The reality distortion field
On the response to the last post; a related book by Steve Harrison; the ghost of Milton Friedman; Gordon Gekko and the Cult of We; Uber; Mohammed bin Salman; Dove and Benson & Hedge’s.
First, thanks to all who have subscribed since the first post. My plan is to send something once a month and make it a substantial read. The broad theme: using language as a way into wider cultural and political issues. For now, I’m still pondering this word ‘purpose’, where so many commercial and ethical issues intersect.
1. The response – and a related book
The response to my first post has been heartening – you’ll find various takes if you dig around LinkedIn and Twitter. It was also reposted with slight edits on Creative Review and will be in the next print edition.
The reactions varied, but my general sense is that people welcome the idea of talking about this subject at all. Although there have been countless articles about Purpose – already true when I first wrote about it in 2017 – it’s become such a dominant and politicised narrative that it can feel hard to talk about freely. I had a few responses from people who shared the purpose scepticism but felt it wouldn’t help relations with clients or employers to say so openly.
Another writer recently spoke out in a louder way. Steve Harrison’s book Can’t Sell Won’t Sell is a blistering take on advertising, politics and what he sees as a narrow ideological orthodoxy that has taken over adland and shifted it further from the mainstream it’s meant to serve. To whatever extent you buy the argument, it’s worth reading to see a master of direct response copywriting extending that skill to book length. The author does his research and weaves data points together to build a case. There’s even a direct response mechanism at the end – he includes his mobile number.
You can get a flavour of the argument from this Campaign article. I could say more about where our arguments overlap and differ, but right now I want to focus on two broad pushbacks that Harrison’s book has received, because they echo some of the responses I had to my post.
2. Welcome to the grey area
A recent riposte comes from Ben Kay – ad writer, blogger and Creative Review columnist. His broad objection is that Harrison presents too simplistic a binary between ‘selling’ and ‘purpose’ – in the end, it’s complicated and everything is a grey area. I had similar responses to my post, broadly agreeing that purpose-wash is bad, but there are some good examples and it’s all a spectrum.
I welcome any acknowledgement of grey areas – we need more of that. But there’s a lack of consistency in some of the arguments. Tim Lindsay, Chairman of D&AD, makes the same point against Harrison’s book in an earlier article, accusing him of making a simplistic, binary case. But a few paragraphs later, Lindsay insists advertising needs to be “on the right side of history” and concludes: “Advertising can be part of the solution or it can continue to be part of the problem.” It’s hard to think of a more binary edict to give to the industry.
Reading Ben Kay’s post, I found myself in the strange position of wanting him to rein in the greyness. At one point, he finds himself arguing that banning homosexuality is ultimately a matter of opinion (“But here’s the problem: plenty of Muslims would disagree with you, and that’s because there is no right or wrong here; only opinions.”) This is the kind of moral relativism that leads you to some dark places. I understand he is using this as a deliberately exaggerated way to make a point about cancel culture, but I don’t think the argument runs through. The idea that anti-cancel-culture people are actually pro-cancel-culture because they want to cancel cancel culture is not convincing.
I do agree with one criticism Ben Kay makes of Harrison’s book, where he objects to the idea that the ad industry has ‘forgotten’ how to sell. Once you dig past the purpose-based stuff, I would say there is still a lot of clever, creative and effective selling going on. Some of it even gets recognised at the highest level – It’s a Tide ad was a Black Pencil winner. If anything, it feels like more of an achievement when ads like these get recognised, because you know they haven’t had the following wind of purpose to help steer them through the juries. I would argue the ad industry still knows how to sell, but doesn’t feel confident in talking about it, and doesn’t get enough support from the top.
3. Relax and trust capitalism
But now I want to get into a deeper criticism of both Steve Harrison’s book and my post. Many people follow the anti-purpose argument most of the way, but are unsure about the conclusion – that businesses should focus on being successful businesses and everything else will work out. As I put it in my last post:
For business, it means rediscovering a basic and heartening truth: that businesses are pretty useful things in themselves. Recognising the positive contribution that businesses make to society need not involve believing things that aren’t true, or convincing yourself that an altruistic purpose drives all your decisions. Instead, it can be grounded in an honest realisation that, by turning a profit, you have the opportunity to employ people and pay them generously, with all the positive ripple effects that has on families and communities. You can give to charities, treat your suppliers well, and do the single most socially purposeful thing any business can do: pay your taxes.
Steve Harrison makes a similar argument and, like me, goes to some lengths to say this doesn’t happen automatically. It requires governments to set boundaries and businesses to be responsible, sustainable and accountable to their customers. But removing the delusion of purpose allows businesses to focus more clearly on the trade-offs involved, pursue their core expertise with more honesty and humility, and ultimately make a better social contribution as a result.
All fine, but hovering behind us is the ghost of an old economist: Milton Friedman.
It’s instructive to go back and read his seminal article from 1970, because you realise how long these arguments have been going on. Titled A Friedman Doctrine – The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits, the article makes a case that seems to chime with Steve Harrison’s argument and mine. Friedman includes qualifiers about the role of government in setting the rules of the game, and the moral and commercial imperatives for businesses to behave ethically. But his article is remembered more straightforwardly as providing the intellectual blueprint for what eventually followed – the naked ‘Greed is good’ commercialism of the 1980s.
So here’s a question for me. If I argue in 2021 for ditching brand purpose and getting back to the core realities of business, am I unwittingly enabling some Gordon Gekko of the 2030s? (For those unfamiliar, Gordon Gekko is the character played by Michael Douglas in the 1987 film Wall Street – origin of the infamous phrase ‘Greed is good’.)
4. The Gordon Gekko of Purpose
To answer that, I want to talk about the Gordon Gekko of the 2010s.
I’ve recently finished reading The Cult of We – a gripping account of the rise and partial fall of WeWork and its charismatic founder Adam Neumann.
It tells the story of how a real estate company managed to convince itself and the world that it was a technology platform on a mission to elevate the consciousness of humanity. Alongside his wife Rebekah (cousin of Gwyneth Paltrow), Adam Neumann became the figurehead of what he called the We Generation – millennials determined to ‘make a life not just a living’ – all while funding an extraordinary alcohol and drug-fuelled lifestyle for himself. Propelled into the stratosphere by venture capital from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, WeWork eventually came crashing to earth when its IPO exposed basic truths about the balance sheet that had been hidden under layers of wildly optimistic story-telling and semi-religious fervour.
The book is a brilliant parable of the purpose decade. In one key scene, Israeli-born Adam Neumann and his Chief Legal Officer Jennifer Berrent have just sealed a staggering deal for $4.4 billion in venture capital, and are belatedly pondering the geopolitical implications of taking money from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. “We’re taking toxic money,” says Neumann with what appears to be a genuine pang of conscience. Jennifer Berrent’s reply is revealing: “I’m Jewish and gay... I’m not accepted in several different ways by the Saudi government – and many other groups of people. Let’s take their money and do something good with it.”
It struck me as a great example of how purpose can warp moral judgements. Once you’ve convinced yourself that your end is noble, any means towards that end can be justified. It’s a circular logic that plays out in smaller ways in many smaller boardrooms.
But my main reason for mentioning the book is an insight that comes up in passing. Adam Neumann’s office at WeWork’s headquarters in Manhattan turns out to be in the same building where Oliver Stone filmed Wall Street back in the 1980s. Neumann’s mantras of ‘Do what you love’ and ‘Make a life, not just a living’ were born just down the corridor from the office where Gekko proclaimed ‘Greed is good’.
And it was more than a coincidence. Having looked into it further, I discovered Neumann and his co-founder Miguel McKelvey initially bonded over a shared love of the film.
It’s a poetic illustration of a real point.
Instead of fearing a Gordon Gekko of tomorrow, we should fear the Gordon Gekkos of today. The ones in jeans and t-shirts, not pinstripes and braces. They are the most effective kind of con artist, because their first victims are themselves. Neumann’s insane riches and hedonistic lifestyle weren’t something he pursued secretly behind a purpose-wash cover story. He did it openly because there is no contradiction in his philosophy. If your purpose is good and every time your valuation grows it furthers that purpose, then greed really is good. Even better, it’s not greed at all. You get to be a saint as well as a billionaire. Purpose and profit are two sides of the same infinitely valuable coin.
5. Your Uber has arrived from Saudi Arabia
WeWork is no outlier – the same stories are unfolding in real time today. This recent thread on Uber by Cory Doctorow is an uncomfortable reminder of how so much of the VC money that keeps disruptive, millennial-friendly businesses afloat comes from the oil-rich prince behind the murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
As with WeWork, basic truths of accounting are endlessly deferred by claims of a brighter future ahead and a bigger social purpose at play. As Doctorow notes deep into his thread:
All of this is exactly what anyone with a shred of critical reasoning would have foretold from the very early days of Uber, but the company has managed to put up a surprisingly durable reality-distortion field that kept the investments pouring in.
Purpose is the reality distortion field. Switching that distortion field off won’t affect the truly ethical businesses. But it will affect the businesses who trade off it cynically, and the greater number of well-meaning companies who scramble their internal moral compasses by believing in a true north that doesn’t exist. Switching off the distortion field means the next giddy entrepreneur who says their mission is ‘To make the world a better place’ will get laughed out of the room instead of hailed as a guru.
6. The separate question of taste
All of the above is a reflection of deep arguments about the role of business in society and the nature of capitalism. You can even get the philosophers involved – there are open questions about whether a business can be said to have moral agency at all, or just the people within it. Maybe purpose is a delusion resting on a deeper delusion about business.
None of which I’m going to resolve here.
But I do want to close on a separate argument about purpose, which I don’t believe hinges on any of these deeper political and philosophical questions. It’s a question of taste.
I’m picking an example that makes my case tough to argue, because I suspect many people will see no issue with it.
Check out this discussion of the Courage is Beautiful campaign by Dove – Grand Prix winner at Cannes and Yellow Pencil winner at D&AD.
I think most brand purpose advocates would see this as a good example of their case – a positive-sum equation in which there is no downside. The frontline workers are grateful to be featured and say so openly. The client has made a $2.5m donation of its products to Direct Relief, a charity supplying frontline equipment, so tangible social good has been done. And yes, it helps raise brand awareness that will ultimately sell more Dove products, but what’s the harm in that? Surely it’s better than another poster with a smiling woman talking about her smooth skin?
Like I say, it’s a hard case to make. But notice the hesitation near the beginning of the video – the slight note of defensiveness in that “It wasn’t about an ad”. Where does that come from?
I think a lot of us feel it on some level. Something about it just doesn’t feel right.
This is a crucial point for me. A lot of arguments against brand purpose hinge on it not being effective. As Steve Harrison says, adland has ‘stopped selling and started saving the world’.
That may be true, but the focus of my argument is different. This Dove campaign could be proven to be the most effective campaign they have ever run, and I would still have a problem with it. Once you multiply this approach by countless other brands acting the same way, I believe there is a big downside to the equation – but we have become numb to it.
I’d be happy to live in a world where Unilever sells lots of its products responsibly and sustainably with brilliant creative advertising – and then makes charitable donations to sponsor posters celebrating frontline workers. Instead of the Dove logo and a line linking it to their brand, these posters would have the logo of a charity on them, and an invitation to donate or volunteer, and the small print would say the funding for this campaign has kindly come from Unilever. In a world like that, the public wouldn’t have to live with this low-level background noise of commercialised do-gooding – this dispiriting sense that public good has to come with a private interest attached. We’ve got used to this privatisation of morality, just as we’ve become used to the privatisation of our public spaces. But I don’t think it has to be like that.
I’ll stretch my point even further. I recently came across this image by photographer Peter Mitchell – a beautifully observed poster site featuring the classic campaign for cigarette brand Benson & Hedge’s.
Again, a brand purpose advocate would use this to bolster their case, not mine. Surely we’re better off with Dove than with this arty bullshit cynically subverting advertising guidelines in order to glamorise the number one cause of lung cancer? That’s progress, right?
Yes, in a way, but I also wonder how we’ll look back on Dove ads in decades to come. Will they seem ‘on the right side of history’, or will we shift uncomfortably at the memory of that strange moral bargain we struck with corporate interests? Given a few hours and several beers, I would make a case that the Benson & Hedge’s ads are more honest, not less – and certainly more creative.
7. How progress happens
But the bigger point is this: if societal progress has taken place since Benson & Hedge’s, how did it happen? Not by businesses leading the way, with their grand purposes, but by unheralded campaigning organisations applying gradual pressure, scientists proving indisputable links, and successive elected governments ploddingly setting new rules of the game, answering to millions of people whose real power lies in their role as citizens, not consumers.
I think this is key. Rather than me being on the ‘trust capitalism’ side of the argument, I see advocates of brand purpose as the ones placing trust in corporations to solve the problems they create. The B Corp model is the latest attempt to square the circle, but there are structural weaknesses it can never resolve.
It’s tempting to look at the state of our governments and think purposeful corporations are our best hope. I believe it’s the exact wrong way to go – and a surefire way to summon up the Gordon Gekkos of the future.
Thanks for reading – and please feel free to comment or share.
This was excellent. The part that interests me most here is how you describe the subtle uneasiness many (most?) of us feel when corporations communicate a "we're saving the day" message--usually to assuage our own complicated feelings and lack of agency as we watch the world blowing up around us. I'd love to hear you dive into that more deeply--that discomfort and where it can lead us.
This reminded me there's a hugely entertaining essay on consumption by the late anthropologist David Graeber, encompassing St. Augustine, the Garden of Eden, Adam Smith, Deleuze, and so on, who noted in all of his research no one in the professional field had defined what they meant by "consumption". I get a similar feeling with "purpose", it's so broad and undefined, with added flaws and fakery.
Do we agree the purpose of a company is more than maximizing shareholder value (or profit, if not public)? If we do agree, and crucially, also take on board Friedman's critique of CSR/purpose, then together that begins to give us something to hold up when, for example, the US's "leading purpose agency", who are lauded by the industry, does some work for Uber/Team Bonesaw, and can compare that to NYC Taxi Drivers Coop, launched in May '21 and now the largest worker coop in the USA. "But it's a coop"...
Are private equity text-book profit-maximising companies structurally incapable of doing purpose? I can't help but feel distaste when purpose is measured by revenue, or 'return on purpose'. Why not simply express it in terms of how they helped solve the social problem itself. (Mark Fisher/K-Punk wrote a short evisceration of RED/Amex that sees right through all the cant). So to your point, should social problems just be the domain of NGO's, non-profits, government, all with democratic oversight.
But then, see this statement from ICI back in the '80's, “ICI aims to be the world’s leading chemical company, servicing customers internationally through the innovative and responsible application of chemistry and related science. Through achievement of our aim we will enhance the wealth and well-being of our shareholders, our employees, our customers and the communities which we serve and in which we operate.”
That's quite "purpose-y", yes? Like you say, this has been going on for a long time, but it soon changed to, “Our objective is to maximise value for our shareholders by focusing on businesses where we have market leadership". I share your reservations, but there is a problem with finance capital, and this inevitably filters through to day-to-day business.
Are we in this situation because of the Friedman doctrine and light-touch regulation? I'd argue we are, and business won’t voluntarily set boundaries, just as they won’t voluntarily decarbonize, and they actively lobby against regulations and new tax laws.
There's a hint of arguing for a return to Friedman. Can business fix the problems business has caused? Yet, you rightly point out, “rather than me being on the ‘trust capitalism’ side of the argument, I see advocates of brand purpose as the ones placing trust in corporations to solve the problems they create.” It's getting tautologous.
And, there’s an implied get-back-to-basics in the ‘stopped selling and started saving the world’ pov, and also embedded assumptions in what counts as ‘effective’, that needs unpacking.
You could make the observation that ‘purpose’ is something of a political Trojan horse advocating to change the internal cultures of corporations, as one move in making the political space for change, or, if you’re a cultural studies prof. you’ll scoff it’s a corruption & facile distraction from the “real work”.
WeWork is the perfect example of the latter!
And to your point about Dove et al, everything hinges on this statement, “I’d be happy to live in a world where Unilever sells lots of its products responsibly and sustainably with brilliant creative advertising”.
Responsibly and sustainably. There is a lot to unpack there, and I suspect we are soon going to be arguing more over net-zero and the fundamentals implicit within “green growth” versus “post growth”, where perhaps notions of purpose is going to get folded in.
We are at some inflection point, it is fascinating, that questions of political economy are being discussed in a business context, & truthfully, all money is political money, so it’s about time. We’re experiencing significant upheavals in the social bargain, for most of us probably the first time in our working lives.
Purpose is some form of negotiation in media res, we need to understand where it came from, why we ever started using it, and was it says about our assumptions.
It might not be the best way to think about the responsibilities of business in the age of the Anthropocene, beyond simply selling stuff, in which case we had better develop better terms, and we should put market oversight in place e.g. https://influencemap.org for purpose washing, because you're right we can't rely solely on govt.