Strange Town: Alexander McQueen and the Art of Subversion

Devon Aoki in Alexander McQueen, photo Nick Knight

Devon Aoki in Alexander McQueen, photo Nick Knight

‘Fashion should be a form of escapism, not a form of imprisonment.’
Alexander McQueen.

I recently attended the Alexander McQueen retrospective at the Victoria & Albert Museum. I’m no fashion expert, but I could admire the cut and craft, the elegance and imagination. Quite extraordinary.

It’s been well documented that McQueen was formally trained as a tailor on Savile Row and he worked for some time at the theatrical costumier’s, Berman’s and Nathan’s. His grounding in classical forms and historical styles is evident in his work.

With an exacting eye, McQueen explored period themes such as Regency England, Jacobite Scotland and Imperial Japan. But he also subverted those themes with curious twists and flamboyant turns; with studs, masks, lace and leather; with evocations of love and death. It produces a compelling effect. We are seduced by the elegance, the refinement, the classicism; but at the same time we feel a sense of doubt, darkness and danger. Our expectations are subverted. ‘The time is out of joint.’

McQueen seemed to understand the power of the past to create something entirely current; the potential of the unconscious to supply rich imaginative imagery; the capacity of disruption to manufacture memories. He regarded himself as a romantic, but clearly for him romance was mysterious, mystical and strange.

‘The new always carries with it the sense of violation, of sacrilege. What is dead is sacred; what is new, that is different, is evil, dangerous, or subversive.’
Henry Miller

We may sometimes imagine that we in the communication industry are engaged in subversion: we’re challenging convention, redefining language, re-writing code. But often our subversion is reduced to a bold casting decision, an unfamiliar colour-way, a surprising punch-line.  Surely if we were truly subversive, we’d be challenging at a deeper, more psychological, level.

We may also imagine that communication is the dream business: the alignment of brands with consumers’ dreams and fantasies; the suggestion that a brand might deliver new hopes and aspirations. But if we were serious about dreams, we would recognise that they are far more complex than the golden hayfields, scampering Labradors and smiling blonde children of advertising cliché. Our true fantasies are muddled, awkward and bizarre; our genuine reveries are strange and surreal; our real dreams are next to nightmares.

I have always liked the notion that dreams could, on the one hand, represent the manifestation of our deepest desires and anxieties; and, on the other hand, they could be the waste disposal system for the brain. Dreams are at once meaningful and meaningless. And the fact that we cannot distinguish one category of dream from the other is God’s joke.

I read a recent interview with the outgoing Director of the National Gallery, Sir Nicholas Penny. In it he debunked the widely held view that the public of previous centuries were experts in the religious and literary semiotics encoded in the art of their day.

‘It’s often said that in the old days people knew all the stories behind these pictures, that they knew the myths and the whole of Ovid. The more I think about that, the more I think it is completely untrue. They didn’t know. So it was all a little more remote. I don’t think familiarity has ever been a stimulus for museum visitors. Strangeness more often helps with the initial impulse.

This sense that strangeness commands special attention tallies with my own movie memories. The scenes, images and impressions that have endured are often just a little odd: the children with animals’ heads in The Wicker Man, the bandaged nose in Chinatown, the zither theme in The Third Man, the romantic cycle ride in Butch Cassidy, the distant figure in a red anorak in Don’t Look Now…

Some years ago, a piece of research established that the recalled elements of popular advertising were often the quite incidental characters from the margins of the plot: the swan in Boddingtons 'Face Cream', the frog in Sony 'Balls', the big bald bloke with the ball bearings in Dunlop 'Tested for the Unexpected'. These elements were not fundamental to the comprehension of the narrative or the communication of the message. But they struck a chord, left a mark; perhaps precisely because they were not serving any purpose; because they were strange.

I wonder are the worlds of brands and advertising a little too familiar; a little too sane and sensible?

In applying rigorous thought to the creative process, do we leave enough room for the anomaly and abnormality that create enduring memories?

In endeavouring to express the aspirations that drive our consumers, do we properly accommodate the strangeness of their dreams?

Maybe we’d all be better off if we found ourselves in a strange town.

No. 42

Creative Enemy Number One

John Dillinger arrest photo courtesy of FBI

John Dillinger arrest photo courtesy of FBI

Ask yourself this: Who is Creative Enemy Number One? Is it short-termism? Is it quantitative pretesting? Is it globalisation? Or the algorithm? Is it ‘matching luggage’ integration? Or the commoditising effect of procurement? Is it category conventions, client conservatism, consensus driven committees? Is it marketing manuals or professional processes? Is it norms, traffic lights and benchmarks? Is it the decline of expertise or the rise of empowerment? Is it old school hierarchies or new school anarchy? Is it VI? Or UGC? Is it having too little time? Or too much?

Well all of these have a case to answer. But I would argue there's another more sinister villain stalking the corridors of any creative business.

When I reflect back on some of BBH's past successes, its golden greats so to speak, I can't help noticing that they are all in some way or another flawed or imperfect. The Levi's campaign that ran through the late '80s and '90s was a huge creative and commercial success. And yet, with the benefit of hindsight, I can't ignore how quite a few of the films focus on a product, Shrink-to-Fit 501 jeans, that represented less than 1% of sales (poor commercial judgement surely); in one key film the hero abandons the product at the end of the drama (we really shouldn't have let that go); in others we feature heroes that were probably unaspirational to the core male target (elementary error). With the benefit of hindsight, in a more disciplined, logical world, one has to conclude that many of these films should not have been made. Indeed, that whole Levi's campaign traded on heritage, which we know is the last thing to interest young people. Maybe it was all a terrible mistake.

In those distant days we also created a very successful campaign for Olivio, a healthy olive-oil based spread. It featured the adventures of a group of happy elderly Italians, but as I look at it now I'm more than conscious that a health brand should really be identifying itself with youthful vitality. So maybe that should have been a non-starter too. We developed a campaign for a beer brand, Boddingtons, that associated its taste with things like shaving cream and sun cream. If you have ever worked in the food sector you'll know you shouldn't compare the edible with the inedible. And then there's the longstanding Audi endline,‘Vorsprung durch Technik’. It was written in German, a language the vast majority of the audience couldn't understand. A more intelligent recommendation would surely have been something that conveyed the same meaning in English. ‘Progress Through Technology’ perhaps.

More recently we've told British Airways customers not to fly during the Olympics and we've launched a female variant of a deodorant brand that is wholeheartedly male. Neither of these seems a smart commercial move.

The more I look back on our proudest moments of the near and distant past, the more I see campaigns that do not stand up to scrutiny of strategy and execution. There appear to be very sound, robust reasons why much of this work should never have seen the light of day. And yet, it was all highly creative, award winning communication that delivered significant returns on investment. This is not the narrative we generally encounter in case studies or marketing text books.

You can try this exercise yourselves at home. Think of the most creative and successful campaigns that you've worked on or that you personally admire. Then apply your left brain: Identify the critical flaw that means that execution or campaign should never have been made. Don't worry. I can assure you there will be one there.

The more I think about it, the more I'm inclined to conclude that all the best communication is flawed; that being strategically or executionally flawed is a prerequisite for great work.

So what's going on here? I suspect Creative Enemy Number One is our own intelligence. It's our own ability to identify shortcomings in ideas. Because smart, intelligent people can always find a reason not to proceed; and the smarter you are, the greater will be your capacity to see problems, to cause complexity. Creative Enemy Number One may be looking at you in the mirror every morning.

When you think about it, ordinary work is actually the intelligent choice. Because ordinary work tends to translate the brief directly, it observes sector conventions, it uses familiar reference points. And, critically, it achieves low levels of misunderstanding or rejection in research. By contrast extraordinary work often correlates less directly with the brief, it breaks sector conventions and it uses unfamiliar reference points. Consequently, it often precipitates a certain amount of misunderstanding and rejection in research. Extraordinary work is ordinarily very easy to reject.

Inevitably, behind every great piece of communication you'll find clients who were brave enough to see beyond the flaws; clients who could control the whispering voice of reason telling them “it's good, but it's flawed”, clients who were happy to stop making sense.

In nearly all aspects of business, intelligence represents a blessing, a competitive advantage. But in the judgement of creativity it can represent a curse, a competitive disadvantage. We must be mindful that there are always very sound reasons to reject great communications ideas. But the existence of a good reason to reject something doesn't mean that you should.

There is indeed a fine line between stupid and clever.

First published in YCN Magazine 24/01/2014

No. 30