Every now and again my romanticism urges surface- a desire for integration of science, arts, modern culture and media like they are in the world inside my head. Sometimes I have an opportunity to express these urges at Pecha Kucha nights, as with the following essay which was originally intended to be a 20 slides long presentation.
No matter what ‘they’ tell you, experience marketing, pull marketing and all other buzzwords that pass for new marketing’ today all started in the 15th century.
In medieval Brittan the monarchs and landlords often found themselves in a position where they needed to pass their (unpopular) new rulings along the commoners they ruled. Like announcing tax increases when they had given a grand party or fought a neighboring lord and found their treasure chest drained.
At first this was done by the military, but as the military was often recruited from the town itself, threatening the farmers often proved to be counterproductive, more than once caused uprisings. But it was around 1450 when these lords and monarch started recruiting special individuals to pass along their message for them, people that seem to have a way with words and other people – the bards.
Bards are generally thought of as merry man, traveling from town to town, telling tall tales to townsfolk. The truth is this type of bard has only come around since the 17th century. Before this the bard was simply a messenger in service of a court, who’s mission it was to praise new rulings convincingly, and pass along the messages of the powers that be to their subordinates.
The very word ‘bard’ is derived from ‘bardos‘ – which mean as much as ‘to raise your voice’ and ‘to praise’.
Given the current social situation of most of the lords subordinates at that time – poor, uneducated strong farmhands and blacksmiths – being a bard required great skill. Telling the fine folk they need to pay more or send their sons to war wasn’t always received with the happy enthusiasm you’d expect from bringing such ‘good’ news.
So in order to survive – literally – the bards found ways to embed themselves well within the community by providing entertainment in song or strong tales they’d write about their lord. Instead of demanding more taxes outright, the bard found clever stories about heroics of the lords that would make the villagers less likely to resist. Instead of fearing the messages of their lord, people would literally hoard around to listen to the tall tales (and latest rulings of their sovereign).
The evolution of bards
The bad bards made a living traveling around, spreading the word until they had made themselves too unpopular for comfort and moved on to the next town. The good bards however, got promoted to do the one thing the lords and monarchs thought was more important than keeping the peace – War.
As shown in numerous movies, in medieval warfare, morale meant life or death. When a horde of 10.000 angry men carrying swords come running at you, inspiration and a reason to not run and hide matters, and the warlords recognized this soon enough. The bards where told to inspire courage, survival and a will to fight for king & country. They often used battle songs, which carried far over the fields, or theater, enacting drama and comedy to take the soldiers mind of the battle ahead or tall tales of legendary heroes and the rewards of victory.
Eventually this evolved the bard into the artistic being – a communicator and a ‘people person’ who informed, inspired and motivated the masses through song, music and poetry – the finer arts that made life worth living. The most famous examples is of course The Bard of bards – William Shakespeare, around 150 years after the first records of bards being hired by the lords and monarchs. The role of the bard had evolved, a bard was no longer simply a messenger, but now often a thinker, posing questions and sharing world views with their audiences. Shakespeare famously posed many questions on sexuality, society, elitism and even politics. Large social issues meant to question and inspire through play and arts.
Another 150 years later the bard has reached its peak of social involvement. The famous Scottish bard Robert Burns starts to describe the foundations of liberalism and socialism in his poetry and folksongs, eventually inspiring both movements. The artistic minds are well embedded in society as thinkers, questioners and entertainers and mass-communicators.
A new monarch
But things change when we fast forward another 200 years. The profession of the bard starts to evolve again with the arrival of a new type of monarch: The industrialist. Entrepreneurs who see production is no longer an individual undertaking (a smith, a baker, a butcher etc.), but something that can be institutionalized through modern machinery. This marks the rise of the new kind of empire – the corporation.
At first the new monarch has no problems recruiting workforce or selling their products, but with the arrival of competition and broadcasting the monarch seeks to hire the help of the bard again – praising their product and telling their audiences about their business. The bards adapt to the demand for mass production and create micro and mass produced performances: The advertisements.
But the bard is facing problems – originality is rarely understood by the masses and with the increased demand for barding, the audience is flooded with ‘performances’. This means their messages have to be shorter, there’s no time or demand for depth – it’s no longer the occasional ruling of the sovereign, barding has become a full-time job. No more time for poetry or other fine arts. The bards had become marketers, and the craft of praising has been industrialized.
Like a child growing up – the art of inspiring and performing to praise seems to have lost a lot of its necessary creativity. Inspiring had become efficiency, communicating had become publishing, and motives are not longer morale or communicating rulings. Modern bards are on a mission to create new desires for their audience and maintain the industrial complex.
The goal of these manufacture needs is to create new wants for consumers, and new consumers means expansion of the industry which means wealth for the new monarch. The easiest way to create these ‘needs’ is to simply make you dissatisfied with your current situation. In other words: companies benefit from making you feel bad and dissatisfied. “You’re getting old/fat/ugly, here is a way to fix it.” Or “What you have might have been good last year, now we have something better”.
But the manufactured needs are often not real ‘needs’. A new ‘flavor’ of water is not going to really make a positive impact on your life. Neither are 5% less fat, 10% longer taste or the addition of some fancy herb to your latest anti-wrinkle cream. These where just tricks the bards had thought themselves to make you want the product of the monarch. There was no real progress, just imaginary dissatisfaction.
Imagine the bard at the battlefield, 15.000 angry soldiers just a mile away. It was the bards responsibility to raise morale, to get everybody pumped and feel the very best they could be before striding off into battle, inspiring real need for survival. Somehow I don’t think telling them shaving with 5 blades instead of 4 will reduce skin irritation was going to cut it.
The point is – where bards used to inspire and where a positive, constructive note in society I think the multi-billion dollar industry marketing is today, is no longer positively contributing as a whole.
Do not despair, we live in hopeful times
I think the main problem is we as a society have trouble seeing the current marketing and advertising business as ‘broken’. It brings in money so it functions. But when I look back at the bards, I can’t help but think how these billions and billions of dollars of demoralizing to get us to consume, could be spend better to inspire and contribute. Opposition is still rare but these are hopeful times for bards:
- Malcolm Gladwell is my favorite storyteller of this time, using tales from far and wide to convey his sometimes visionary, sometimes observatory ideas about society.
- Seth Godin recently wrote Tribes, on leading communities through leadership and inspiration, a manifesto for the modern day bard on communicating to their audience meaningfully.
- The United States have elected a ‘Bard in Chief’ – Obama. His speeches would not have been misplaced in theaters, seeking to inspire by being a prophet of change.
- Ken Robinson recognizes the need for creativity and inspiration in modern societies, seeking to improve our educational systems to train a new generation in exploring the arts
- Kevin Roberts (Saatchi & Saatchi) makes a passionate pitch for returning to the crafts of storytelling and emotional theater in the 30 second commercial in his book Sisomo.
- Innovative ad agencies such as Crispin Porter + Bogusky find new ways to use the modern arena (the internet) to move and entertain the audience of their ‘praisings’.
But is it enough to break the dominance of mediocre, demoralizing advertisements? As long as we as a consumer society don’t feel the machine broken it’s not likely to get fixed. But as the options increase to ignore advertising, and new generations become more crafty at blocking advertising, I think – I hope – there will be a place for the bards of old again. The ones relying on their creative minds to inspire and attract. The bards that motivated and entertained through the arts, and generally contributed to a life worth living. The potential of this billion dollar communication machine is just to big to let go to waste.