Imagine you had to sell something on Oxford Street in the rush hour.
But here’s the catch: you could only use sign language.
How much success do you think you’d have?
What do you think your chances of getting your sales message across would be, just using sign language?
Maybe you think it’d be good.
Maybe you think everyone would be so fascinated by the fact you’re using sign language that they’d stop and try to work out what you were trying to communicate.
Personally I doubt it.
What I know about Oxford Street is it’s the busiest street in London.
People are barging their way through, ignoring everything except where they’re going.
There’s not much casual strolling in rush hour on Oxford Street.
Everyone’s on a mission to get somewhere as fast as possible.
It’s very hard to interest anyone in what you’re saying.
Imagine trying to do it without words, in sign language.
Because that’s exactly how everyone in advertising behaves.
We’re talking to people who are busy getting on with their own lives.
But we’re scared stiff to interrupt them: to raise our voices, or sing songs, or tell jokes, or even make eye contact.
Because interruption has become a bad word.
But, without interrupting them, how do you get through to anyone on Oxford Street in the rush hour?
The simple answer is you don’t.
You stand around using sign language and everyone barges past and ignores you.
But it doesn’t matter because your sign language isn’t really done for the people on Oxford Street anyway.
Your sign language is done for “The Sign Language Awards”.
Every year all the sign language people get together and give each other awards for the best sign language.
That’s advertising awards.
We spend billions of pounds using sign language on Oxford Street.
It wins lots of awards but in the real world it doesn’t work.
So how did this happen?
It starts with the words we use, we call people ‘consumers’.
How can words like that make a difference?
Because we talk about a group whose sole function is to consume.
All we have to do is offer up something in front of them and they’ll consume it.
So we don’t have to interrupt them.
They’re sitting there passively, listening for every nuance of whatever we’ve got to say.
We can use sign language and it will work.
We can smile enigmatically and raise an eyebrow and it will work.
Well maybe that’s true if our audience was in solitary confinement in a cell desperate for any human contact.
But I don’t think that’s the real-world context we work in.
I think it’s more like Oxford Street in the rush hour.