At the Tate Modern I saw an exhibition by an artist I didn’t know.

The first piece was dull, so I read the card on the wall.

The artist had written:

“I want the work in the first instance to have a strong formal presence, and through the physical experience to activate a psychological and emotional response”

I thought, I recognise this.

This is marketing bullshit.

Someone trying to make a dull piece of work sound interesting.

This is how CEOs speak at advertising conferences.

This is how marketing gurus speak on videos.

This is what Stanley Pollitt used to describe as “Bullshit Baffles Brains”.

I can speak this language, not fluently, but enough to decode it.

It’s like working out a bad brief.

First you need a pencil for crossing out.

Let’s start at the top.

“I want the work in the first instance to have a strong formal presence”

Translated into English: “in the first instance” is redundant.

It simply means when you first see it.

So cross it out.

“Formal presence” is also redundant: it just means what it looks likes.

So cross that out too.

Now, the bullshit-free version is “I want it to look strong when you first see it”.

Okay, now the next bit: “and through the physical experience to activate a psychological and emotional response”.

Again, most of that’s redundant.

The dictionary defines physical as: “relating to things perceived through the senses as opposed to the mind”.

The dictionary defines ‘experience’ as: “practical contact with and observation of facts or events”.

So ‘physical experience’ simply means the real world.

Well we’re in the real world, so that’s redundant: cross it out.

How about: “psychological and emotional response”?

The dictionary defines ‘psychological’ as: “related to the mental and emotional state of a person.

So they mean the same thing and, since mental and emotional are the only responses we can know, they’re redundant.

We can put the pencil through them.

After we’ve crossed out the redundant parts, the artist’s remarks are more understandable:

“I want the work to look strong and to get a response”

Fair enough, I think it’s what we all want.

But it would look silly against work that looks weak and doesn’t get a response.

Like this artist’s work.

So he or she needed long words to disguise the dull work.

Which is exactly what most marketing and advertising language does.

But there is an upside to this use of language.

It is exactly how you can recognise bad advertising.

Remember, Stanley Pollitt called it “Bullshit Baffles Brains”.

So when you see work that needs that kind of language to describe it, you’ll know immediately what sort of work you’re looking at.














  1. Dave,

    Deciphering bullshit is more or less a job requirement for creatives these days.

    I have no problem translating it, but it still gets my goat – we could finish 90% of the meetings I sit in in 5% of the time if we’d just talk in normal bloody English.

    Do you have any tips for neutralising/minimising others’ tendency to bullshit in a way that won’t get HR on your back for creating a hostile work environment? Or do you just go straight for the hostile work environment?

  2. June,
    Bullshit happens because people are too frightened to quention it.
    I always say “I’m sorry I didn’t understand that. Can you put it in simple language?”
    Sometimes they can, and I genuinely learn something.
    Sometimes they just prove they’re covering up bad thinking with long words.

    As Eldridge Cleaver said “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem”

  3. Hi Dave,I’ve proposed to two clients in the past month that they present their brief or their description of their ‘mission’ or their ‘product benefits’ to a panel of bright 8-10 year olds. If a bunch of children don’t get it, neither will anybody else out there. We do a lot of work with schools, primary and secondary. Kids understand creative ideas and how to have them a lot better than most marketing people and quite a few planners ( not to generalise). Old people have a way with words too. Most marketing people and sadly many advertising ‘executives’ way with words not have.

  4. Thought about this one for a few days and largely agree with it, but can’t stop thinking about the “art” I’ve been wrong about. Back in the late ’70s Lou Reed was widely ripped for releasing Metal Machine Music, a densely layered electronic composition that at that time sounded like pure noise to me. Friends would visit, I’d put it on then after a while invite them to lift the stylus and drop the needle wherever they liked. It all sounded the same to us.

    Then in the early 2000s after listening to ‘noise’ and other extreme forms of avant garde music, I listed to Metal Machine Music again and suddenly it made sense to me. Later ‘covers’ by a string ensemble were actually quite beautiful.

    Still, even today you couldn’t use that music to sell a car and god forbid I would ever try to explain this piece to someone. Words would fail me. Truly complex art can often only be described indirectly. Oh, and I don’t remember Lou Reed ever trying to explain the composition, altho the critics did get him to apologize for it.

  5. Hi Dave,
    Love your blog.
    The problem with living in a soundbite culture is that people over-edit words until they completely remove the meaning.
    It looks like the artist didn’t describe qualitatively what they intended the psychological end result to be. Which is a problem a lot of advertising planners also have.
    I work in advertising and I love art. People in the ad industry often compare ads to artworks. But to be honest, most ads don’t have half the depth or care of thought that you find in many artworks.
    So I don’t think it’s a fair analogy.
    Also I think Mona Hatoum (which I assume is the artist you’re referring to) does some pretty impactful stuff. Her cheese-grater bed is pretty disturbing!

  6. Your points are well made. In general, I share your motivation to reduce the level of bullshit in the world and advertising /marketing in particular. Having said that, I think that artists’ statements are a bit of a soft target. One, many artists are visual people and not wordsmiths. Two, in the world of “My five-year-old could do that!” there is a lot of pressure on them to justify their work. To simply say, “I did it like that because it looked or felt good” or ” I just followed my intuition” just won’t cut it with many people. But the fact is that this is often the reason aesthetic decisions are made.

  7. Bullshit makes the marketing/creative/media/art (delete any of these and insert any other) industry money Dave, its a simple but horrible truth.

  8. Well, I’m not entirely convinced by your argument.

    For instance, the word “formal” has connotations that mean “adhering to the rules”, “acceptable” and “in agreement with the status quo”. So the words “formal presence” cannot be ignored. The implication is that this work is “acceptable to the general public” and therefore cannot be ignored. Whether this is true or not is debatable, but that conviction is what the artist wants to portray. You can’t just say it’s bullshit, even if it is.

    I also can’t condemn an artist wanting to incur a “physical experience” through their work, even if it doesn’t. You can’t just condemn that desire as being “redundant”. Remember the reason you, me and anyone else on earth exists is because of a “physical experience”.

    Observation: most, if not all your respondents, are sycophantic. This is sad. Especially as they appear to be in the same frame of mind as you and in agreement with the statement that “bullshit baffles brains”. Maybe you know this and are prepared to attract like-minded individuals to bolster your “bullshit baffles brains” campaign. But beware … there is no substance in their support.

    If you’re going to denigrate the bullshit of artists/politicians/agents/executives/anyone/ you can’t just come out with all guns blazing and consign their commentary to the dustbin for no apparent reason. You have to justify your argument. If you don’t, your commentary is just as much bullshit as anyone else’s. In fact it’s counter-productive because most people can see through your bull argument. I totally agree that “bullshit baffles brains”, but please think it through a bit more than you have.

    Nevertheless, thanks for putting up your post. At least it engenders some sort of response to whoever wants to read it.

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