The Golden Age of Bullshit isn’t over, but there are reasons to be cheerful

We might be living through The Golden Age of Bullshit, but that doesn't mean we can't still be positive, argues Al Crawford.

In 1649, King Charles the First was executed for being a bit of a dick. Lopping off his bonce was a big call. Back then, England was even more invested in crown-wearing castle owners than it is today.

No wonder contemporary commentators referred to it as a ‘world turn’d upside down.’ This wasn’t just unfamiliar territory. This was the end of the established order.

There was an explosion of radical thinking – from the excellently named Levellers, Diggers, Shakers and Ranters – on how things should play out.

In the world of marketing the last decade or so has seen some epic ranting of its own. The arrival of digital, the explosion of channels and the proliferation of data has turned our world upside down. And it’s set off a firehose of pronouncements unprecedented in volume and velocity.

Partly, this comes down to t’internet. In the old days, you had to access a printing press – and probably a pesky editor – to crank out your radical tract. These days, any schmo with a keyboard and zero inhibitions can spam the world.

Then there’s the industry’s love of drama. Not for us the tepid prose of lawyers. Oh no. We revel in the extreme language of death and reinvention: I’ll see your seismic and raise you a paradigm.

Emphatic pronouncements have abounded. Purpose is the panacea. Blanket advertising is dead. The funnel is a goner. Digital will usher in a totally transparent, zero wastage era. Interaction replaces interruption. [Insert channel of your choice] is dead. And our latest fetish: our job titles need to change.

Small wonder it’s been called the Golden Age of Bullshit. No sooner have you wiped yourself down from some millennial-related splatter, then you’re covered in brand activism doo-doo.

However, if you fossick around, you can find some grains of hope.

Firstly, we are past the point of peak credulity. A decade ago there was a near-universal desperation to anoint spotty-faced, Silicon Valley sociopaths as infallible messiahs of marketing. Brave new hero(in)es for a brave new world.

Since then, utopian promises have given way to a more mundane, sometimes murky reality.

Big data has radically changed our world, but zero wastage and unparalleled accountability have not transpired. Indeed, the digital supply chain is more Augean stable than transparent marketplace.

Meanwhile, the most brazen assertions have been backtracked upon. “Advertising is the price you pay for having an unremarkable product or service”, said Jeff ‘Superbowl Splurger’ Bezos.

And platforms that advocated deep, organic engagement with brand lovers have quickly seen the philosophical, and financial, error of their ways.

The industry has also become less murderous and apocalyptic. Back in the day, anybody that stepped forward and pronounced the imminent death of this model or that channel was cheered to the rafters by a bloodthirsty crowd.

Time has been a great revealer. For all the Doomsday predictions, the end of days hasn’t rolled round with anything like the speed or definiteness that was promised.

New channels have gloriously emerged, but older channels haven’t just survived; some have thrived and evolved.

Amazingly, combination and coexistence, not violent, winner-takes-all competition are now being preached. Facebook and TV are the very best of frenemies.

And the anti-intellectualism which dominated the first part of this Golden Age is receding. Let’s face it, things got Trumpian for a while.

Its direst manifestation was the anti-historical angle. What had come before should be eradicated, rather than digested and debated. The industry had a Dead Poets Society moment. Rip out the pages by Dr J. Evans Pritchard Phd. That’s it. Rip, rip. Let me hear you tearing.

DDB’s grand poobahs, for example, tried to move away from their Bernbach roots in a creaking bid for modernity. Very quickly, they realised their grandad was the wisest and sharpest-dressed member of the family and put his painting back on the wall.

It’s catching on. The old gits of marketing – the Aakers, the Trouts, the Doyles – are experiencing something of a renaissance.

We haven’t just warmed to the wisdom of the ancients. The past few years have seen the rise of a nerdy, thoughtful resistance.

In the Terminator movies, it was led by the muscular Sarah Connor and her husky son John. Our world has the cerebral Sarah Carter and the melodious Les Binet.

Alongside them, the likes of Scott Galloway, Helen Edwards, Rachel Kennedy and Mark Ritson are all creating islands of excellence in a sea of excrement.

This doesn’t mark the beginning of a new, bullshit-free era. Sadly, you’re going to be playing whack-a-turd for years to come. But it does provide a solid blueprint for avoiding the worst excesses of our time.

Healthy scepticism plays a vital role. Ignore what they tell you on jury duty and assume guilt before innocence, even from people you’re predisposed to believe. If the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that convenient answers often hide inconvenient truths. Oh. And that statistics are like assholes. Everyone’s got them.

The ‘purpose’ debate is a case in point. Linking purpose to commercial performance is a magnificently attractive idea, particularly to bourgeois liberals. Gushing books and talks have been penned on the subject. But most of the claims are absolute bobbins.

Beyond the healthy scepticism, a more intellectual approach will reap dividends. The age of acceleration has led to us celebrating hustle and chutzpah over more studied methods.

Indeed, it’s become popular to divide the world into street-smart practitioners and detached philosophers. This isn’t just inaccurate, it’s unhelpful, suggesting that you’re either a doer or a thinker and never the twain shall meet. What the world needs now – apart from love, sweet love – is thinkers who do.

In this respect, this is the best of times, even though it sometimes feels like the worst. The information superhighway may have unleashed hucksterism, but it has also democratised excellence. We have never had better access to the rock stars and the rock-solids of marketing. Find them, celebrate them and stick to them like barnacles.

And finally, we must keep our savage, bloodthirsty tendencies in check. The new world that’s emerging is exciting enough without it needing to involve the violent death and destruction of the old. We can gaze excitedly at the future, whilst looking at it through the lens of the past.

As for 17th Century Blighty, Charles II wafted back into town in 1660. The monarchy was restored, but forever changed: a mixture of traditional and progressive thinking. Now there’s an idea.


Al Crawford is a marketing consultant. This piece first appeared here.


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