You and Your Meaningless Career in Advertising

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If you ask a random sample of advertising people what would make their lives more fulfilling, a good chunk of them will say the following: “I wish I had a more meaningful outlet for applying my creativity.” It’s a predictable answer, but a telling one, and an even more predictable side effect of a career devoted to consumerism.

But despite ad folk’s general commiseration over the shortage of meaning in our day to day lives, only a handful of us are actively devoting a portion of our creative guts to the general betterment of mankind. Lately I’ve been wondering about this, because with so much apparent interest in making the world a better place, the number of people really doing it doesn’t seem to add up. What’s holding us back?

It’s not a lack of problems, that’s for sure. No one spending 80 percent of their day on a computer can hide from the subpar-ness of some choices we made in the last 100 years, and fresh side effects of these decisions surface daily. But as our definition of ‘social bad’ continues to broaden, it’s curious to note that the definition of ‘social good’ is stubbornly refusing to keep up, with its everyday interpretation more or less hitting a hard wall at helping malnourished kiddos in remote Kenya find water, food or medicine.

There’s a weird battle that pops up when attempting to modernize this definition, one that‘s potentially at the root of why so many of us swiftly abandon our inclination to get involved. It’s a competition of causes; a man made measure of what, exactly, counts as making a difference. I’m not sure what the point of the debate is, but I’m convinced that its core holds nothing better than a crappy sense of self-righteousness, born from finding the most CNN-ready crime against humanity and claiming that problem as your own. No more hunger by by 2020? Sure, that counts. Rounding up all your credit card purchases to give to charity? Eh, that’s not social good. That’s white guilt.

Besides the obvious silliness of turning the social good space into yet another ego battle, the bummer is that this “problem elitism” is polarizing enough to turn ‘normal’ people off from getting involved. Not to mention the real bummer, which translates to a major loss in the amount of good stuff getting done, period. After all, if there’s a barrier to entry for saving the world, how can we possibly maximize the earth-redeeming potential for all skill sets, including (and perhaps especially) creative ones?

I’m sure there’s more reasons why ad people are only wading in the world of meaningful things. But in effort to debunk at least one of those reasons, I’ve gotta clear the air about this one in particular: Social good is not a world owned by saints and martyrs, nor is it defined by the scale of the problem you’re hoping to solve. Social good is everybody’s, and it happens each time we do something a little better, a little greener, and a little more considerately than the people before us.

It has to be. Because the truth is, we’re long past the point where problems are confined to third world countries. Most of our most pressing, more localized issues aren’t things that can be solved by a team of lawyers specializing in social justice, they’re just things our forefathers did wrong the first time. It’s almost fair to call them White People Problems, because we’re certainly responsible for their existence.

So what is fair cause for white guilt? Definitely not a hesitancy to relocate to Africa. But if you’re staying mum while your print production team repeatedly selects toxic processes and materials over greener ones, well, maybe you should speak up. If your client’s seeking new packaging but you’re not strongly recommending biodegradable options, maybe you should start researching those alternatives. If something of local significance has been bringing up some questions for you, maybe you should write an open letter, blow it up, and wheat paste it on your garage door. If you’re not doing those things and you’re whining about your meaningless existence in advertising, well, maybe you should shut the fuck up.

Yes we’re running out of water. Yes we’re running out of clean air. But you know what else a lot of people suspect we’re running out of? Creativity. And that’s exactly what we need to rethink what’s broken. So get off your butt. Drop the guilt, grab a White Person Problem and start using a fraction of what you’ve got – anything you’ve got – to make it go away. That’s all it takes. And if the ‘social good’ people give you hell for helping from the comfort of your air conditioned office – just tell them it’s social good enough. And maybe ask what the hell they’re doing back in the US. Slackers.

Carmel Hagen is a communication and experience designer at COMMON, a creative community for rapidly prototyping social change.