CLOSE-UP - PERSPECTIVE: Mistaken reaction to column proves irony can be risky

Five years on Campaign - during which time I thought I’d seen everything - failed to prepare me for the reaction to Harriet Green’s Comment, published in Campaign last week (see Letters, page 22).

Five years on Campaign - during which time I thought I’d seen

everything - failed to prepare me for the reaction to Harriet Green’s

Comment, published in Campaign last week (see Letters, page 22).



Following the release of an ad for the charity, Rubberstuffers, which

featured a gay couple caressing, she wrote a Disgusted-of-Somerset

parody about gays in ads. While not completely condemning them as

shirt-lifting fags, she didn’t like the idea of gays touching each other

and gave herself a smug pat on the back for speaking up for middle-class

jerks with closed minds everywhere.



Adopting the same I-know-I’m-right tone that has helped Bernard Manning

through several thousand nightclub gigs, Harriet didn’t so much write as

sneer her way through the column. But I’m sad to report that a fair

proportion of our esteemed readers got it wrong. They failed to spot

that her Enid Blytonesque moral certainty was about as genuine as a

Carlton TV documentary.



I could have understood the reaction better if the letters had come from

the kind of agencies that use Campaign’s letters page as a new-business

tool. You know the sort: ’At our agency, we believe the

client/integration/disintegration is king.’ But most of the letters were

from people in respected agencies and important media owners,

like ... well, I’d better not say anything that could help to embarrass

them.



It strikes me that there are two main conclusions. The first is how

thoroughly unpleasant it must be, at least some of the time, to work in

advertising these days.



You are already working hard because of depleted resources, not to

mention the squeeze on fees and commission, and you have to maintain a

scrupulous politeness in the face of (all right, occasional) extreme

provocation. That advertising people can still behave like human beings

only enhances my opinion of them. No wonder some of them failed to spot

Harriet’s column as a clever parody.



The second, as our editorial director, Dominic Mills, often warns, is

that ’irony is very difficult in print’.



Perhaps we were wrong to publish a jokey column on such a delicate

topic.



Perhaps we should have taken into account the extra sensitivity required

and acted accordingly.



But you could easily draw a parallel with parody ads. I’ve long

suspected that some of these ads work only on one level - with agencies

guilty of over-estimating their audience’s interest in, and knowledge

of, advertising.



They pass most consumers completely by but work terribly well for awards

juries and members of Soho House. After all, if the sharpest minds in

advertising can’t spot a parody, do our irate letter writers really

think that the average punter can make out what their own irony-laden

ads are going on about?



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