When I was first getting interested in ethical consumption, and talking with friends about how best to encourage others buy the things we think are better for us and our planet, I suggested that it is more effective to “be the change you want to see” in as cool and impressive a way as possible, than it is to preach about it in a boring way (even if your preaching is perfectly accurate and correct). One friend thought for a second, and asked if this meant that when out in the supermarket, you should take your bag of FairTrade/Organic/ethical coffee beans, do a backflip and slam-dunk it into your trolley/basket?
Essentially, I had to agree that this was the essence of what I was suggesting. One of the most influential schools of thought which has informed my understanding of people is that related to the role of ‘affects’ on the way we think. A key lesson for me came from the work of Brian Massumi, and the idea that the ‘rational’ thoughts that we have are always the output of a continuing back-and-forth between the impact of our environments and external stimuli (the ways we are affected by the outside world) with the memories and knowledge which constitute our character. In terms of its relevance here, it is a lesson which marketing and advertising bods of the big-bads are on the cutting edge of - it ain’t what you sell, it’s the way that you sell it which is crucial: convince people, even in the crudest possible terms, that what you have is desirable then they will find themselves buying it even if they have no need for it (even better, they will invent reasons for needing it after they’ve bought it). We are, in spite of our complexities, very simple beings in many ways: use colours that are widely well-received, words which are of the moment or make people smile, and the positive association created, no matter how subconsciously, has achieved its goal.
A question that stands out, however, given that people are not completely unthinking and ignorant of rational arguments, is to what extent it’s possible to change the stimuli which give people a positive association and lead to certain actions. Should you use the lowest-common-denominator approach of selling to the most obvious and basic instincts you perceive, even if you completely disagree with the tendencies they sell to? Advantage: reaching the widest possible audience with the message you want to promote. Disadvantage: reinforcing stereotypes and messages you are not so keen on.
This advert, as discussed by UK ethical fashion entrepreneur Esther Freeman, is a good example of the kind of dilemma I’m talking about. (Question: brilliantly effective marketing campaign or hopelessly undermining itself and women’s struggles everywhere?)
This question reappears contantly for me, not least in Kris and Gabe’s disagreements on this blog. In this form, it appears as a reformulation of a classic division amongst progressives and those pushing for change: should you compromise on some issues (e.g. focusing on price to better sell ethical products) to the detriment of other issues (e.g. drawing attention away from price towards people and real costs)?
This understanding makes it a question of political philosophy: do the ends justify the means? From an ethical point of view, is consequentialism (what you do) or deontology (the way that you do it) more important?
The backflip slamdunk change model incorporates both sides of the debate under the helpful umbrella of affects: the way you do things is fundamentally important to the emotional response that it creates, but what’s more important is to recognise that ‘rational’ reasoning emerges out of this response, and that ‘rational’ elements of messages may also carry emotional impact. For Massumi, and other slightly less comprehensible theorists like Deleuze and Guattari, our understanding of the universe is based on the resonance that images, messages and the external world has with our bodies - bodies made from the affects of the sum total of our experiences.
This ‘sum total’ viewpoint suggests to me that not only do you have to do things in a way which is in line with the ethics of what you’re promoting, but that if you can give the right message in the right way to the right people its effect will be profound - the key here is to search for the highest common denominators. And a backflip slamdunk would seem to me the highest possible.