Let us take small print to mean any proposition whose truth is contained in a subclause standing in the corner whistling with its hands in its pockets and looking shiftily from side to side while the main clause SHOUTS AT YOU EXCITEDLY! For example that
READING THIS ARTICLE WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE*.
Now let us take Hoodies to be angry disaffected kids who loiter in groups at poorly lit bus stops and fly kick phone boxes, smoking and grow up to be the kind of people who jump redfaced from their cars veiny and screaming when you so much as remind them that the lights have been green for 10 seconds.
Consider that the defining social relationship of our human lives is between us and what used to be called The Man, i.e, the voice of authority in all its forms. Every day we are at the mercy of The Man - whether he provides our broadband, our speed limits or our phone boxes1. The tone of this relationship dictates how we relate to the world, whether we see it as our friend or enemy.
I submit that subdivisions of The Man are not appealing to us. When I (or Joe Hoody) get a flyer through my letterbox offering a free large bottle of Coke when ordering two medium pizzas, somewhere in my mind that flyer has come from the same place as my council tax bill. So when I then go out and fly kick some phone boxes I’m venting my anger not at BT specifically but at the pizza leaflet, my crappy broadband connection, taxes & cetera.
I also submit that the advent of small print was the point at which the tone of The Man’s conversation with the individual became openly contemptuous. The underlying message of small print is that not only is he lying to you, he’s not even lying about lying. This is an important distinction.
Another important distinction is between intuitive and technical truth. Free texts** is NOT the same thing as Free texts when you spend £25 a month. We all know it isn’t. It may be technically true but we instinctively know that in spirit it’s a lie. A doubly insidious lie for its derisive bet that you won’t follow the asterisk2. It’s the spirit that matters when we assess how The Man feels about us, just as in any other relationship. Emotionally speaking, technical truth is empty3.
One might reasonably ask why, if we all subconsciously know these to be lies, they work. My answer would be: well, do they? As we wander confused and preoccupied through our lives, it seems obvious that we can’t afford to interrogate every message to get to the truth of it. Can I read the whole of the provisional contract supplied by every home insurance provider as I consider their quotes? I cannot. Instead we form the defensive (and prudent, though inaccurate) general opinion that all insurance is a con or that all advertising is a lie. Even worse, seeing as we can’t opt out entirely we’re forced to buy in through gritted and hateful teeth. The transaction is poisoned by the feeling that we’re being stiffed - whether we are or not.
By employing small print or even by allowing it to exist, The Man is saying that it’s OK for him to try to trick or mislead us into doing something we wish we hadn’t done. He is defining our relationship thus: his role is to wheedle and trick our money4 out of us in any way he can, and our role is to be diligent enough to prevent him. Assuming that our money is precious and we are inclined to dislike anyone making eyes at it, the relationship has become adversarial. Him against us for the prize of everything we hold dear.
Not only is he unashamedly declaring himself the enemy, our only defence is blanket distrust of anything and everything with his name on it. So every time we see an ad we’re reminded at a deep, instinctual level that The Man (the government/ the world/ life) is against us. Given that this happens on average 32,000 times per person per year5, is it any surprise we’re against him too?
There is an initially ludicrous sounding but surprisingly neat remedy: ban small print. Would this result in 48 sheets rammed to the gills with copy detailing every last exclusion to an offer? Perhaps initially, but how long before the first advertiser decided to sacrifice these labyrinthine clauses in exchange for cut through - before Free texts for the first 6 months when you spend £25 a month on a minimum contract of 18 months only applicable to new customers became simply Half Price Texts For Everyone?6
In terms of enforcement the onus could be placed on the advertiser to prove in any dispute that the central message of their communication is true without recourse to further information. Central would of course be defined by visual prominence (and for television / radio, aural). Typeface, font size, volume, length of time displayed etc. As punishment a contravening advertiser would be legally obliged to deliver on their misleading central message, incentivising consumers to enforce the rule and allowing the spectre of Hoover to hover grimly over Marketing Managers’ heads whilst signing anything off.
These ideas are hardly detailed enough, but it’s surely nothing a few clever people in a room couldn’t solve. The prize after all is substantial: a realignment of our attitude to the world we live in. The transformation of The Man from hated adversary to something more like advisor.
Do I think advertising has a moral obligation to be honest? Yes. Am I naive enough to argue for that? No. But a first step would be to remove the legitimisation of open deceit that small print represents - the barefaced admission by The Man that he hates you, and therefore the invitation to hate him back.
There seems to have been a time when the general public had implicit faith in The Man. To today’s reader this seems more remote and outdated than top hats, penny farthings or even slavery. Distressingly, slaves can still be found in modern Britain. You’d be hard pressed to find a single person with blind faith that the forces of authority are acting in their best interests.
It does raise the intriguing question of whether, and how, this trust could be restored. It’s interesting that it seems to have begun to decay around the mid 20th century, parallel (coincidentally of course) to the emergence of a newly sophisticated advertising industry. It may have survived a million bullets when in the First World War those same authorities he trusted sent him to pointless death, but Joe Hoody’s faith in society has turned out to be no match for 32,000 lies a year.
*When read in conjunction with another article that persuades you for example to undergo cancer screening just as a malignant storm happens to be gathering.
**When you spend £25 a month.
1Needless to say the less money you have the more the terms of this conversation are in The Man’s favour, hence the comparatively low numbers of Eton educated youths to be found riding bicycles slowly down the middle of main roads / throwing bricks through windows of disused buildings & c.
2 In fact asterisks seem to have fallen out of favour these days, replaced by a crucifix symbol, perhaps to lend an air of religious solemnity or even JC’s implied approval to proceedings.
3 Cf. The husband who argues that he hasn’t lied to his wife because she never actually asked him if he was fucking his secretary. He is resorting to a technical truth, with results I think we can all predict.
4 Money is the most obvious but far from the only example. Consider also time and personal information.
5 I googled this stat and I don’t care if it’s inaccurate. We all know the figure is high.
6 Equally they may choose to dispense with offers in favour of something more abstract, in which case fine. The object is simply to prevent ourselves being surrounded by lies.
Max Barron is a writer and director.