Too Much Sensitivity Stands in Way of Creativity

Guarding Everything We Say Makes It Hard to Communicate

By Published on . 22

Bart Cleveland Bart Cleveland
Recently, I read a syndicated columnist's view of how we've gotten so "sensitive" that we can't even laugh anymore. He teaches a college course of some kind and as an exercise he showed an old episode of "All in the Family." He said that not only did the college students not find it funny, they were offended. When he explained that the bigotry of Archie Bunker was satirical to make the point of it being wrong, he just received blank stares. The columnist also wrote about Clint Eastwood's new character in "Gran Torino" being a similar character. He has bigoted views, but that's what makes him interesting. What really made this columnist's views stand out to me was the fact that he was African-American. In fact, he made a point that now we have to qualify everyone with some hyphenated elaboration to ensure that no one will feel offended or omitted.

Sure, there is progress in our sensitivity, but should it be to the degree that we take away our ability to communicate? Some the classic novels of the 19th century are being lost to the politically correct updates. I'm a Southern boy with a Southern accent. It's part of what makes me different. I don't particularly like the stereotypes that so freely label Southerners, but frankly, if we didn't have them, I'd miss it. When we lose the ability to laugh at ourselves we lose the ability to laugh.

Our "sensitivity" has virtually killed our ability to communicate quickly and memorably in advertising. It's left the only tone of voice we can have pretty vanilla. Fortunately, there are still examples of advertisers who are willing to take the heat because they are committed to the attitude of their target. Case in point: Burger King. The "Whopper Virgins" campaign has taken some recent heat and it doesn't surprise me. Not because I think the criticisms are valid but because it's a lob pitch for those that want to A) Supposedly protect the world from things that might damage someone's self-esteem, and B) Keep mediocre work justified.

Why this is the case is simple in my mind: This industry is lazy. We want things to be easy. We want to receive accolades for doing the mundane. Since society is so fixated on being PC, we join in, bashing that which might be a bit insensitive to someone. Last year it was the suicidal robot for GM, now it's BK Virgins. We can't control the activist who uses advertising as a springboard for media coverage, but we can certainly control our own urge to be self-righteous.

It's time to swing the pendulum back. As the columnist surmised, we need characters like Archie Bunker to make a point. These days advertising can't use anything remotely close to that sort of example. Stereotypes don't even make it out of the agency, much less into the client's conference room. I try not to offend people with the work I do, but I'm finding it impossible because it's become very fashionable to be offended.

In the movie "The Matrix," Agent Smith tells Neo that the first Matrix was designed as a perfect utopia where everyone lived in a blissful state. It was a complete failure. Neo's world rejected it because it was too perfect. I figure part of that perfection was that everyone was exactly alike. No one ever offended anyone else. No one ever stereotyped anyone. No one used our own frailty as a communication tool. Most of the advertising we're doing these days would feel quite at home in Matrix 1.0.

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