A view from Dave Trott: context is all
A view from Dave Trott

Context is all

As a US professor found to his cost, if you're going to call someone Kant, make sure you're doing it in an appropriate setting - a maxim that equally could be applied to our approach to advertising.

For 50 years, Sidney Morgenbesser was professor of philosophy at Columbia University.

So he couldn’t resist turning every conversation into a philosophical discussion.

One evening he was walking up the stairs from the subway and beginning to light his pipe.

A New York cop told him to stop, there was no smoking on the subway.

Most of us would just say "Sorry officer" and wait until we had got above ground.

But Morgenbesser said: "I’m not on the subway, I’m exiting the subway and practically at street level."

Being argued with is not something New York cops take well.

The cop said: "I told you, don’t light that until you get to the sidewalk."

Morgenbesser said: "What harm can it do, I’m only a few steps away?"

The cop said: "Because if I let you do it, I’d have to let everyone do it."

And Morgenbesser answered: "Who do you think you are, Kant?"

Now, in one of Morgenbesser’s classes, those four letters would have been heard as the name of a famous 18th-century German philosopher.

But this was a cop on a New York street, and he heard those four letters very differently.

He heard them as about as clear an insult as you can get.

He put the cuffs on Morgenbesser, took him to the precinct and put him in a cell.

With his one phone call, Morgenbesser called a colleague in the philosophy department.

The colleague hurried over to explain to the arresting officer and the desk sergeant who Immanuel Kant was, and that the remark referred to Kant’s "categorical imperative".

Kant defines the categorical imperative like this: "Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it becomes a universal law."

In other words, behave as you would demand everyone behaves.

For instance, if it’s OK for you to drop litter, you must believe it’s OK for everyone to drop litter.

In which case, there would be litter everywhere, because that is what your behaviour implies.

But if you believe there shouldn’t be litter everywhere, then you are morally compelled not to drop any litter yourself, ever.

It can’t be one rule for you and one rule for everyone else.

That is Kant’s categorical imperative.

So Morgenbesser’s reply "Who do you think you are, Kant?" was a response to the cop’s "If I let you do it, I’d have to let everyone do it."

He was asking whether the cop thought he was enforcing Kant’s categorical imperative.

But the street, outside a subway stop, is not the best place for an esoteric philosophical discussion with a member of the NYPD.

This was Morgenbesser’s mistake, he wasn’t wrong, but he was inappropriate.

And that’s often the problem with communication.

We don’t take context into account, we speak as if we are always in the ideal setting.

We do ads that are designed to look good on the table or the wall in a boardroom, or in a D&AD annual or projected onto the screen at an awards show.

But we don’t judge how they will work in the real world, where people are busy doing something else, on their laptop, or their iPhone or driving or walking past.

We take a 30-second ad that was done for a TV break and run it as a pre-roll on YouTube.

We don’t check where someone’s head is before we start talking at them.

Which is why just 4% of advertising is remembered positively, 7% is remembered negatively, but a whopping 89% isn’t noticed or remembered.

Because we’re only interested in what’s going on in our world.

As Bob Levenson said: "Most people ignore advertising because advertising ignores most people." 

Dave Trott is the author of Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three