Mar 2006

Oh so civilised

I am annoyed dear reader. Truly irritated. I’ve expressed my annoyance on this subject many times it must be said. But that’s never stopped a blogger before. Besides which, I consider it a collective catharsis. A periodic exercise in group empathy and solidarity… our own little One Minute Hate. Just you and I, dear sympathetic reader. Together we can scream our protest and our refusal. Here on this dusty backroad, miles from any superhighway.

Advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket.
– George Orwell

Yes. It’s that time again when I rant about marketing. You could set your watch by it. Assuming you’re the sort of person who doesn’t mind not knowing the right time. And just so you know who to blame; tonight my rant is brought to you by the comedian and writer Stephen Fry.

I used to have a lot of time for Stephen Fry. He’s a very witty man… so good at that flattering intellectual humour that rewards you with a warm fuzzy, self-satisfied feeling for being smart enough to get the joke. Funny and sharp and well educated; a winning combination. Something of a modern day Oscar Wilde, as I’m sure has been said a million times.

Tonight, as I sat down to watch the news, my attention was caught by the last few minutes of the previous programme. It was a cookery competition reality thingie. A bunch of wannabe masterchefs prepare meals for a selection of food critics, celebrities and members of the general public. One by one they are eliminated, complete with tense and tearful dismissals until only one remains. And that person wins a billion pounds, or a tropical island, or is made Lifetime Emperor of Angola, or something along those lines.

I had surmised all of that within the first 3 or 4 seconds of switching on the TV. These shows are nothing if not formulaic. Just as I was about to hit ‘mute’ until the news came on, the scene shifted to the celebrity critics. And there sat an insufferably smug and well-fed Stephen Fry lambasting some poor woman for having served him substandard cake. I was instantly reminded of that sickening advert for Nestlé chocolate mints that he did a few years ago. And where once I had felt positively charmed by Stephen Fry’s presence on the screen, now I felt nothing but deep loathing.

What a complete arsehole.

I sought out an image from that advert of his, with which to illustrate this essay, but oddly enough can’t seem to track one down (you’d imagine there’d be a website out there containing stills from every advert ever made… you’d imagine the advertising industry would insist upon it). So for those of you unfamiliar with it, allow me to describe it…

Stephen Fry and Naomi Campbell (the model) host a dinner party. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, their guests are Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Albert Einstein. And together, on behalf of Nestlé, the five of them set about shilling After Eights mints to a public already suffering an obesity epidemic. Absolutely everything about it is deeply wrong. In absolutely every sense. But as those who know me well will guess; it’s Einstein’s appearance that riles me more than anything.

Einstein never allowed his name to be used for commerical advertising, though he received some curious requests […] If he showed enthusiasm for a product, word would get around and he would be approached to endorse and promote it.

Without exception he turned these requests down.

Alice Calaprice (editor and translation supervisor of Princeton University’s “The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein”)

Albert Einstein was not “merely” the zany looking physicist who came up with e=mc^2. He was also a moral philosopher of great worth. He wrote extensively on the subject of global peace, and how it might be achieved. He tackled numerous diverse issues, and always with the characteristic wisdom, balance and insight of a man who simply saw further and deeper than most of us manage. From the Arab-Israeli situation to the best way to educate children and on into metaphysics, epistemology and definitions of the self.

And he also wrote on economics. And on mass media. And nobody capable of spending an hour researching the issue would have any doubts about his attitude to the advertising industry.

Under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.

Albert Einstein | Why Socialism?

In that essay – and elsewhere – Einstein calls for the dismantling of capitalism; a system of “economic anarchy” which constitutes “the real source of the evil” in modern society. He denouces “production […] carried on for profit, not for use”. And attacks modern educational methods as merely capitalist propaganda…

This crippling of individuals I consider the worst evil of capitalism. Our whole educational system suffers from this evil. An exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career.

Albert Einstein | Why Socialism?

So although Einstein died before television became the cultural force that it is today, it would take a peculiar brand of willful ignorance or denial to imagine that he would have been anything but appalled by the use of his image to sell products (whether chocolates or Apple Fricking Computers). He clearly and repeatedly denounced the use of mass media by private capitalists to “usurp the decision-making processes of individuals” as well as making it “quite impossible” for individuals to “come to objective conclusions” or “make intelligent use of their rights”.

When Stephen Fry decided to take his thirty pieces of silver from Nestlé, I wonder did he have a policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell”? Or did he know exactly what he was involving himself in? Did he know that Einstein would have been horrified; would have considered it a betrayal of his principles; to have his image used to flog consumer bullshit? Did Stephen Fry know and just not give a damn? Or was he ignorant of Einstein’s views on the matter, and chose to remain so in order to pick up the cheque (because, of course, he needs that money so very much).

To repeat… what a complete arsehole. Though perhaps another line from Einstein might explain it…

With fame I become more and more stupid, which of course is a very common phenomenon.
– Albert Einstein

Posted in: Opinion