Advertising agencies have a responsibility to foster culture, to capitalise on memes as the basis for selling products and help brands reach their desired audiences. Passing fads, novelties and limp parodies do not provide the basis for enduring and connective advertising or branding campaigns. It should be a truth universally acknowledged that comedy rap is seldom funny and often terrible, especially when being done by a privileged white person. Nevertheless the chronically unfunny Lil’ Dicky was not only born of an Advertising agency (Goodby Silverstein), he was actually rehired from Account Management to copywriting after they saw one of his parody rap videos.
Lil’ Dicky, who differentiates himself from those other [read black] rappers who ‘rap about going to the club and popping bottles’ as being a ‘normal [read white and middle class] guy’ that [white] people can relate to, is from a wealthy background a slid into a career in advertising, first as suit then as a creative. Much like Macklemore’s Thrift Shop and your aunt’s Facebook posts about Black Friday, Lil’ Dicky’s denunciation and parodying of consumerism in Hip Hop and in a broader cultural context is both classist and racist. It’s the implied ‘look how stupid and desperate these people are to get a cheap TV’ and ‘oh aren’t these rappers so garish and tacky with their gold chains and Grey Goose bottles’, it’s Iris Worldwide’s ‘Iris on Benefits‘ flyers but with an added racial dimension. There’s no nuanced or considered take on why consumerism is a central lyrical and visual feature in commercial Hip Hop, just a case of using comedy to browbeat the black nouveau rich and signal the distance between those without the social capital and those with all of the capital, be it economic, social or cultural. In providing an outlet for this pernicious punch-down kind of satire Ad agencies are only demonstrating how out of touch they are with today’s world and specifically with today’s America. Today’s ‘woke‘ generation are ready to pick things apart, to rally around purpose and elevate causes to the top of the cultural agenda. They crave authenticity and are ready to tear down messaging that marginalizes and belittles people.
Brands are still working out what their relationship to culture is. The days in which they could rent-out ‘cool’ by way of celebrity appearances in 30 second TV spots are gradually subsiding due to the surprising cultural elevation television whereby agencies are under more pressure to match the standard of programming with more clever and creative ads. Brands are now holding the reigns over a lot of the western world’s cultural output due to my generation’s refusal to pay for any kind of artistic or cultural produce.It is therefore important for both culture and brands that any work produced that has any pretension to being culturally relevant or artistically valid must be original, well crafted and able to resonate with its audience. This is more succinctly put in an article by upstart agency KRPT LDN in a blog post:
This battle between art vs advertising is one that could be resolved if we lived in a more transparent world where brands have a clear mission and focus on being part of culture instead of using it.
This is why I take issue with Lil’ Dicky and his cheerleaders in US Adland and this is why I feel the need to point out the contrast between the Red Bull Music Academy approach of working in a direct, organic way with artists such as A$AP Rocky, Skepta and PC Music against, the support that sportswear brands such as Adidas, Puma and Nike have shown the grime scene or how Vans remain connected to their association with the Skate scene with some of the more blundering attempts by brands and agencies to connect with the broader culture.
Part of the problem seems to be rooted in the lack of general diversity in the agency world where the old guard still very much seem to be in control of a lot of creative initiatives. The very fact that Lil’ Dicky’s mediocre comedy raps were enough to get him hired by Goodby Silverstein creative department is telling of the tone-deafness that plagues many parts of the industry. Take for example Lucky Generals’ completely over-egged collaboration with UK Hip Hop act Rylo for Pot Noodle which forces the poor aspiring rapper to create a lukewarm banger called ‘Winner’ which amounts to how your mum imagines a rap video to be.
Another instance that caught my eye was a piece in Campaign by Paul Burke which considers the creative legacy of working-class lads David Bowie and Alan Rickman.The writer makes some valid points about the status of working class creatives in the ad industry and bemoans the trend of ‘bloking down’- i.e. sticking to coded class behaviours. The problem with the article is that the cultural aspiration that Paul Burke believes to have been lost in today’s talent is largely irrelevant to today’s cultural landscape. Distinctions between high and low culture are being rapidly eroded as the ‘digitally native’ (sorry!) generation have been able to access and interpret art from both cultural spheres with ease. Beyonce videos are now written about in Pitchfork, Selfies are discussed in The Atlantic as a legitimate art form and Grime artists regularly perform at the ICA. The article in itself presents a valid argument about class but is misses the point in seeing culture as a ladder to climb up; today’s creatives are grabbing what they like from wherever they can find it and throwing it into the mix.
The challenge for creative agencies and marketers is to understand these underlying cultural trends, to engage meaningfully with today’s creatives and most importantly to not be embarrassing.