To own the future, Labour must galvanise the Nandos generation

About a year ago whilst I was working at one of London’s larger ad agencies, it was decided that we should have a team lunch-out. Naively, I threw Nandos into the ring as an option. There was some enthusiasm for this and my deciding vote steered our inital course towards spicy chicken and peri chips. By the time we had reached the bottom of the escalator towards our downstairs reception however it had been decided that we should instead go to the restaurant at the top of Harvey Nichols where I was to enjoy some boring and expensive white fish as the least objectionable option. What had happened was that our Business Director, who’s income she had once accidentally disclosed as being in the top tax bracket and who had lived outside of the United Kingdom for most of her life in various centres of commerce across Asia, couldn’t fathom why on Earth we would want to eat relatively simple chicken in a busy restaurant where you have to ‘go up’ and order your food, fix your own soft drinks and grab your plate and cutlery yourself. That’s not to say that great food doesn’t exist in informal setting in Asia, it certainly does, but that our uniquely British fixation with Nandos is difficult to comprehend for those that haven’t spent a significant amount of time in these isles.

Nandos is a unique and interesting success story in the United Kingdom. It is essentially cheap chicken smothered in seasoning and sold at a large markup but it has massive cultural cache with a diverse yet definable demographic. If you walk into a Nandos restaurant in any urban centre (for that is where you will find most of them), you will see an eclectic mix of diners from headscarf young muslim women, young men and teens clad in outfits reflecting the recent sportswear resurgence- neat Nike tracksuits, Adidas trainers, Ellesse t-shirts, Reebok Classics etc, young professional couples and a strong BAME presence- including groups of students, teens and families. This is a diverse group indeed but what they all have in common is having grown up or come of age under New Labour and the following Lib-Con Coalition Government. Their experiences will have been defined by the earlier hopeful years of the Blair government- many will have been the first in their family to have gone to university after passing through a struggling yet decent school system. Multiculturalism will have been the norm during their lifetimes and they will usually be more accustomed to and positive towards immigration. The flip-side is that many will have been directly affected by 2008’s crash and the subsequent era of austerity and dwindling economic growth which has manifested itself in poor wage growth, struggling public services and astronomical house prices. Their economic outlook is poor and unstable with many of the hopes and dreams that their parents optimistically held for them in the early noughties seeming completely out of reach. This is an aspirational sub-group includes a large proportion of college and university-educated people however many are under-employed and almost all will be underpaid compared with previous generations at the same age. Home ownership will be out of the reach until their parents die and those who do make the foolish decision to live away will be burdened with extortionate rent which renders any attempts at monthly saving futile. With Brexit now in front of them as this age’s defining economic obstacle, it is difficult for many to be optimistic.

To understand how Nandos profits from the business of this demographic, it’s important dive into what the brand represents to them, not the brand that the marketing team and their agency partners work so hard to craft and present but the brand as perceived by regular customers. Firstly there is the positioning. Nandos is above your high-street fast-food mainstays, i.e. MacDonald’s, KFC, Burger King etc. yet far more casual than Pizza Express or Prezzo. The fact that the humous and halloumi brigade are likely to swing by occasionally whilst out-and-about in town rather than picking up a bargain bucket or sitting down for a Big Mac lends a certain prestige to the chain. The chain’s popularity with younger Black Britons and Halal-Friendly menu (in a fifth of their locations) tell us that this is an inclusive space. It’s an easy option for a muslim group of friends in, say the Trafford Centre in Manchester which spares them having to route out a quality and fairly-priced independent establishment. Another consideration is its economic accessibility. Diners can come to Nandos with a range of budgets and find a suitable food and drink combo. Nandos essentially exists in the sweet-spot where economic accessibility, prestige and inclusiveness overlap. It’s aspirational without being pretentious, affordable whilst enjoyable and serves a diverse customer base.

The reason why it relates to Labour so strongly is that it is a manifestation of the goals of Tony Blair and New Labour. Blair wanted working class individuals to become upwardly mobile- a continuation of the social purpose that Labour has pursued since the dynamics of class and the labour market changed radically in the era of international capital and mass production. This goes some way towards explaining how the restaurant came to be the favoured spot of the Britain’s lower-middle class. It’s product proposition of affordable exotic(-ish) chicken dishes served in an informal yet visually interesting and somewhat sophisticated setting matches perfectly with the social and economic aspirations of a generation that were finally getting a real stab at economic and social prestige. Now that those who grew up in this generation is facing unprecedented economic challenges- it’s time for Labour to step up to the mark and communicate how they can make a real positive change to these people’s lives.

Unsurprisingly there hasn’t been any research into the political views of young people who eat at Nandos. Urban BAME individuals are more likely to vote for Labour, we know this, but turnout is still low compared to other demographics. Young people are also underrepresented as voters- something we saw play out during the EU referendum. The strategy of appealing to non-voters, as noted by Stephen Bush in the New Statesman, is not a winning one in itself. This is however a long terms strategy for attracting support for the party.

There really is no saving the Labour party in June’s upcoming election. I don’t envy the party, I don’t envy their comms and strategy teams and I certainly don’t envy the agency Krow who were picked specifically for this task. Corbyn, whilst undoubtably a hardworking and diligent constituency MP, is an ineffectual leader and stands before the public as someone with a past steeped in placard holding, fringe causes and association with unsavoury and subversive groups whilst having no previous experience or interest in governing. Labour needs a vision for how to galvanise those who have been let down and cheated out of a future that was meant to be exciting and prosperous yet stable and it needs solid policy positions that demonstrate how this vision can be actioned in ways that have a measurable impact in people’s lives. The Nandos Generation are only one of many groups that Labour need to win over but they will certainly play a decisive role as an electoral group in the fortunes of a centre-left party aiming to govern.


How marxist sociology can crack diversity for adland

Pierre Bordieu’s Forms of Capital outlines three main forms of capital which govern the class divides of western societies. These are Economic capital, Social capital and Cultural capital. A very simplified summary goes as follows:

Economic Capital: What you earn or own.

Social Capital: Who you know.

Cultural Capital: What you know.

It’s no secret that the ad industry has a lot of work to do in order to unlock the mostly untapped pool of creative talent that exists outside of the usual dens of privilege and inheritance. Everyone is trying but progress is slow. A big agency that I used to work for used ‘blind recruitment’, which replaced the CV at interview selection stage with five questions, but many of the people who worked hard on diversity initiatives were dismayed to find that this approach still attracted a disproportionate amount of privately schooled Oxbridgers. I can’t definitively claim that this was because privately educated applicants who go through the UK’s elite institutions are rigorously groomed for these kinds of processes from a young age and are fluent many of the social codes that appeal to their like-minded hirers, but that seems to be the most likely explanation. This is why I would argue that there is a strong need for ad people who build and manage teams to get a deep understanding of the various need states that ‘outsiders’ have.

So this is where the Marxist sociologist, philosopher and essayist Pierre Bordieu’s Forms of Capital thesis comes in. Firstly, it’s essential to understand the economic barriers that prevent potentially brilliant candidates joining and staying in the industry. If we can’t understand that only a certain types of people can afford to live in London as a junior creative we’re potentially shutting out hoardes of talent people. Secondly, we need to make nepotism truly taboo and understand that it’s still widespread in the industry. If we can’t understand that the next great strategic iconoclast might not have an uncle that went to Harrow with the CSO then we’re losing great minds. Thirdly, we need to make sure that we’re not consciously or unconsciously choosing ‘people like us,’ with similar educational backgrounds, accents, mannerisms and tastes. If we can’t understand that there’s a future Business Director who didn’t go to university, we’ll be poorer for it. These are basic points but something we seem to be missing them with our blanket approach to addressing diversity.

There are some notable examples of great practical intiatives. Saatchi & Saatchi have taken the honourable step of increasing entry-level salaries in order to attract those who would normally be put off by having to choose between London rent and food. Grey have followed up their bold renaming to Valenstine & Fatt with a broad and ambitious program which includes a bursary for two socially disadvantaged creatives and a scheme which involves working directly with state primary and secondary schools. The challenge for everyone else is to learn from these initiatives and develop rigorous strategies rather than short-term corporate efficiencies.

What’s required is a set of questions (or ‘points to consider’) that managers need to have in front of them when making personnel decisions which asses how candidates compare in terms of the privileges that they have had up to this point. This can then be compared to the achievements listed on their CV so that a fair assessment can be reached. This way agencies can get a real sense for the grit, perseverance and intelligence that candidates have demonstrated as well as having the opportunity to make their agencies a more representative place.

So why is Forms of Capital a good starting point? Whist I’m not recommending that all agency staffers start loading up their bookshelves with cultural theory tomes by Roland Barthes and Slavoj Zizek- we are busy people who deal in the real world and commercials solutions after all, it would be false to claim that a big part of what we do includes using models of understanding which we can use to evaluate problems and find workable solutions.




We can be heroes: Agencies and Brands in the age of Trump

Purpose is a an overused word in the field of Advertising, PR, Marketing and all other forms of corporate creative communications. It is not only overused, be it in the industry press, unimaginative briefs or conferences where overpaid trust-fund gurus and tech evangelists bandy the term around freely, it is deliberately evasive, almost cowardly. By pontificating about ‘purpose’ industry leaders can pay lip service to the fleeting ‘good causes’ that come around in cycles via your social media feeds without any long term commitment to real social and economic change. A nice write-up in Campaign or The Drum will follow shortly, your business director will see it and ask you to pull together some examples of brands doing ‘purposeful’ things for a power-point deck that your client won’t ever read.

The stakes are high at the time of writing. The free world is lead by an individual who believes that complex and multifaceted issues can be resolved through the blunt instruments of forceful rhetoric and wall-building. In order to do this he had surrounded himself with a ghoulish line-up of arch conservatives and proto-fascists, cherry-picking the most reactionary individuals from the upper ranks of military and industrial institutions as well as politicians with proven records of racism, misogyny, homophobia and climate change denial. As with Brexit and other reactionary populist movements sweeping the western world and beyond, the recent developments have lent legitimacy for a range of views that have been largely confined to the fringes for decades.

Agencies are predominantly places where the political spectrum ranges from centrist liberal to social democrat. Sure, your boss complains about the 40% tax rate that he pays and there’s that young copywriter who joined the Labour Party to vote for Corbyn and occasionally retweets articles from the Daily Mash mocking Theresa May , but essentially everyone is happy to turn up to work and make something cool that a corporation can use to sell household products and we’re all cool with immigration, women’s rights and gay marriage. It should strike us as ironic, or perhaps tragic, that most ad agencies are dominated by middle and upper-middle class white people and that women are traditionally kept out of the creative department at senior management level. It has gotten to the point where clients are telling us to be more diverse which is embarrassing because we are meant to be the cool kids and they are meant to be ‘the man.’ It is common for petitions to be passed around work email accounts and social media feeds among right-on colleagues but it is extremely rare to hear any of us consider that we might be where we are at least partly due to circumstances relating to the advantages of our birth and upbringings and that real change can only happen through decisive structural adjustments. Many agencies are trying, this has to be noted however it is not enough to mandate light-touch Diversity and Inclusion seminars which seem to be constructed to cause the least amount of discomfort possible to privileged people.

Structural change, like the brilliant initiative employed by Saatchi & Saatchi where entry level salaries have been raised to enable new starters from more disadvantaged backgrounds to feel economically stable enough to pursue a career in the industry are needed now more than ever. Another fantastic example is the recent initiative at Ogilvy & Mather whether planners are dispatched to areas around the country to immerse themselves in communities that are often radically different in terms of lived experience, perceptions and economic reality to what we know in London. Despite this, we need to be going further. We are in a position to influence culture and the broader social consensus so we need to be influencing the beliefs and behavior of our clients at the same time as working on ourselves because we make brands much more famous more than we make ourselves.

There are two levels to which we can push brands to take moral leadership in the communications that we make for them (we can’t unfortunately make them pay the level of tax that they’re meant to but that’s a debate for another day). Firstly, let’s insist that a certain percentage of our creative output actually commits to a long term project that does something worthwhile for society’s most vulnerable (wherever they may be in the world). The  client’s short term business, marketing and campaign objectives obviously have to be met and/or exceeded but real rigorous strategy and groundbreaking creative work can and will do that whilst also being able to produce something that serves a more noble purpose. An obvious example would be Grey London’s Volvo Life Paint work from 2015 which saw a multinational automotive giant tackle the issue of safety head-on. This campaign demonstrated how agencies and brands can work together to break advertising orthodoxy and carve out exemplary models of behavior for brands. We can also point to how traditionally female-targeted brand Rimmel has followed L’Oreal and CoverGirl in embracing a more inclusive attitude to gender with the help of BETC or J Walter Thompson has created the 10th Month campaign for Bayer which includes a website ran in partnership with motherhood journalists which is packed with useful articles for first time mums and their partners.

Volvo Life Paint- Grey London

Bepanthen 10th Month by J Walter Thompson London


The second level to pushing our clients to become moral leaders in an age of ugly political rhetoric and even uglier policy proposals that threaten to divide us even further is through leveraging pop culture in order to connect with the public. We are currently seeing a phase of heightened political activism among pop culture figures. Beyonce might be the obvious example but we should also consider how Kendrick Lamar has been able to balance commercial success and artistic integrity creating art that brings a nuanced and story-based approach to stark socio-economic realities. The younger activists who make up a huge chunk of those you might see out on the street protesting against Trump or the rise in xenophobia after Brexit often express their sentiments via popular culture motifs. Popular youth trends such as the re-emergence of the Grime scene are strongly anti-establishment without the complications of ideology and mirror the grim realities currently facing racial minorities and the working class. The recent collaboration between artists such as Skepta and Wretch 32 and Levi’s (The Levi’s Music Project) is a scheme which aims to deliver greater access to music in the famously underprivileged yet creatively dynamic area of Tottenham. The reason why this scheme is so important is that it demonstrates how brands need to be beneficial to society in order for consumers to allow them to exist and grow in the long term.

Brands, and the companies of which they are the face and intangible essence, are not the answer to society’s problems. They do however find themselves in the critical position of being the one of the things that individuals in a free society use to define themselves. As our new and disorientating reality takes hold and the social, political and economic impacts become apparent in people’s every day lives, brands will have to prove that they are worthy of the public’s attention, their tolerance and their money. If agencies cannot lead their clients to act and lead in the interest of decency, tolerance and fairness then they are not doing their jobs.



Diversity and Adland’s Brexit blind spot 

Let’s face it, barely anyone in UK Adland predicted Brexit. Now the dust of the actual referendum has settled a bit, we have a new Prime Minister and both major parties have seen their divisions rise to the surface exposing the deeply held resentments and ideological differences that had previously been papered over, we can have a proper look at how Adland both failed to anticipate and combat a popular decision that may set the UK back years in economic growth and social progress.

At the heart of the issue where the Advertising industry in the UK, and more specifically London, is concerned is the demographic makeup of agency staffers and their socio economic backgrounds. It’s no secret that advertising agencies are trying to focus more on diversity and any efforts in the right direction should be applauded. We’re seeing more ethnic minority participation from junior level all the way up to the key movers and shakers. Almost every agency head has made a commitment to expanding the female presence at leadership level and LGBT inclusiveness and visibility also appears to be on the up.

Progress in all of its forms should be applauded but there are underlying structural economic issues that cannot be ignored. Some efforts to to redress the gender balance have seen white middle class male leadership be replaced by white middle class female leadership in what seems like only an incremental improvement. Creative departments, Account Management and Planning across most agencies still exude a strong public school mafia vibe where everyone will have been to university and a disproportionate chunk will have been privately educated. It seems that in much of what has been written in the industry press on Brexit, very few have made the link between diversity and the tone-deaf nature of the creative output for the Remain side.

The results of the referendum have shown us that the ‘out’ vote was strong in working class communities outside of London where the benefits of EU membership, globalisation and technocratic forms of government and industry are not felt in terms of cheap city breaks, gap years and Air bnb. Working class Britons living in post-industrial towns across the country face job insecurity, wage depression and the depletion of previously existing community bonds in contrast to exotic restauraunts and cheap domestic labour. This is not to give credibility to the UKIPs and Britain Firsts of today’s Britain who seek to exploit and divide a wider sense of malasie but to point to a large section of the buying public who brands, including that of the defeated Remain campaign aren’t connecting with.

The comms that actually ran made for mundane viewing at best and they focussed on young people and their ‘future’ which made the grave mistake of preaching to the converted. The decisive misjudgement was in ignoring those among the general population who don’t feel that they have a future to protect in the first place. The double-thronged approach of regurgitating IMF warnings and employing Kiera Knightley and Lily Cole in drives for the youth vote seems to be aiming at simultaneously playing on people’s fear of potential financial insecurity and encouraging already pro-European cosmopolitan young voters to show up and vote. Whilst both sensible approaches on their own right, neither held any weight with people lacking any of the attributes of economic, social or political capital such as gainful employment, home ownership, a university education and the option to live and/or work abroad. Worse still yet altogether more indicative of the problem at hand were the ads that didn’t run, all of which from the image of Nigel Farage with a Hitler moustache to the image of key politicians from the Brexit campaign with the headline ‘Do you want to be left alone on a small island with these men?’ Here you can see a palpable sense of middle-class sneering and Mock the Week style wishy-washy social liberalism that smells a lot like one of those trite Question Time exchanges between an audience member and Nigel Farage where any kind of constructive and insightful criticism is cast aside for a damning cry of ‘but you’re racist!’

The purpose of this post isn’t neccesarily to argue that M&C Saatchi needed to round up a bunch of white working class copywriters from the North with racist Dads for this campaign but instead to point to how the growing lack of opportunities for those from more marginalised backgrounds evident across society as a whole has become a key issue for Adland and the resulting creative output. The problem however is rooted in the highly insulated bubble that the clear majority of the advertising industry originate from and operate in. The issue goes deeper than whether or not agencies were able to fully grasp and meet the challenge of the EU referendum Remain campaign. If all departments at creative agencies are mainly staffed by one demographic it’s hard to see how work that speaks to consumers outside of that group can be produced.

The best and worst things that happened in advertising and popular culture this year

2015 has been many things to many people. Kanye-less, Frank Ocean sophomore-lacking, ‘disruptor brands,’ gentrification, #Blacklivesmatter, Jeremy Corbyn, The Weeknd as off-beat popstar, Pig-gate, terrorism, refugees, Kendrick Lamar, Caitlin Jenner, John Lewis Christmas ads, Ed Sheeran, Hotline Bling, Adele returns- I’ll stop before this becomes a Sgt. Pepper’s cover. If there was a sentiment to encapsulate the spirit of the year it would be that people seem to generally give a fuck about stuff and high and low culture has merged into one- just ‘culture.’ The access that the Internet allows us to all forms of culture for free which has been facilitated and broadcast by popular news and ‘content’ outlets on social media has created a general public who are both more culturally rounded and aware and simultaneously more clueless than ever thanks to the overload of information which is neither fully verifiable nor fully disprovable.  It’s BLM activists who listen to Taylor Swift, English lit students you thought were cool sharing thinkpieces about the Hunger Games gender body politics, Starbucks cups being held by anti-capitalists at anti austerity marches, Where are U now?House Every Weekend, fashionistas in Reebok Classics- it’s confusing and inconsistent, maybe even hypocritical- but it’s now.:


Creativity fights back

The discourse around advertising in 2014 was dominated by crap pieces in The Drum about the advent of data, ‘Big Data’ and ‘Math Men.’ It was interesting for about five minutes before becoming, like Oasis’ output since Be There Now , repetitive, uninteresting and culpable for inspiring many talentless dickheads.

2015 saw creativity become cool again. It turned out that the medium of TV in fact wasn’t dead and that you couldn’t just throw a few numbers at a Creative team and expect them to paint something pretty over them. There was a resurgence of first class creative work that didn’t look like it had been graphed, charted and infographic’d to death. Nils Leonard crashed into Adland’s collective consciousness as the Kanye of advertising with Grey London returning to the fore as a culturally switched-on, innovative and iconoclastic creative power house. Adam & Eve DDB continued to produce the kind of distinctive work that could take its place alongside actual entertainment content such as TV shows, films and music videos. Danny Brooke Taylor’s creative stewardship ensured that Lucky Generals went from the plucky youngster to an irreverent yet maturing agency really hitting its stride with excellent work produced for Pot Noodle, Paddy Power and Hostelworld whilst Caroline Pay and Nick Gill can be proud of the stunning work they have done for Audi.

With the strategic and cultural midwifery of high calibrate planners such as Saatchi & Saatchi’s Richard Huntington, Grey’s Leo Rayman and Craig Mawdsley & Bridget Angear at AMV BBDO and top level suits such as Wieden & Kennedy’s highly cultured Neil Christie, the brilliant provocateur Magnus Djaba of Saatchi & Saatchi Fallon fame, James Murphy of A&E with his stellar levels of commitment to his slippery Volkswagen client and Sarah Golding leading a resurgent CHI & Partners, we can also be thankful for the business leadership, strong analytical practice and talent fostering that drives agencies t do their best work. The ‘Math Men‘ were largely pushed to the side this year despite some loud posturing by David Jones with his new ‘Brand Tech’ group You & Mr Jones and the odd creativity vs data think piece in Campaign, and were largely drawn into the debate alongside media agencies about Ad Blocking.

Oh and it’s also won mentioning Ian Leslie’s fantastic piece about creativity and the centrality of brilliant TV ads to the marketing mix in the FT called How the Mad Men Lost the Plot.

Rap gets weird/Pop gets cool/Dance gets broader

2015 has been a fascinating year in music. The Weeeknd now plays shows where fans will be hearing Siouxsie and the Banshees samples one minute and be singing get along to an Ed Sheeran collaboration the next, Justin Bieber is now more likely to be played at a gathering of twenty something grime and house aficionados as they roll zoots and bosh MDMA than at a 12 year old’s birthday part, feminist veterans debate Taylor Swift, Young Thug has been donning tutus one minute and apparently plotting to assassinate Lil Wayne the next, Kendrick Lamar dominated critical discourse with his alt-jazz infused social commentary on To Pimp a Butterfly and Drake captured everyone’s attention by dancing like someone’s uncle in what became one of the biggest music videos of the year.

One of the most exciting things was Grime’s resurgence which saw Skepta rub shoulders with everyone from Drake and Kanye to Earl Sweatshirt, Jamie XX and ASAP Mob, Stormzy began to look like the next up for crossover success, JME’s Integrity album was a solid effort with the excellent ‘Man Don’t Care’ as Giggs- assisted lead single, Novelist kept it Avant Garde with the Mumdance produced bangers ‘Take Time’ and ‘One Sec’, Wiley was honoured at his old school in Bow with a commemorative plaque and Chip reminded us why he’s worth taking seriously with his Fire in the Booth, Believe and Achieve EP and strong responses to Tinie Tempah and Bugzy Malone.

Dance music also saw some interesting developments as PC Music continued to confuse, excite, irritate and amaze whilst entering in to partnership with Colombia Records. SOPHIE released the high octane Product EP which mixed hyper-pop and experimental in a novel way whilst Danny L Harle’s Broken Flowers received a luxury refix on the new EP of the same name. Whilst some view Dance music as one of the last remaining bastions of music snobbery there were some important figures in the scene who have been subverting  the purist status quo and challenging perceptions of taste . Hudson Mohawke’s Lantern was a roaring success in allowing the artist to reconnect with his roots whilst simultaneously exploring new territory. The explosive ‘Very First Breath’ makes whiny power-pop sound triumphant and melancholy at the same time whilst ‘Scud Books’ digs into the artist’s signature stadium-trap aesthetic but adds in a kitsch pop-friendly synth riff. Rustie, another Scottish power-trap auter managed to repurpose his Trance and Happy Hardcore influences into something very relevant with his EVENIFUDONTBELIEVE album. Jamie XX had a brilliant year seeing his long-awaited solo project In Colour which repackaged 20 years of UK club culture for the Instagram generation and scored a summer hit with the Young Thug and Popcaan assisted Good Times. Diplo continued to act as the bridge between club music’s innovative underground and the pop mainstream dabbling in everything from the seminal Bieber-assisted Where are U now? to the summer smash Lean on with Major Lazer and MØ whilst working alongside outliers such as SOPHIE and A.G. Cook. Elsewhere we saw electronic experimentalist and Kanye-collaborator Evian Christ take Trance to the ICA with his much lauded Trance War exhibition and Skrillex finally managed to gain some critical acclaim for his work with Justin Bieber and spectacular live events.

Mad Men’s swansong

Although it definitely did not satiate everyone, I found that the Mad Men ending was everything that I could have asked for. It was neither crowd-pleasingly conclusive nor ironic and cold; it was open-ended but you got some idea of where the narrative was headed once the characters ceased to exist on our screens. True to form Matt Weiner and his excellent team of writers made sure to produce something that didn’t exist in a historical vacuum. Don Draper’s closing hilltop meditation scene which may or may not have led him to go on to create the subsequently shown iconic I’d like to teach the world to sing Coca Cola ad- arguably the creative genesis of brand-based advertising- signals the beginning of the cultural shift from a more collectivist and ordered understanding of society to the dawn of individualist neo-liberalism where brands and products begin to exist as components of the individual’s unique identity and self-expression. As noted in a previous piece, Adam Curtis does a great job in identifying the hippy and New Age movements as an expression of individualism that birthed the small-government, supply side and self-sufficient economic culture promoted by Reagan and Thatcher that still predominates today in his documentary The Century of the self. Wiener’s use of a spiritual retreat as the narrative endpoint for the protagonist seems like a nod to this understanding of the late 20th and early 21st century.


The reason why these discourses seem so relevant has been seen across pop culture and (more downstream) society, politics, conflict and economics all year. Identity and self definition has seemingly been at the centre of everything; one can cite phenomena as diverse as Caitlin Jenner, Rachel Dolezal, Donald Trump’s jingoistic understanding of what it is to be American, the Black Lives Matter movement, the continued rise of the far-right in Europe and the Islamic State in the Levant, the conspicuous presence of selfies facilitated by ever-growing social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, changing attitudes to gender and sexuality- the list could be an essay in itself. These are a wide array of positive, negative and necessary happenings but what they all have in common is their rooting in today’s existential grey areas- the desire to craft one’s own unique identity whilst wanting to be a part of something in a world that is more connected than ever whilst paradoxically increasingly isolated. In placing Don Draper, the brilliant manipulator of human anxiety, on top of a cliff edge with a bunch of mentally conflicted and exasperated ‘modern’ individuals before cutting to that infamous Coca Cola ad, Weiner gave us an ending which emphasized the cultural vitalness of the whole Mad Men series.

Craig David and Kurupt FM

I’m usually weary of anything resembling starry-eyed nostalgia but Craig David’s return this year seemed like the righting of a cultural wrong. Like many black and asian artists in the UK Craig’s career was subjected to immature ridicule, miscategorization and ill-informed interference by record companies. When the brilliant Kurupt FM crew from the BBC Three/iPlayer cult hit People Just Do Nothing brought him into their Mistajam #Sixtyminuteslive session to perform his early noughties smash ‘Fill Me In’ over Jack U’s Where are U Now it began to seem like the stage was set for his return. Following the critical re-appraisal of R&B over the last few years and the resurgence of Garage, UK Funky, Deep House and Jungle into UK club culture, it appears that as this piece in Noisey suggests is the perfect time for the R n’ G veteran to reclaim his place in the UK’s homegrown dance music scene.


Adland’s diversity lack

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Despite some positive noises being made about the need for women to be better represented at all levels in the advertising industry, mostly thanks to the tireless work of top female ad people like Cindy Gallop with the 3% Conference and the WACL (Women in Advertising and Communications in London), there has been little improvement in making the Ad industry more diverse as a whole. Barely anyone is talking about the obvious domination of the industry by white middle class types both male and female- ethnicity and socioeconomic background features very little in any discussion that does take place.

It would be easy to pick out events and scrutinize happenings such as the incredibly classist ‘Benefits’ flyer that circulated at Iris Worldwide in London (above), this hilariously misjudged Robert Dyas spot or the Advertising Week panel called ‘Here are all the black people in advertising’ which was seemingly chaired by a bunch of white people (although as the link points out it’s more complicated than appears) but the real root of the problem is the lack of interest amongst the majority of the decision makers in the industry in reaching out to communities outside of their own. Our ‘creative industries’ which some might assume are very liberal and open to people of all backgrounds are in fact closed off to most people outside of the ABC1 bubble. One only has to look at the lack of outreach programmes aimed at youngsters from less privileged backgrounds, the extortionate subscription fees for industry publications and events and the way in which most agencies hide their job postings from any commonly accessible outlets. The whole things stinks of elitism and for all of the talk of attracting great young talent the system appears to be built to keep a certain types of people out. The whole ad industry is a lot poorer for it as powerful, evocative and effective campaigns that connect to a wider audience require a range of different inputs be they White, Black, Asian, Male, Female, Gay or Straight.

Guitar Music

The famously regressive online community in the UK was most upset about Kanye West performing at Glastonbury this year. How dare this uppity Black bloke be the Saturday night headliner at Glastonbury, proclaiming himself to be the ‘Greatest Living Rockstar’ without there being a guitar in sight!? Someone started a petition, Brian McFadden and Louise Thompson got involved, your smelly 15 year old cousin from Dudley posted a video of Dave Grohl performing with a broken leg along or a meme of him laughing or something, you know how these things tend to go…

The real issue and inconvenient truth here however is the simple fact that England and the world as a whole seriously lacks in any compelling guitar bands. I’m not yet ready to deem guitar music/rock n’ roll as completely redundant but it’s hard to see who else could have convincingly filled the headline slot or in fact be deemed as a ‘rockstar’ in this day and age. I mean who really is Dave Grohl? the former drummer in a seminal band whose importance hinged on the songwriting and general character of the now deceased frontman? A cuddly mascot for a bygone era of music? What about Matt Bellamy? Well even die-hard Muse fans couldn’t stomach their latest release. Do we really have to dig up another leather clad metal outfit from the eighties or some poorly aged wig-rocker? The Libertines can provide a cheery fifty minutes of throwback singalong fun but it’s hard to claim that Pete and Carl’s druggy Edwardian/Victorian lit-expired poncing-about would be an ideal show of rock n’ roll’s relevance today.Foals had some approving nods from critics and old indie heads this year but like the more interesting Everything Everything who emerged this year with the impressive Get to Heaven, they don’t quite hold enough weight for the number one slot.  You also shouldn’t listen to those ex-NME types who seem like they’ve managed to TUPE (Google it!) over to Noisey when they tell you that Sleaford Mods are worth your time.

Tyler, the Creator banned from UK

There are plenty of reasoned debates to be had about how we should receive and interpret Tyler, the Creator’s lyrics. Concerns that some of the lyrics in his earlier material might be harmful to women in the long term by normalizing and trivializing rape seem perfectly reasonable and should be discussed at length. There do however seem to be other forces at play in this case of kneejerk censorship exercised by Home Secretary Theresa May as Joe Muggs stated in his piece for The Guardian on the subject.

Whether the move to bar Tyler, the Creator was meant as a subtle nod to Middle England or a concession to our active feminist movement (which has done great work this year- see the newly formed Women’s Equality Party) is unclear but there’s a nasty racial undercurrent that we can see when we hold these judgments up to the light. Artists such as Tyler, Chris Brown and Snoop ‘Kick this evil bastard out’ Dogg/Lion have faced a much higher bar when touring across venues in countries like the UK, Australia and Canada than artists such as Ozzy Osbourne, Cannibal Corpse and even The Decemberists all of whom have participated in either lyrical of real life misogyny and abuse of women.

There is also a point to be made about the context of Tyler, the Creator’s lyrical content. The lyrics in question which mainly feature in his early releases Bastard and Goblin are often uttered by a conflicted and disturbed alter-ego and are clearly not a reflection of the artist’s own views. Whilst these incidents of censorship are often presented as being a progressive must by responsible authorities more often than not they are at best a flimsy band-aid for the problem of systematic injustice and at worst a manifestation of a more sinister agenda.

Airbnb ‘is mankind?’

Oh man this one was bad! Despite simultaneously pricking people’s conscience and making their lives easier- a very lucrative brand position to occupy in the information age- the folks at Air B n’ B apparently see themselves as the champions of human connectivity, empathy and social justice. TBWA are a great agency with a strong legacy but they certainly misfired here in an overblown and highly pretentious campaign which wasn’t helped by a smarmy poster campaign in San Francisco addressing the recent ruling that the company had to pay hotel tax. For some reason they assumed that residents of America’s most left-leaning city would want to join in with their libertarian circle-jerk. Whilst I have no way of knowing how the company’s communications fuck ups have affected sales and growth this year- I do know that the health of the brand is vital to a startup that is starting to move into maturity.



McDonald’s and the Pig-Fucker Principle

In the aftermath of what commentators have dubbed ‘Piggate’, the accusation that our Prime Minister David Cameron was intimate with the head of a dead pig as part of some kind of twisted initiation ceremony for the Piers Gaveston Society (a shady men’s dining club for the uber-privileged at Oxford University), there have been mentions of Lyndon B. Johnson’s ‘Pig fucker’ principle (made famous by Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72).


For those who don’t know, during the 1972 Democratic Primaries, incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson may or may not have spread the rumour that his opponent was a ‘pig fucker.’ When an aide pushed back on the fact that the accusation was baseless Johnson is said to have retorted ‘I know, I just want to make him deny it.’ Although no one has officially made a claim to coining the term as ‘The Pig Fucker Principle’, I would challenge you to find a PR person who would suggest that these kind of accusations, like those currently levelled at the PM by Lord Ashcroft in his book ‘Call Me Dave’ should be responded to and summarily denied. Denying such claims gives them a level of legitimacy in the very act of acknowledgement.

With their latest ‘Good to Know’ campaign from Leo Burnett, McDonald’s have decided to fly in the face of subtlety and address the accusations commonly made about the quality of their products (specifically the ‘chicken’ and ‘fries’) head-on.

In the ‘chicken’ ad we get a put-upon young lad who looks like he’s spent his whole Saturday morning following his mum around the shops and waiting as she tries on endless cardigans in the women’s section of M&S making an innocent plea for chicken nuggets. His poor mum Sarah then seems to go into some kind of nervous breakdown as she recalls the various rumours about chicken feet and beaks (which have already been debunked by both internal and external parties) that she’s heard and read about online. We then get a Food Tech teacher Rosie who looks kind of like Mary Berry but younger utilizing her expertise to tell us what chicken breast looks and tastes like before we split screen back to a newly reassured Sarah and her son who happily purchase their happy meal. The second ad (below) runs across similar lines as office worker Steve is close to being deterred from eating McDonalds French Fries by his dead-eyed colleague, controlling girlfriend and a market trader with obvious ulterior motives before being set straight by the no-nonsense authoritative farmer Terry.

McDonald’s, in a similar way to William Hague back in 2010 has allowed a seed of a rumour to grow by acknowledging it and dignifying it with a response. It’s hard not to agree with Mark Roalfe, Chairman and ECD of RKCR/Y&R in Campaign Live where he states that they ‘protest too much.’ There are a multitude of ways in which MacDonalds and their comms partners from Leo Burnett to their PR people could have countered these prejudices against the brand but barging in head first with such a forceful denial seems like an ultimately flawed strategy which will not meet the objectives of the original brief.

What popular memes tell us about today’s cultural trends

Memes. You know what they are; those humorous things that you browse whilst going through your phone on the toilet. Those inspirational quotes laid over a picture of a night sky or a sunset beaming across desolate corn field. Those life lessons warning you about the haters, time wasters and girlfriend/boyfriend thieves. Those pictures of a shifty-looking bearded Muslim informing you that he’s planning to burn some poppies at the weekend along with your tax money that your racist uncle shares on Facebook. Those images of dying children being held by devastated parents imploring you to pressure your government to take action. Those ‘What are thooooooose.’ The point being that they take many shapes and sizes.

A meme is officially defined as ‘an element of a culture or system of behaviour passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-genetic means.’ Memes are the viral strains passed from individual to individual with minute degrees of variation that make up the cultural consensus and their very being certainly predates the internet and social media. The study of Memetics, largely popularized by the infamous Richard Dawkins, has been around for 30 years or so at this point.

It goes without saying why memes are so important to marketers. Richard Huntington of Adliterate writes brilliantly about the debt that Strategic Planners owe Dawkins for his work on Memetics. Now that most of us share a common dialogue via social media, internet memes have become some of the most prescient signifiers of the zeitgeist. Fortunes and profiles are made and destroyed on the ‘content farm,’ and marketers will often get into bed with internet personalities and curators just to try get a piece of the pie, just ask The Fat Jewish and Buzzfeed. There is however a different way that marketers could and should be approaching this modern phenomenon. Instead of trying to ape, appropriate and stand next to the shiny new thing, why aren’t we analyzing them as serious cultural propositions which tell us a lot about our shared values, passions and struggles?

Below I’ve gone and done a breakdown of the memes that I see regularly accompanied by my analysis of why they are so popular and what that tells us about the zeitgeist.

You are special and unique and someone needs you


The above meme, one which has been Liked 118,348 times and shared 45k times is one which has clearly struck a powerful chord with a lot of people. Thematically it covers two basic needs, the first is people’s need to know that their differences or ‘quirks’ are nothing to be ashamed of, the second is the individual’s need to know that they have these points of uniqueness within their character in the first place. If we consider social media’s role in today’s world, the second of these needs seems infinitely more important. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter forces us to be both wildly individualistic and conforming. This creates a sense of cognitive dissonance which these kinds of sentiments help to reconcile. Nietzsche, Satre, Camus et al grappled with the question of life’s meaning and purpose incessantly in the 19th and 20th centuries but the social media age in which we are more connected yet somehow more isolated may be the one to give us the most interesting insights (excuse the pun).

People are shit


Next up we have existential rage. The above meme shows us that most people, at some stage, begin to suspect that we are not truly needed by others, that we’re merely surrounded by opportunists and people those who would use and manipulate us for their own sordid purposes. We’re scared that other may have it easier than us, that maybe there isn’t a benevolent justice system which doles out everybody’s just deserts. This cynical anti-humanism, I would argue, is indicative of our political and economic landscape as the below meme demonstrates:


Despite coming from popular American conservative Facebook page ‘Right Wing News’ I have seen the above meme countless times on my newsfeed posted by my predominantly British ‘friends.’ Aside from the political implications (anyone with half a brain knows that no one in the UK is taxed to ‘breaking point’ and very few people ‘refuse’ to work when they are able), what the meme really expresses in being shared by the largely nonpartisan public is a fear that honest (apparently) purposeful toil will never be rewarded as it should be and that the undeserving ‘other’ is reaping the rewards.

Fuck Politics


You can’t have been on Facebook in the past 2 years if you haven’t seen the above meme. Yes it’s a completely made up assertion but considering the popular sentiment that politicians uncaring careerists only out for themselves the creator made the wise choice and printed the myth. The rise of nationalism, factionalism and populism in its many forms from Golden Dawn and Syriza in Greece, to Marie Le Pen in France to Nigel Farage,the SNP and Jeremy Corbyn (and even Russell Brand) in the UK to Donald Trump in the U.S. tells us that a lot of people are struggling with the social, political and economic effects of Globalization. Politicians from the long-established main political parties are identified as the culpable stooges of corporations and international governing bodies such as the EU, IMF, UN etc. The trend now is to say ‘Fuck it, they’re all the same! They’re all saying and doing exactly the same thing, and we- the little guys- are getting fucked by forces beyond our control!’ This may not strictly be true (it isn’t) but there is an element of truth, or wider theme at play, which allows memes like this one to resonate with people and become viral.

Kanye is a twat


There is a great post on Reddit which lists and analyzes all of the reasons people really hate Kanye West. Personally I’ve always suspected that both Middle England and Middle America have trouble dealing with the presence of an audacious, iconoclastic and outspoken Black Man who deliberately appropriates symbols of White Male strength such as ‘the greatest fucking rock star on the planet’ and rudely hijacked the acceptance speech of Southern Belle Taylor Swift years after he called out the then-President of the United States George W. Bush. So when Ian Peters at Edwards&Sons Print Producers (made up person and made up business but you get the point!) sits down at his desk in the morning and sees a story on the Daily Mail about Kanye’s latest public spectacle, he can sit back in his chair, sip his morning coffee, let out an exasperated sigh and mumble ‘Kanye you twat.’

We’re Not Like Them


Fuckboys, fuccbois, basic bitches, basic bros, hispters, ‘cunts,’ these are the people whom we must disassociate with at all costs otherwise we risk joining ‘sluts,’ fat people and people who don’t respect the armed forces in the internet shame bin. The irony being of course that anyone, if not everyone, can easily find themselves in one or more of these categories. Like the first meme in this list, this kind of post, when shared or liked on social media tells others that we are simultaneously above these broad categories of undesirable individuals and a part of the consensus that these people are idiots. They also function to protect us from not being a part of any distinct or identifiable group so that we do not feel too much like we are being excluded by either the ‘basic’ mainstream or the cool alternative kids.

Fuck you Katie Hopkins!


Like a pantomime villain of old, Katie Hopkins, businesswoman and media personality, serves as a scapegoat or sacrificial punching-bag onto which we can project the worst elements of our culture. She is clearly a savvy individual and has managed to carve out a niche for herself which requires minimal original thought and effort whilst achieving maximal results. People who would normally complain about scroungers, immigrants (or ex-pats as they should be called), ‘chavs’, fat people and lesbians all suddenly release their vitriol at Mrs Hopkins with a hearty sense of self righteousness. KH gives them a reference point from which they can say ‘I know I have my opinions on certain things but this is just bang out of order!’ rather than confront some of their own prejudices and assumptions.

Cheeky Nandos


This one will be lost on Americans. Along with the Grime resurgence, chart-friendly Deep House music, Wavey Garmz, Netflix &Chill, Instagram and going to the Gym, having a Cheeky Nandos has become a cultural signifier for young working and lower-middle class lads in suburban areas. There are countless variations of this meme including everyone from David Cameron and Ed Miliband to Hitler to Louis Walsh to Tumblr posts of people explaining the phenomenon to Americans. Someone even did a Cheeky Nandos rap which plays off the various stereotypes associated with patrons of the South African casual dining experience. The meme-ification of Nandos and its alleged cheekiness seems to be an offshoot of the much-maligned ‘Lad Culture’ which gives its adherents a more relevant and ‘urbanized’ version of the phenomenon where words like ‘cheeky banter with the lads’ remain but the background of the participants is largely different and the dress code, taste in music, taste in women and type of haircut is worlds away from the clean cut Hollisted-clad Ruby lad from Durham University.

Everyone knows their place around here


To paraphrase Marx, Nostalgia is the opium of the British masses. Downtown Abbey, Cath Kidston, The Great British Bakeoff and Strictly Come Dancing tell us this quite conspicuously. Whilst the plight of East Londoners and West Midlander during the Blitz can’t really be compared to anything that we experience today, the sentiment of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ does carry some resonance for a population subjected to seemingly endless austerity that many of us suspect is not an equally shared burden. Another related meme category that ties in with this is the Queen doing various mundane tasks and pulling faces that us mere commoners are sometimes want to pull. For the benefit of any international readers, Queen Elizabeth II occupies a strange place in British life. The British (or English if we’re being accurate) have what Christopher Hitchens called a ‘fetish‘ for the Monarchy. There was a time when we ‘ruled the waves’, our Queens and Kings from House Windsor were recognized by our lowly colonial subjects as the governors of their everyday lives and we were prepared to take on the Sausage Munching-Bosch at the drop of an aristocratic top hat. Queen Elizabeth is like our beloved old aunt, politely fearful of change and too proud to use the NHS, who keeps that problematic family history alive in our minds. Coupled with campy English whimsy the result of this is memes like the below:


Why is Ed Sheeran so popular? A Marketer’s analysis

It’s been a long journey for me, I’m still reeling from the disappointment of seeing Ed Sheeran on the track-list of the disaffected dark edgelord Abel Teysfare (The Weeknd)’s upcoming album Beauty Behind the Madness . I’m still praying that Kanye doesn’t lose his judgement and employ the Ginger bard’s services for the upcoming Swish. I’ll level with my readers here and admit that I do not enjoy the music of Ed Sheeran, I find it unbearably banal and disingenuous. The fake sincerity echoing the faux-depressing half-sincere wailing of Chris Martin or Sam Smith puts me to sleep and infinitely less offensive to me than any of David Guetta’s formulaic club muzak or anything the Bieb and gus associates put out (must reiterate that Where are Ü Now is a stroke of genius). The only stuff I can really get on board with is a couple of the funkier catchy tunes from the recent album X like Sing (watered-down Justified– era JT) and Don’t.


This is not however an article dedicated to slagging off Ed Sheeran but one designed to be an analysis of his appeal to the masses and resulting success. Un-stylish, non particularly attractive and lacking in charisma, Sheeran is clearly a departure from the popstars of old. His sound shies away from any boldness or experimentation and there’s no real compelling back-story.

There are likely a multitude of causes for Ed Sheeran’s success but the most important, in my view, is the fact that his brand as an artist and public figure of note is based around encapsulating the character of Middle England and being a projection of their innate desires. Some analysts claim that the term ‘Middle England’ is not a particularly useful one, such as  Ben Page from IPSOS Mori’s Social Research Institute who dismisses the label as ‘a convenient shorthand for the 25 per cent of the population who are not surgically wedded to one of the main parties – and who happen to live in marginal constituencies.’ There is likely a certain fairness to this observation and it’s unfair to generalize but the Labour voting, cosmopolitan, often better-educated and more socially pluralistic Guardian/Vice/i-D reading 18-30 year-olds of the capital are liable to forget that they are the demographic exception rather than the rule. Middle Englanders are often written off by metropolitan left-leaning liberals as a bunch of closet-racist sexist homophobes (all the wrong types of ists, ics and obes) who’s small mindedness would match us towards a Conservative-UKIP coalition at the next election but there’s more to them than that. Certainly they march in their droves to pick up the Daily Mail from Tesco and Morrisons, they fear waves of invading foreigners coming here to absorb their tax money through the welfare state and ban their bacon, they worry about the state of public finances and are naturally suspicious of the supposed Metropolitan elite. They are however more complex than this simplistic caricature suggests due to being a diverse group in terms of class-origin. Middle England, in my view, seems to be made up of a mixture of those descending from families that were more well-off before the economic paradigm shift that took place in the late 70s and early 80s who retain their conservative hierarchical view of society despite having less considerable means, and descendants of the upwardly-mobile skilled working class who felt their quality of life improve during the Thatcher, Major and Blair premierships who value personal responsibility, hard toil and self-improvement whilst still feeling a sense of inferiority compounded by the aloofness of Cosmopolitan Londoners and remnants of the British class system. This cocktail of demographic shifts originating in the latter part of the 20th century means that those whom we call Middle Englanders are in fact as complex and contradictory as anyone else. This means that they are as prone to Like something such as a photo of Will and Kate with baby George or a meme about benefit money going on Anjem Choudry’s beard-cream rather than our brave troops on Facebook as they are to Share an article about homelessness or Tory excesses in NHS cuts/privatization. They make big financial sacrifices for their children, they don’t want someone who doesn’t want to work to be more comfortable, they feel like the Guardianista outrage over Jeremy Clarkson’s quarterly racist (sexist, classist, homophobic) jokes is an example of the PC establishment trying to diminish the genuine enjoyment that they get from watching Top Gear, they fear radical social change for the sake of themselves and their families and despite maintaining good relations with the patron of their local curry house and cheering on Andy Murray every year, they feel like British culture is under attack from Islam-via-the-EU-open-boarder and Nicola Sturgeon clambering over Hadrian’s Wall with the tartan hordes behind her.

Enter Ed Sheeran, not a typical ME (his parents are Art Curators) but one nonetheless (he’s from a Tory constituency). Going from relative obscurity collaborating with Grime legends such as Wiley and JME (I’m still crying a bit about this) and gigging daily for peanuts in half-neglected pub and bar venues across the country to writing songs for One Direction and Taylor Swift, Sheeran’s rise to the centre of the UK’s pop culture sphere provides with a combination of a safe amount of danger and a comforting amount of familiarity. He had gained attention and sympathy for apparently being homeless (something he has since been forced to deny) for periods while trying to make it as a musician and for speaking out against wealthy fans getting VIP seating at concerts whilst simultaneouly mastering the distinctly British art of banality and mediocrity so applauded by England’s silent everyone-knowing-their-place-majority. The fact that he’s a middle class white guy with a guitar forever plays out in his favour and the patronizing simplicity of early tracks like ‘A-Team’ where he doles our sympathy for homeless people plays well with Middle England’s platitudinous concern for the less fortunate. The obligatory celebrity philanthropy also allows Sheeran’s appeal to overlap with the outside-of-London bourgeois; those who own Small to medium sized businesses, members of Countryside Alliance, ‘Shy Torys’, small time Accountants and Solicitors living in the small town on the outskirts of big cities- they read the Mail but have a basic understanding of wine and went to better universities. His beaded necklaces, casual vagabondism and oblivious disposition remind them of the son they have that plays guitar all day in his room and volunteered building a school in Togo for 2 months. Ed is the nice kid who maybe smokes a little weed and wasn’t headed for a Russell Group Uni but did work hard with his music thing and deserves credit for not getting help from anyone and sticking to his guns. His humble manner also nicely reflects the inoffensiveness that the majority craves making him endlessly endearing.


If there’s one parallel I can draw between the result of May’s General Election result and Ed Sheeran’s success it’s that like politicians and pollsters, marketers and Agency folk alike shouldn’t underestimate the quiet power of Middle England– our silent majority. I for one have learnt that there’s a world outside of the trendy weirdos and armchair socialist gender-theorists that make up my Facebook and Twitter feeds beyond my somewhat conservative grandparents.

What The Labour Party can learn from Hip Hop


So the dust has settled following Labour’s crushing GE2015 defeat. Ed Miliband has faded into Memedom, four hats remain in the ring after Chuka ‘strictly vinyl’ Umunna bowed out gracefully from the Leadership race and Labour’s Left-Flank are battling it out with the more pragmatic centrists over the soul of the party. This isn’t a politics blog so please do not expect any deep analysis of the results or persuasive rhetoric, it is simply a few thoughts on what the Labour Party can learn from Hip Hop culture when considering the root of its brand.

Left Wing politics doesn’t always have an easy relationship with the world of art despite the popular perception of artists, writers and musicians as a gaggle of Marxists and Various shades of socialist. Art, in all of its forms has a distinctly individualistic streak which requires freedom, autonomy, innovation- and quite frankly- selfishness. This of course doesn’t include phenomena such as Social Realsim, the didactic poetry of the 60s American counterculture and the stringent leftism of musicians such as Rage Against the Machine and Public Enemy. Neither does it mean that art cannot or should not be political, this is a debate for theorists which will likely rage on for as long as humans continue to create.

Despite humanity’s long history of protest-art there are numerous examples of how the conflict between the individual and the collective within th artistic community has seen many artist favour the former. One only has to think of the Italian Futurists who embraced a kind of dynamic right wing political undercurrent to their innovations, the notable fascist Ezra ‘make it new’ Pound, the CIA’s covert sponsorship of Abstract Expression and Cool Jazz, Jack Kerouac’s hatred of Communism, the fierce individualism of Punk/post-Punk bands such as the Sex Pistols and Joy Division (although the former would never admit to sharing common ground with the right), Iggy Pop’s Reaganism, Gilbert and Geroge’s adoration of Margaret Thatcher, Vincent Gallo’s ‘Conservatie radicalism’ and Tracy Emin’s heaping of praise upon David Cameron and Boris Johnson.

One of the few artistic movements which has effectively managed to keep a foot in the capitalist individualist camp whilst also maintaining a sense of duty to the wider community is Hip Hop. You might argue that Hip Hop in its current form is probably the least Left Wing genre around (bar Country & Western and Skinhead Nazi Punk).  The emphasis on acquiring money, expensive champagne, luxury cars and designer clothing remains prevalent to this day and parties only seem worth attending if one has the freedom to throw copious amounts of their income at strippers. Consumerism is alive and well in Hip Hop as the top commercial tier of artists lend their names to various brands in the form of endorsements and rappers continue to personify the raison d’être of brand-based advertising (whether they’re being paid for it or not!).

That being said, Hip Hop has never lost its social consciousness. This isn’t an analysis of your standard lefty outliers like the militant socialist Immortal Technique or Dead Prez or your Afro- hippy cliques such as Arrested Development, De La Soul and early-A Tribe Called Quest or social justice campaigners such as Common, Talib Kweli and The Roots.  The focus of this piece is how mainstream artists within Hip Hop, many of whom may be considered to be betraying the genres ‘conscious’ roots, demonstrate an ideological framework that should be at the core of the the Labour Party’s centre-left politics. It is worth mentioning some of the negative aspects of mainstream (and often underground) Hip Hop that any party of government would rightly denounce such as the sexism, violence and homophobia. These issues are topical battlegrounds for Hip Hop commentators and despite significant progressive strides being made, there are clearly cultural changes that need to happen however for the sake of this argument I’m going to set these aside.

Artists like Jay Z, Kanye West, Nas, Young Jeezy and the late-greats Tupac and Biggie all laced their heavily materialistic lyrics with social commentary when and where they can/could. Take Jay Z, Labour leadership candidate Liz Kendall’s favourite rapper, aka ‘ Che Guevara with bling on’ who raps ‘ how can I help the poor if I’m one of them?/I got rich and gave back that’s the win win’ on the Eminem-produced Black Album cut ‘Moment of Clarity.’ Jay Z embodies the bootstrap rags-to-riches story that defines the conservative narrative and often emphasises his ascent from the Bed Stuy projects to the upper echelons of wealth and status. In an interview with Zadie Smith, Jay expressed a mixture of sympathy and skepticism on the subject of the Occupy Wall Street movement speaking against both the practices of the rapacious business elite or ‘1 percent’ and the enterprenure-bashing of the far left stating ‘ this is free enterprise. This is what America was built on.’ If that doesn’t sound like it’s come straight out of the Labour centre’s (or right spending on how you measure it) playbook then I don’t know what does. Despite the smears of his GOP opponents Barack Obama is no socialist, at least not compared to the domestic policies of FDR (or even Nixon for that matter) or his counterparts on the mainstream European Left however it is worth considering that Jay Z would have a lot more to gain tax-wise from a Republican administration. Nevertheless Jay and Beyoncé continue to rub shoulders with the Obamas as well as speaking out on social issues and quietly paying bail for anti-police brutality demonstrators.

Kanye West is another example of a Hip Hop artist that reaches out on social issues whilst continuing to embody excessive materialism through his fashion endeavours, corporate deals and flashy lifestyle. Mr West has spoken on a range of social issues throughout his career such as the Bush Administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina, Reagan-era CIA corruption, violence and deprivation in his native Chicago, theconflictedness of wealthy African Americans and classism. Lecturing at places as diverse as the Oxford University Natural History Museum, inner-city schools in Chicago, Technical Colleges and at student unions for Black and Ethnic Minority undergraduates, Kanye is all about ‘Education, education, education.’ Kanye is known to be a conflicted character on record, frequently flirting between considering buying ’50 gold chains’ to rubbing shoulders with the head of the CIA to calling out racial profiling at airports- it has become something of a USP for him and it is something that the Labour Party can learn from. There are downsides to being all things to all men but being tiring mono-focussed is the greater risk.

Another character to consider would be Nas whose subject matter is often caught between ‘the hoes and the ice, 4-4s or Black Christ.’ You might see him walikng down the Road to Zion with Damien Marley  confessing being ‘guilty of materialism’ or you might see him next to Diddy with a gold chain as cars explode behind him. One minute he’s discussing the Prison Industrial Complex with Civil Rights veteran Angela Davies next he’s joining grassroots movements such as the African American Anti-Defamation group ‘Color of Change’  all whilst holding it down as an entrepreneur backing various start ups and investing in Mass Appeal magazine.

Regardless of how wealthy rappers become there remains a sense of duty to their respective communities that sits beside their own individual advancement. Whether it’s Young Jeezy’s critiquing both the actions of the police in Ferguson and the ineffectiveness of rioting whilst simultaneously being the ‘Snowman’ poster boy for the illicit capitalism of the drug market or Tupac’s Versace-clad proclamations that ‘everyone needs a little help on their way to be self reliant‘ (equality of opportunity anyone?)Hip Hop artists always seem to veer to the centre-left once they reach a certain level of financial comfort. As Labour now looks to redefine its brand the word ‘aspiration’ is being thrown around by almost all of the Leadership contenders, this seems like a sensible idea to consider as the the individualist ideas of the 80s do seem to persist within the national consciousness. There is still room for a sense of societal belonging as Miliband’s ‘Mansion Tax’ policy and his highlighting of inequality seemed to resonate with the general public, however the British voters proved to still be largely concerned with self-interest, something that New Labour-for all it’s faults-seemed to understand. Despite the tendency towards ostentatiously flaunting wealth and status, Hip Hop has never seemed to lose its sense of responsibility to the community- this kind of balance should be at the centre of The Labour Party’s rebranding regardless of who is elected leader this autumn.