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I heart creativity
The problem with ‘We heart NYC’ goes deeper than aesthetics: it’s an example of how purpose is parasitical upon creativity—and counterproductive for creating social change
I did my best to ignore it.
For days, I was aware that the We heart NYC campaign was blowing up on Twitter and LinkedIn and I didn’t think much of it either way: another overblown fuss about a logo, another wave of heated reaction and counter-reaction about something creatively clumsy but not exactly a crime. Don’t enter the discourse, I told myself.
Then came a moment of weakness. I noticed how everyone was talking about the visual execution: the logo, the font and the 3D effect on the heart. And not many people were talking about the line.
Reader, I tweeted:
And I elaborated:
And I left it there. At this point, I was wondering if I was turning into the proverbial guy with a hammer, to whom every problem looks like a nail. Maybe it’s a stretch to see We heart NYC as the work of Purpose. Not everything has to be about Purpose. Make your little cultural observation and move on, I told myself.
But it turns out everything does have to be about purpose. Because everyone keeps making it about purpose. (Paragraph above from Design Week, followed by the MaryamB Collective home page—the agency behind the initiative.)
What follows is not really about logos, headlines, or a criticism of any particular people involved—all the personal vitriol is stupid and in any case misses the dynamics of how these things work. My post is meant as a wider cultural reading of an event that’s not totally insignificant (a major campaign by a world city in post-pandemic times) and how it fits into a pattern. I see it as a parable of how purpose stands on the shoulders of creative giants in order to raise its placard. And in the process, it proves less socially effective than the giant beneath it.
I’ll assume everyone knows the story of the Milton Glaser logo—how he scribbled it on the back of an envelope, in the back of a cab, in the back streets of a near-bankrupt New York, mired in levels of crime and poverty that are barely imaginable now. Without any help from social media, the mark became a symbol of New York’s resurgence—absorbed by osmosis into the visual and verbal character of the city. Following 9/11, Glaser produced an updated version, featuring a bruised heart and an extended line—proof that there is nothing wrong with playing with beloved symbols, when it is done with skill and judgment.
The new version appears to be the product of a ‘multiple stakeholder’ process involving the purpose-driven agency mentioned above and various city authorities and corporate partners. I have some sympathy for the torturous process this creates—you can almost hear the fifteenth person in the room saying ‘Actually it should be NYC not NY’, or the murmured suggestions of making the heart ‘pop’ a bit more. And you can definitely imagine the nods and quiet air punches when someone said ‘We heart New York’ is actually much better than ‘I heart New York’ because it’s more inclusive and diverse isn’t it? There’s no I in Team!
Purpose loves talking about ‘We’. Sometimes it’s writ large in the brand name: WeWork. Usually it’s a top-down ‘We’ imposed by a distant, disembodied corporation. ‘We are not an island’ says HSBC, beaming into the high streets of Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester to tell ‘us’ that ‘we’ are all part of something much, much bigger.
Purpose believes ‘we’ is better than ‘I’, because ‘I’ is literally one person and that sounds selfish and limited, doesn’t it? But we is more than one person, so it has to be more inclusive and empowering.
Creativity knows that’s not how it works. The beauty of ‘I heart NY’ is that it’s opt-in. Wear the badge or t-shirt if you want. But no one is forcing you into it, or assuming your agreement. People generally don’t like feeling controlled or cajoled—and New Yorkers especially don’t like it. Up yours, you son of a bitch. I’m walking here.
The irony, which isn’t even that ironic, is that ‘I heart NY’ became a collective symbol: something locals and tourists were happy to buy into. It created a big, unspoken ‘We’ by not being literal about it. That’s where cognitive empathy comes in—if you want to change human behaviour, it helps to understand human nature. Purpose starts from the assumption that it is right, and that its truths are self-evident. It’s a closed way of thinking that conscripts everyone into this big blob of ‘We’. Purpose is tin-eared when it comes to social change.
The controlling tone of ‘We’ comes out in the sniffy reaction to the social media backlash (recent poster and LinkedIn excerpt above). Like a teacher in front of class, Purpose stands with its hands on its hips and says ‘Well, I’m glad we’re listening at least! Perhaps we would like to turn some of our reaction into doing something constructive, shall we? Have we thought about that?’
It’s a principle not dissimilar to Godwin’s Law: as any brand-related social media storm escalates, the probability of someone saying ‘Well we’re talking about it, so it worked!’ approaches 1. The related power move is to claim you’re prepared to take the hate if that’s what it takes for people to sit up and take notice. It’s always post-rationalised—brands rarely set out to create this reaction. And it’s not entirely untrue that lots of bad reaction can create a feedback loop where people start loving how much they hate the campaign—high-profile failures can generate some benefits. But the ‘all publicity is good publicity’ line has its limits—people aren’t clamouring for reruns of the Cosby Show.
But now I want to broaden out from this campaign and compare it to a couple of others I mentioned in my moment-of-weakness tweet. First, Beanz Meanz More (Heinz). And second, The Best A Man Can Be (Gillette).
All three are variations on classic slogans. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with playing off familiar assets—the updates aren’t ‘replacing’ the originals (as if they could), and in many ways they help to reinforce them. It’s also a time-honoured creative technique to take familiar icons and give them a twist. But what’s interesting, from a cultural semiotics perspective, is the direction in which the twist always works: in each case, it’s one-upping the original line in a moral sense.
Yes, The Best A Man Can Get has a nice rhythm and rhyme, but ‘get’ is very materialistic and acquisitive isn’t it? What if it was ‘be’?
And yes, Beanz Meanz Heinz is a clever play on words, but it’s quite limiting isn’t it? Shouldn’t we think bigger and be more inclusive?
And yes, I heart NY was great, but these are different times, where we urgently need to talk about ‘We’. (This is the rationale given in the press coverage—see above. It’s not explained how our times demand ‘we’ more urgently than the urban hellscape of the 1970s.)
As I noted in my tweets, there’s a sense of presentism in all this—the tendency to judge the past from what is presumed to be the superior moral perspective of the present. It’s something I’ve covered in previous writings about purpose: the ad industry finds it daunting to live up to the creative giants of the past, but it’s easier to outflank them morally, or at least to strike that pose. You see that dynamic in creative awards schemes, where purpose has become the best way to bypass critical creative juries. In the 1980s, people used to complain about agencies doing pro bono charity campaigns, because it was easier to do something powerful with a big social cause. So the charity campaigns were eventually hived off into a separate category. Now the response is to get corporations to embrace social causes, and insist that ‘the best creativity has a social purpose’. It’s a convenient trick for as long as it works.
Sometimes you see it in the actual slogans. But it’s the case with purpose in general. In 2015, I wrote about Andrex discovering its purpose was to start a conversation around ‘Clean’, which led to the nadir-redefining Scrunch or Fold campaign. This was after decades of building a giant and much-loved brand by talking about toilet paper that was soft, strong and very, very long, and showing a nice puppy—instead of talking about wiping techniques. As I said back then: It’s that kind of proper, big, traditional advertising that built Andrex to the point where its marketing people can afford to sit around in meeting rooms talking about starting conversations.
And this is so often the case with Purpose. One of the set texts that fuelled the whole movement was Jim Stengel’s Grow, which listed 50 brands that he claimed as proof that purpose worked. The case was dismantled by Richard Shotton, but the ad industry was already besotted—Martin Sorrell said he was ‘utterly convinced’. All of it was a purpose movement claiming retrospective credit for brands that had been built on years of classic marketing. And it remains true today. If you’re Hellmann’s debating your next purposeful marketing campaign, or Mars claiming that purpose is still the future, then you’re only in a position to do any of this because of decades of hard-selling creative work that built your boardroom and handed you that budget.
All this may seem like an over-reaction to a single, presumably well-intentioned, marketing campaign. But, if you take purpose seriously on its own terms, then these things are worth analysing.
We Heart NYC is a campaign that aims to create actual social outcomes: inspiring people to take pride in their city, pick up litter, join a volunteer initiative, help their neighbours. Those are noble goals and it would be nice if it worked.
A good way to do that would be to ignore the siren calls of the purpose crowd, enlist some creatives who can think laterally instead of literally, and give them the trust and freedom to do what they do best. That opportunity should be open to everyone without prejudice or favour, but it’s also OK if the genius idea ends up coming from one old boomer straight white guy in the back of a cab. And it’s better, not worse, if the line says ‘I’ instead of ‘We’. And no one gives a shit about the difference between New York state and city—that’s your internal concern, not theirs.
All this is about cognitive empathy (the act of perspective-taking as best as you can manage it) allied to creativity (the open mindset part that comes from humility in the face of the challenge).
Purpose is inimical to all this stuff. It starts from a closed mindset: it is already right. And it structurally invites hubris over humility. The superficial outcome is another logo drama and passing social media storm, but there are deeper cultural currents beneath all of it, and that’s what I’ve tried to explore in this post, which I didn’t plan to write.
One last footnote: whose purpose is all this anyway? Are New Yorkers truly keen to overcome divisions between rich and poor, or business and workers, as Kathryn Wylde claims? Or are they keen to do the opposite: bust through the cosy ‘we’ that purpose imposes and talk about how the rich have priced New Yorkers out of their own city, and corporate interests have diverted the economic anger of Occupy Wall Street into a decade of people bullshitting about business purpose instead?
All rhetorical questions.
For anyone new here, I’m a writer of poetry, downbeat diaries, branding and advertising projects, articles for Creative Review and The Guardian, books about design, and occasional songs. Thoughts on Writing uses language as a way into wider cultural and political issues.