By design, most advertising is shiny and happy. Its creators not so much.

May 7, 2010


“Funny, I don’t feel in good hands.”

Much has been documented on the correlation between mental illness and creativity. The starving artist is an unfortunate cliché. That he or she will be tormented by demons seems almost necessary, par for this particularly hazard-ridden course.

And so, as a young man, I wondered if by choosing writing, and then copywriting, was I in turn dooming myself to a life of anxiety and depression? Would misery be my price for creativity? Despite any worries, I was not deterred. Even then, few things satisfied me as much as the creative process. It was easy dismissing morbid thoughts while in the midst of creation. Bit puzzling during down time but that’s what drugs and alcohol were for!

If artists and writers tend to be happiness-impaired then I think it’s fair to say so are many art directors and copywriters. For better and worse, do we not share the creative gene? Carry the argument one step further and a bittersweet irony emerges: that the advertising we make is shot through with optimism beyond what permeates the real world, especially ours. The myths we create for our clients are almost always universally positive. We bring good things to life, even if, as copywriters and art directors, we lead lives of quiet desperation.

Poets can wallow in their misery, the satirists their cynicism. Painters express themselves however they see fit. But except for the Rogues Gallery copywriters and art directors have no such outlet. Our clients demand jubilant creative. If our work demonstrates a problem it is always followed by the solution. Has to be, for that is the definition of advertising. As Dan Draper said to one of his staff, “We don’t create anything. We solve problems.”

Surf the trade blogs. Much of it is angry and critical. This agency sucks. So does that campaign. Fingers point far more than thumbs go up. We don’t appear to like one another. We often don’t appear happy. I know bad news travels faster than good. If it bleeds it leads. But sometimes I wonder: Are we really just miserable? And then the irony…

A copywriter cries himself to sleep at night but everyday he’s “lovin’ it” for McDonald’s. An art director suffers from serious abandonment issues but advocates were “in good hands” with Allstate. And so on. Happy thoughts created by sad people.

And so I ponder creating all this delight… Does perpetually finding the bright side make us cynical? Or can the power of positive thinking eventually imbue us with happiness? Is it all bullshit and who cares? My answers: Yes. No. Maybe.

Yes, I’m generalizing. Not all of us are miserable. But then, not all of us are creative. Have a nice day ☺

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25 Responses to “By design, most advertising is shiny and happy. Its creators not so much.”

  1. Thanks for this post. I really needed to read something like this today. It’s been a tough week.

  2. JD BB said

    Hi there,

    While there’s truth to the tortured creative soul, I think that assumption overlooks the saddening fact that- let’s be honest- who is completely happy? Do you imagine that accountants file reports, pack up their desks and then head home to bask an ever-growing glow of positivity?

    What separates the creative from the accountant is the intangible. Accountants can see a problem in 0′s and 1′s, quantify it, rectify it and ultimately seek pleasure in completing a straightforward task. The creative, however, never has that solace. There is no 0 or 1 that will certainly solve the problem. It’s that gradual frustration- having your answers overlooked/undermined, seeing someone else realize their vision, or worse, not having an answer- that allow cyncism, depression and sadness to creep in.

    So I don’t know that it’s the over-abundance of happiness in advertising that is driving those who create it to drink. Rather, I think it’s the resistance in creating that happiness that truly undermines the otherwise happy copywriter/art director

  3. I’ve never done any drugs and never had a problem with alcohol.

    But still, if the torment ever leaves me I’ll know it’s time to find a non-creative profession.

    2009 stood out as being an especially non-creative and unproductive year for me, basically because I had to numb myself psychologically to some major personal issues.

    I’m happy to report the inner torment is back this year.

    “One must have chaos in one to give birth to dancing star.” -Nietzsche

    • SRP said

      JD-
      No doubt the dark clouds haunt many but it’s the artsy types who get clobbered.
      Mark-
      Your comments always make me happy -Thanks!

    • tjay said

      Thanks Mark. I feel better now. I was beginning to think I was weirder than acceptable limits. You’ve given me renewed perspective for my creative angst.

      • Take it from me. One must find productive ways to channel the angst. I meditate at least a half hour a day.

        I would also recommend the book “Linchpin” by Seth Godin for good advice on how to make your discontent work for you.

  4. tracy said

    For me, torment goes the other way. Yes, I work out anger writing hate letters and throwing myself into a project can be as therapeutic as a Valium. But, by and large, to work, in the commercial sense, I need to be in just the right place.

    I worry about how mood-dependent my ability to produce can be. I live with a constant, low-grade anxiety and if it ratchets up few notches, it is very hard for me to “be creative” — an expression which, incidentally, makes me feel like a trained seal. When I’m in these weeds, I have an especially hard time working collaboratively because I have so little tolerance for other people.

    This is kind of like some odd little cosmic joke when you consider having an idea, writing just the right thing or picking just the right typeface produces at least, a feeling of contentment and well-being, if not out-and-out euphoria.

  5. jim schmidt said

    Folks, artists suffer for their craft. They are zealots who passionately pursue their vision regardless of the economic ramifications. Advertising practitioners are usually middle and upper middle class white people. They spend their days sitting in Herman Miller chairs tapping on Apple computers–at least when they’re not downing their fourth latte of the day. They eat at 4-star restaurants and lay their heads on 800-thread count pillows. Ad people, in general don’t want to suffer–that’s why they are in advertising; a field that embraces mediocrity like a long-lost cousin with a winning lottery ticket in his back pocket. What depresses most ad people is the fact that at some point they realize that the emperor (in this case themselves) has no clothes. Or, in this case, ironic t-shirt.

    • tjay said

      How do I get a job like this? I’ve been schlepping an advertising career for half of my life and I don’t get any of this stuff? Can I at least get the pillow? I’ll carry it around with me in case there’s a chance to lay my head down somewhere.

      • tracy said

        And I want a t-shirt…I don’t know about you, tjay, but it’s advertising I’m pursuing “regardless of the economic ramifications.”

        Because I wanted to stick close to home, I’m part of a small shop in a small town. Our clients are a motley collection; our Macs are creaking, groaning and running outdated software. I refer to my partner as the MacGyver of CDs because he pulls miracles out of thin air, given our limitations and our clients’ $0 (seriously) budgets. Well-meaning friends call to tell me about jobs in the paper (no, I’m not qualified to run a web press but thanks for thinking of me).

        I know a big part of my anxiety and misery is financial but I ultimately love, love what I do. I never wanted to write a novel and I can’t paint for sh*t but I adore advertising and design. I traded economic security for getting to do what I want to do where I want to do it. And, despite being broke and in the middle of nowhere, I’ve gotten to work on some crazy projects and meet some crazy people. So in the meantime, I’ll get by with cigarettes, gin and ramen noodles. I’m totally with the starving artist thing. Oh, and having written this, I feel better than I have in weeks.

  6. beckman said

    Yeah. Sometimes you need an on/off switch.

  7. tjay said

    New T-Shirt Ideas:

    Creaddict:
    Donate Espresso

    PC ADverse:
    Upgrade Stat!

    Creaddict:
    Donate Gin

    Windows Allergies:
    Do Not ReBoot

    Creaddict:
    Donate Jameson

    The Ad is Dead.
    Long live the Ad.

    Creaddict:
    Donate Red Bull

    (I’m feeling a series here. Who can we get to pay for this? Is there an Account Exec in the house?)

  8. jim schmidt said

    advertising is fun as long as you keep it in perspective. remember though, that quite often your job is to create demand for stuff people don’t really need. and, in some cases, stuff they’d be better of without.

  9. jim schmidt said

    on one level that’s kind of funny, but for all those ad folks who’ve sold cigarettes, created beer ads aimed at 16-year-olds and clogged the arteries of four-year-olds with their inane Happy Meal commercials, well, they have to live with themselves.

    • tjay said

      Something I tend to forget about advertising: not withstanding the occaissionally beautiful turn of phrase and the similairity of elements like color, type and form, advertising is not art. It’s a craft. A trade. Granted there there are more than a few artists working in advertising. That is painful. Much as we hate to face it, we work to serve another; to communicate the message of another. We don’t need to agree with those messages to express them. Our job is to do it. Art does not express the views of another.

      Of course, when you think about it, the lines get blurred a lot. Go to a museum and look again. Some of those paintings were actually ads from the time before we had Macs.

      • tracy said

        …so you’re thinking about art under a patronage system, with specific subject matter being commissioned. The artist in effect receiving a brief and his work having other purposes beyond his own personal expression…Glorify a church, serve as a reminder of someone’s power or generosity, communicate to a largely illiterate population. Early branding and PR…

  10. jim schmidt said

    can advertising be a form of pop art, sure. can it be real art, the kind that reveals the core of the human experience, not much chance of that. as someone told me years ago, we are glorified sign painters. and that’s fine. it’s a job, you do it to the best of your abilities and then you go home. to your real life.

    • tjay said

      Yes, Tracy. That’s exactly what I’m thinking about. The artists who didn’t find themselves a patron probably starved. Maybe they made art that changed the world. Who knows? The work of the unknown artist is part of the public domain, filed under “Anonymous”.

      In more recent decades, advertising as pop art WAS doable, profitable and sometimes fun. (Sniff, I miss those days.) Unfortunately, current shifts in marketing and advertising priorities has upended creative departments all over the world. Who needs creative anymore? Anybody with an email account can, and does direct creative. Internet and DR firms give companies the false impression that all advertising ROI can be quantified and captured on a spread sheet. Social marketing strategies abound. Who even needs an ad anymore? Ads make us do things we don’t want to. (We wish.) Nobody likes ads. (Never mind all those people who tune into the Super Bowl each year to watch the ads.)

      So now the normal, productive levels of creative angst are over-the-top. Who needs us anymore, we are wondering? For those of us like Tracy, who have given our hearts AND minds to this craft, what will we do if it turns out no one does actually need us? I don’t know but with the amount of creative angst in the atmosphere, I’ll bet it will be fabulous. And by the way Jim, for some of us, this IS our real life. That is what’s so crazy-making.

  11. jim schmidt said

    tjay, is it your REAL life? or a subset of it? i would hope that your family, friends, kids, religious beliefs, etc are all more important to you than selling stuff because someone pays you money to do so.

    • tjay said

      Family, kids in particular are very expensive, and yes, I have three of them. So the subset of my life that IS a career in advertising has taken over virtually everything else. We really don’t have enough time to have it all. To do anything well takes time. A lot of time. To remain viable in any field, but especially advertising, takes more time than many people realize. Speeches about prioritizing are endless. Bottom line, it’s a happy Mother’s Day at my house precisely because none of my offspring are starving or homeless. They’re even reasonably educated. That’s because I’ve given up a lot of other things to make sure of this. To do this by working in advertising means that I find a lot of what makes me happy in my work; including friends. Job satisfaction is a big deal to me. It’s where I spend most of my time. Once the kids are truly self-sufficient, I’ll probably give it all up to spend the rest of my life as a starving artist. Maybe the kids will come by with something to eat here and there.

    • tjay said

      Jim, most jobs are about doing something or another because someone pays you money to do it. Creative people in advertising have the interesting challenge of forgetting that fact just enough to allow for innovation and creativity. In other words, we have to pretend we are working for ourselves.

  12. jim schmidt said

    tjay, trust me, you have to prioritize; something has to come first. do you make all of your decisions based on what’s best for your family or all based on what’s best for your job. they’re not the same thing. sadly, too many people find this out after they’ve blown their family life apart because of some wrong decisions. spend as much time as you can with your family, your hobbies, etc and odds are, you ‘ll do better work because of it.

  13. tjay said

    Believe me, I know about priorities. That’s more fodder for the anxiety mill. Which do you prioritize with? Your head, or your heart? My heart would have run off long ago to follow my dreams. In some ways, it did. That’s how I wound up in advertising pretending that what I do matters in an artistic sense. Problem-solving as an artist in a business environment — this works out great for those who’ve been lucky enough to employ me. And believe me when I say, I have never had a ‘real job”. Creative Direction is not usually anything like the mindlessness of say, making the same movement day after day in a job with NO outlet for creative expression. Even if I could find a manufacturing job today, could I do it and go home to my family in time to cook dinner? My brain would explode first.

    Yet it’s true, to stay in advertising, I have NOT really spent as much time as I might have in pursuit of my dreams. The life of a painter or singer is not really great for babies. Not so great for supporting oneself at all. There are no doubt millions of people in the world who’s talent will not support them right now. There are probably millions of jobs that take full advantage of that reality. Jobs that spill over into several disciplines, requiring people to work longer and longer hours to keep up. Again, the lines are blurred. Prioritizing is not that simple.

    So what does come first? I hang on to some sacred part of myself for dear life, that’s one. I try my best not to let my family down, two. And three, I work my butt off to remain marketable in a trade I can still respect so that I can take good care of one and two. In the meantime, I have made some amazing friends at work. That helps with the angst too.

  14. tjay said

    A dream deferred does not always become ‘a raisin in the sun’. Sometimes they make decent decorations. My family has grown up surrounded by my dreams. That’s why they’re so confident about their own.

    Lorraine Hansberry, a very anxious young woman from Chicago, wrote “A Raisin in the Sun” a long time ago.

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