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It's the Message, Dummy: On Fearless Girl, Duchamp and Bad Faith

By Published on .

Fearless Girl
Fearless Girl Credit: McCann New York/State Street Global Advisors
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Did you happen to notice that the biggest thing in advertising right now is a statue? We're right smack in the middle of the digital revolution, leveraging artificial intelligence, virtual reality, machine learning, optimizers, and a bronze sculpture that stands 50 inches tall and weighs 250 pounds is probably the most honored piece of advertising in recent history. I'm talking about the Fearless Girl, of course. At Cannes, she won 18 Gold Lions including four Grand Prix trophies, and the coveted Titanium Grand Prix, which is appropriate as she is apparently now semi-permanent in her spot on Bowling Green, like titanium, a metal that resists corrosion and has the highest strength to density ratio of any metal.

I'm not knocking the Fearless Girl, not at all. It's a brilliant execution. I'm just making the observation that no matter how complicated our industry gets, with all of the state-of-the-art technical tools and assets that we leverage and exploit to get our clients' messages heard and not blocked or avoided, in the end a primitive technique that Romans and Greeks used, for example, to promote their nation states, leaders and their gods is the most advanced piece of marketing in the world at this moment.

Why?

It's the message, dummy. The media itself doesn't really matter. And, I would venture to say that the power of the Fearless Girl is not just in the simplicity of its design, but also its truth, authenticity and its good faith. What do I mean by good faith? Well, let me begin by explaining its opposite. Bad Faith was a favorite philosophical meme of Jean Paul Sartre and his existentialist friends. (Have I lost you?) According to Sartre, people are fundamentally free, but when social forces coerce us into adopting false values and behavior, we are acting in bad faith. Of course, this sound like politics today, but there is an advertising analogy. Hear me out.

In many ways, the advertising industry is built on illusions and hype, but the foundation rests on products that have concrete reality and intrinsic value. Take Heineken. A beer is a beer is a beer, and it's a damn good beer, but the brand recently succumbed to social forces, positioning itself as a champion of parity and egalitarianism, and I would argue, it engaged in an act of bad faith. Watching their "World's Apart" spots, with people from opposite ends of the political and cultural spectrum disagreeing and then agreeing with each other, are totally beside the point and a bit cringeworthy, until the last shots when the would-be antagonists clink bottles and guzzle a couple of heinies. It's all about the suds, stupid. The rest is a lot of gas.

Not so the Fearless Girl, who conveys a message so powerful that she actually transcends the messenger. Does anyone remember who commissioned her? (Of course McCann New York created her.) Does anyone even care? Point of fact, an investment firm named State Street Global was behind the girl. They were advertising SHE, an index fund of gender-diverse companies with women in senior leadership roles. Has anyone read the plaque? "Know the power of women in leadership. SHE makes a difference." I mean bloody hell, that's spot on. That is a piece of marketing that was created in 100% good faith. It has a social conscience and it totally and honestly represents what that company stands for, and what it is. Bravo!

Which brings up another issue, and that is social issues or current events. Exploiting hot-button topics of the day can make a statement for a brand and can make a sale, but advertisers must tread cautiously. We need to be responsible. We live in a time in which everything is transparent, thanks to new technologies, and if it turns out, for example, that the index fund behind the Fearless Girl isn't really diverse nor has women in leadership roles, then the bronze will have to be melted down and used to make cymbals. Brands have to behave appropriately to the message they are conveying or else there will be hell to pay. Creativity can only do so much. We can create the image but the rest is left up to brands. They have to live up to what we make for them.

Are you there, Fearless Girl? It's me, R Mutt
Are you there, Fearless Girl? It's me, R Mutt Credit: Public domain

Funny how the Fearless Girl makes me think of another Frenchman, Marcel Duchamp, the Cubist and Dadaist artist. Duchamp saw that the art world was dishonest and full of itself, and basically engaged in bad faith, so what did he do? He created a sculpture; or rather he repurposed a "readymade" found object, a toilet, actually a porcelain urinal, titled it "Fountain" and presented it as art. With that extremely basic and insanely simple piece of primitive, plastic technology, Duchamp helped upend the art world, taking it into a new, startling direction that led ultimately to Warhol, Damien Hirst and beyond.

I would venture to say that the Fearless Girl is our Fountain.

Gavin Lester is CCO of L.A. agency Zambezi