I am a poet, writer and performer, and I was recently approached to write a poem. And perform it. For a TV Christmas advert. For a nationally recognised company.
I said no (thank you). In the conversations I’ve had since turning it down, it is a decision which lots of my artistic peers, friends, and husband have immediately understood and agreed with, but to which lots of other people (mainly members of my family, but some friends too) have reacted in more of a ‘why have you passed up on such a massive opportunity, you lovely idiot’ kind of way.
I can see both sides, I really can. I was conflicted about it myself in lots of ways, and in the end I just went with my gut. So I wanted to write a little bit about the decision, in a way that addresses both sides, and takes a look at it all holistically.
First of all, I want to be absolutely clear that these are just my thoughts on what I want to do with my art, and I’m not interested in passing comment or judgement on any fellow artists who have produced work for adverts. Indeed, I have close and dear friends who have. All I can say is how I feel about my own situation, right now. For instance, I honestly might have jumped at it, if I had children or dependents to support, or if I didn’t have other freelance jobs that I love (I also run sensory workshops for people with profound and multiple learning disabilities).
Also, I’m absolutely not against the concept writing commercially. Last year I wrote an article for Demetre Fragrances about how unusual scents can be useful in sensory interaction with people with PMLD (my beloved other work). I wrote the article for the company in exchange for them sending over a whole load of their crazy perfumes for me to use when working with my clients. I was happy to write a factual piece for a commercial company in exchange for goods that I needed. (In fact I would do pretty much anything to get better resources for the people in my sensory sessions, but that’s a different article entirely!) What would be the difference in writing a poem for a TV advert? I’m not sure exactly. I’m not sure if I can formulate an explanation that would resonate with everyone. I just know that, for me, that is not the place of poetry. It is not the role that I want poetry to play.
Poetry, for me, exists to pioneer the intangible. The only thing I really hope to do when I write is to find a way to say something which is difficult to articulate in our day to day lives and conversations. To touch on the things which we struggle to say, either because they are too scary or delicate or complicated or raw to address in the everyday. Why? Just because. Because we need it. Because as Nina Simone said ‘it is an artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, to reflect the times’, because as Clarice Lispector said ‘at the end of the day we’re not trying to change things, we’re trying to open up somehow’.
And advertising feels like the opposite of that. It is about identifying our weaknesses, insecurities, fears and most treasured memories, and using them as ammunition to trick us into buying things. Don’t get me wrong. Writing good advertising copy is a clever and complicated craft. I respect it, and I am fascinated by it. You won’t a find a bigger Mad Men fan than me! But as complicated a pursuit as it might be morally, the art of writing advertising copy is at least honest in its intention. It is writing to sell stuff to people. Or to convince them that they want something, that they need it, and that their lives will be better and fuller and happier and more content once they’ve parted with the cash. But writing a poem, or being ‘guided’ by the ad production company to write a poem, or straight up saying a poem a that I haven’t really fully written myself, on an advert, and then pretending that it is my real art work, something that I’ve created to search for truth, but is actually just for advertising purposes… what is the point in that? It’s not good honest copy, and it certainly wouldn’t be good honest poetry. The idea of it felt dishonest on a lot of levels, and that made me uncomfortable.
The company themselves are not evil. I’m a lifelong customer, in fact. They’ve been good to me. I recommend them to friends. But they are not whiter than white, what large corporation is? They advertise in The Daily Mail, (please see http://stopfundinghate.org.uk/) and have made business moves recently which I question the ethics of, especially in their apparent lack of support for NGOs working in support of Palestine. And at this point, I feel that a company’s ethical outlook would need to align in a pretty ironclad way with my own, if I was going to give them my art to use as advertising.
It turned out the fee was a lot of money. I don’t want to throw figures around, partly because (I imagine) someone is going to end up taking them up on the offer, and the agreed figure will be between them and the tax man, but also because they did not disclose the fee to me, but to a fellow writer whom they also approached, so it’s not my information to share. But suffice to say, in the town where I grew up, it would have been enough to put down a deposit on a house.
It’s tricky to write about money, because on the one hand – here I am, aged 30 and (despite considering myself to be totally middle class) delaying having kids because we can’t afford it. Or discovering (after a recent short stay in hospital) that I haven’t made enough national insurance contributions in my entire working life to be entitled to any sickness benefits. And this amount of money could have changed all that. On the other hand – the money doesn’t feel that important. I am lucky enough to be fit and healthy. I could have more financial stability if I gave up writing and performing and chose to do a different job. But I don’t, I choose writing, and the fiduciary nothingness that goes along with it. That’s my bed and I’m lying in it, with or without advertising offers. What I mean is – the fee from this advert is not the only way available to me out of my relative poverty. I could work in a call centre and make more money. I choose not to because I love writing.
What felt more difficult to turn down (and I cannot believe I’m saying this, after years of explaining to promoters and programmers who send emails proposing gigs that don’t pay, but will be ‘good exposure’, that EXPOSURE WONT PAY MY GAS BILL) is the incredible amount on potential exposure that writing and performing a poem on an advert would bring. Getting work is hard. Getting to talk to the right people about your work is hard. I’m working on a new piece of theatre and a new screenplay at the moment, and I know that getting to discuss either of them with the right directors / producers / venues is going to be a bewildering and frustrating process, as always. It is an unfortunate (and sad) truth that the exposure of being featured on something which is broadcast on mainstream TV, and is linked to an established brand, would make that whole process easier. But I just didn’t feel comfortable putting my work into the hands of strangers whose priority is promoting the brand, not my writing, in exchange for that exposure.
The timing of this offer feels auspicious in some ways, as far as figuring shit out goes. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why I do this. Why we do this. Why we make things. Does it change anything? In terms of weighing up your life’s net contribution? In my working life, I choose to spend less time working where I can (hopefully) enrich and improve the lives of people with complex disabilities, in order to have the time to make art which relatively very few people ever read, or experience. The only answer I can find is somewhere amongst the reasons that I turned down the advert – a search for truth, something sacred and beautiful and raucous, and trying to open up somehow. A record of the ridiculousness, of what we are doing here, in big ways and small. Something unpressured and untainted by the shape of the system.
Am I being overly precious and pretentious, in even thinking about my own largely unrecognised work with such importance? Most definitely. But what is the point otherwise? There’s a joke that I hear or say often, in conversations amongst fellow poets working at a similar level to myself – something along the lines of ‘we don’t do it for the money. And it’s a good job too because there isn’t any.’ When we say it, we laugh because of the glee of knowing you choose to do something just because you love it, because it is important to you. But always there is a hint of regret too, because wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was some money involved? If there was a short cut to getting a lump of cash together, so we could buy ourselves the time to really properly produce the work that we dream of? Well it turns out sometimes there is, but it made me feel weird, and I didn’t want it.