”.
As for me, I’m owning the grey-haired creative tag. In an increasingly ageist industry, I’ll happily self-deprecate as being “The old man”. But if you’re in your 20s and a recent arrival in Adland don’t you dare use that back at me.
Which brings me back to applying the love of language. When creating advertising we’re often blind to context. We’re very conscious of “Who?”, “What?” and “Where?” we’re communicating. But forget to ask “When?” or “What’s come before? Or coming next?” Context can be your secret weapon.
Just don’t get it wrong (like some of us grey-haired old bastards).
Rob Morrison is a rarity in advertising – a grey-haired creative. Rob’s experience includes time as a Creative Director at Ogilvy, BWM (now BWM Dentsu), George Patterson Y&R (now VMLY&R), Campaign Palace and Wunderman. He now runs his own consultancy – morrison.collective.
Here are two more opinion pieces from Rob Morrison: