We did it to Hasselhoff, Clooney and Pharrell. We did it to street art, Spike and Coachella after parties. We’ve almost done it to McConaughey and Macaulay. We did it to storytelling, snackable and saying “What’s up?” We did it to disruption. We did it to immersive theater and the best bits of the internet. We did it to low-hanging fruit. We did it to blue skies. We did it to the word “authentic.” Stella did it to both The Dude and Carrie Bradshaw in the same evening. Cadbury did it to Phil Collins’ drum solo. Just recently, Google did it to the entire Home Alone trilogy.
It’s not an unusual occurrence by any stretch of the imagination: Us advertisers borrow something once sacred, generally with good intent, and end up overusing, exploiting or twisting it until it has lost its meaning and influence.
I prided myself on being a step ahead of it, free from the threat of my industry’s writhing claws, flippant ingestion and regurgitation of once-beloved words and phrases. There I was, ignorantly thinking that my fingerprints could never be found on the victims within advertising’s mass grave of appropriation.
But I was wrong. Today, the entire advertising industry is complicit.
The latest victim has been with us for countless years, serving us with resilience, agility and versatility. It seemed impervious to our threats, our skulking about, our self-serving motives. But unlike other transients who should’ve seen it coming, this one comes as a dark surprise with devastating consequences.
As traditional advertising felt the ever-increasing deteriorating effects of audiences’ apathy and waning appetites for content, the entire industry turned its predatory gaze to “culture” as a potential antidote.
What once stood so tall and proud now lies lifeless at our feet, void of the purpose it once served and robbed of its royalty, like a shivering, plucked peacock. Creatives, strategists and account people alike bartered with it, bought it, sold it and swapped it. We sampled it, split it and inserted it into almost every strategy we served. And in doing so, in applying it to serve our every need, we sent it on a downward trajectory, becoming ever weaker on its way toward its inevitable demise.
As traditional advertising felt the ever-increasing deteriorating effects of audiences’ apathy and waning appetites for content, the entire industry turned its predatory gaze to “culture” as a potential antidote. Seemingly overnight, every creative agency’s landing page promised access to it, VIP passes to relevance and retention. We began to build teams around it. We taught lessons on it, launched hubs for it and inserted it into as many case studies, job descriptions and proposals as possible.
As our industry penned essays about marketing to millennials, “culture” began to simplistically refer to “the things young people care about.” Almost as if intentionally vague, its lack of clear definition gave way to a staggering degree of ubiquity. And together, we went to town on it.
Culture marketing, cultural velocity, cultural fluency, culture agency of record, cultural purpose, cultural moments, culture strategy and moving at the speed of culture. Culture Club, culturally relevant, cultural equity and creating creative culture. Monoculture, subculture, mariculture, sericulture, viticulture, apiculture enzymes. Access to culture, cultural input, cultural impact, cultural POV, cultural insight, cultural immersion, culture maker and credible culture custodians. Culturist, culture curation, cultural equator, cultural listening, and culturally-led culture safaris.
In my darkest hour, I was using it more than 20 times a day. In 2016, I had to replace “C” on my keyboard three times. In late 2017, we had a cultural architect join the team, a title so unsure of itself that to question it would be admitting your own ignorance. To understand culture became an advertising skill set unto its own. Even LinkedIn added it as an endorsable professional quality.
Us advertisers can spit jargon until we’re blue in our snackability holes. As it turns out, what we say counts.
Dear culture, on behalf of the advertising, marketing and the “anyone who calls themselves a creative” industry, we take responsibility for your slow, excruciating death. For making you a buzzword. For twisting you, slapping you around, wearing you like a hat and commanding you to perform for our selfish gains. While it was born from a good place, we acknowledge that we abandoned all due respect and instead treated you like a cheap commodity, a sales pitch, a destination, a state of mind and a reason for renewing retainers.
There is no other word that compares to your true power and potency. We tried other words like civilization, atmosphere and style as potential stand-ins, but nothing cuts the mustard. In accepting we are the ones who have exhausted you, today we mourn your retirement, give thanks and bid you farewell.
As for Adland, before the sun sets on culture’s shallow grave, we must swiftly replace any residual usage offenses on any website copy, strip what remains in our pitch decks and take the necessary steps to remove it entirely from individual and team vernacular for good.
Like any good funeral, there’s a lesson to be learned here. What happened to culture can happen to any of our other industry favorites. With terms like “advertainment” and “edutainment” being thrown about, “tainment” isn’t looking too healthy these days. Scalableis on life-support. Us advertisers can spit jargon until we’re blue in our snackability holes. As it turns out, what we say counts.
Culture didn’t die in a vacuum. Our clients asked for it, and we delivered. As an industry, we must hold ourselves and our partners accountable. Being complicit to a murder is still a crime. It’s our job to educate, to explain to brands how and when to operate within “culture.”
Together we’ll get through this. We’ll replace culture’s role with a new linguistic victim, vulnerable to our intentional reinvention on behalf of brands. And we will be sure to move at the speed of style.
Goodnight, sweet prince.