‘Dr Martin Luther King didn’t say “I have a nightmare,”’ is the opening line of a letter the IPA recently sent out to its membership, illustrating the principle that if you want to bring about change, it is better to frame your message with optimism than pessimism. The adman in me would tend to concur with such a generalisation – at least in its application to political campaigning. The sleeves-rolled-up inclusivity of ‘Let’s get it done’ was no less powerful a rallying cry for Boris’s Brexit than it was in our Marriage Equality survey, and you don’t have to look much further afield, geographically or historically, to find examples of knocking copy and scaremongering proving less effective. Just as Mediscare wasn’t enough to get Labor over the line in 2016, Jeremy Corbyn’s copycat contention that Boris will sell off the NHS appeared to gain limited traction with UK voters. In a prosperous and functioning democracy, most punters – irrespective of party predisposition – will ally themselves to the resolution of an existing problem rather than the prevention of a potential one. Remove the prosperity and functionality, though, and you create the breeding conditions for less positive messaging. Industry pundits often cite ‘Labour isn’t working’, the slogan which helped Margaret Thatcher to her first election victory, as an example of clever copywriting and it certainly impressed plenty of advertising awards judges. But I suspect that to an electorate which had endured a decade of crippling industrial strife and soaring unemployment under successive Wilson and Callaghan administrations, ‘Labour isn’t working’ was not so much a brilliant double-entendre as a statement of the bleeding obvious.
My 86-year-old mother, who was with me over Christmas and has just flown home to what she likes to call ‘Old’ South Wales, has vivid recollections of the so-called Winter of Discontent, and reminded me, during her visit, that during the power cuts of 1972 my brothers and I had to do our homework by candlelight, wearing gloves and overcoats. It is what happened yesterday that she has trouble remembering. Or even what you said to her half an hour ago. And since she is very physically fit and irrepressibly garrulous, her dementia can be surprising and confronting for people meeting her for the first time. It is sometimes five minutes before the penny drops, usually when they find themselves answering the same well-articulated and pertinent question she asked five minutes ago.
I’ve no doubt that her condition will eventually become a source of unrelenting sadness for those around her, but I’d be lying if I denied that at this stage it can also be a source of amusement. The second morning of her stay she emerged from her bedroom in a state of some distress, having remembered several tasks she’d forgotten to ask one of her neighbours to perform in her absence. I told her that we’d sent the neighbour an email about this the previous day and that he’d acknowledged it and that all was well. The next morning she emerged from her bedroom equally distressed and for exactly the same reason, and I gave her the same reassurance.
The following five mornings began exactly the same way. Then one evening, after dinner, she said she she’d like to watch a film, so while she made herself comfortable and adjusted her hearing aids I stood behind her chair and scrolled through my on-demand menu and invited her to choose a title. After I’d done this for a minute or two she was so unresponsive that I began to suspect that she’d fallen asleep. But then suddenly a thin, liver-spotted arm shot out from below me. ‘That one!’ she announced, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen it, but I’ve heard it’s very good.’
So while I’m pretty sure she had seen it before – because I think I can remember seeing it with her – that’s the film we decided to watch. But about twenty minutes into it she declared the plot ‘bloody ridiculous’ and told me to find something else. It was, of course, Groundhog Day.