I recently attended a performance of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. The play is a light-hearted classic that creaks a little in a modern context. It’s nonetheless crammed full of elegant wordplay and bulletproof bons mots. Wilde subtitled the work A Trivial Comedy for Serious People, and throughout he celebrates the seemingly superficial things in life: courtship rituals, social etiquette, when and how to eat muffins, that sort of thing.
I found myself thinking about the communications industry. We could hardly claim it’s the most important business in the world. Here we are, gently suggesting that the familiar and everyday might be bigger, better, faster and fresher. Lives do not depend on us; history is not written about us. We nonetheless pride ourselves on the clarity of our thought and we apply ourselves to our trade with vigour and seriousness. Ours is perhaps A Trivial Career for Serious People.
Of course, media folk sometimes imagine that we could have done something a little more worthwhile with our lives. In a parallel world we could perhaps have been painters, poets or politicians. We could have been contenders. Couldn’t we?
But we should not be too harsh on our chosen career.
In the programme notes to The Importance of Being Earnest the journalist Al Senter observes that the critics of Wilde’s day were dismissive of the frivolous comedies that were then fashionable in London. They yearned for theatre of Ibsen’s seriousness, plays that considered genuine social issues. Senter suggests that Wilde may have been making a very particular point with his subtitle. For Wilde the trivial and serious are intimately related:
“We should treat all trivial things of life very seriously and all serious things of life with a sincere and studied triviality.”
This tension between the trivial and the serious is what I’ve always liked about the communications industry.
I like the application of intelligence to the commonplace; the elevation of the inconsequential and incidental. Events of personal and public import are generally intertwined with the petty and insignificant; in the words of the old Reader’s Digest column: “Life’s like that.”
Of course, somewhere between the serious and the superficial you’ll also find great comedy. The communications industry has generally had an ambivalent relationship with humour. While advertising often seems to be laughing, comedy has generally been prescribed a very particular role. It earns engagement; it’s the sugar coating that attracts audience attention. But it can, in excess, divert attention from the core message and as the great adman David Ogilvy famously suggested: “People don’t buy from clowns.”
I think comedy is more valuable than this. The brand with a sense of humour demonstrates a shared understanding with ordinary people that life isn’t lived in straight lines. It indicates a certain amount of humility: that this brand has things in proportion; that it understands its place in the world.
Too many brands are puffed up with their own self-importance. They demand centre stage like a tragic Ibsen heroine. They talk of purpose and passion and values as if they’ve just discovered them. They presume we care.
The writer and broadcaster Clive James once wrote: “Common sense and a sense of humour are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humour is just common sense, dancing. Those who lack humour are without judgment and should be trusted with nothing.” I’m inclined to agree.