There’s an ad campaign in Canadian cities by a group called “People For Good” that is really getting on my nerves. I came across it on a billboard near my shrink’s office – an ad that said something like “Here’s a good story: A man lets everyone else onto the bus before him. People for Good.” I was curious enough to look into it – and it turns out to be a truly stupid, vacuous faux-movement, of the sort advertisers like to “create.”
First off, letting everyone onto the bus isn’t actually good – it’s just self-negating. This is the Christian suffering-is-good model, the pain-worshipping impulse my mother used to instill in us by telling us to “offer it up!” when we were sick or hurt. I don’t actually understand it, but suspect that the impulse is a misunderstanding of “Christ dying for our sins” as a two-way trading relationship. Everybody loses – hooray!
Allowing someone onto the bus before you is appropriate if you’re both heading for the same door, destined to collide unless one of you surrenders. Giving your seat to someone who needs your seat more than you is kind and good. Giving it to another person just like you is … nothing. Waiting until everyone gets on the bus before you is the limp-handshake version of kindness.
The self-negaters are misunderstanding happiness as a zero-sum game: if I win, somebody else must lose. But in most areas of life, simple courtesy and the odd compromise can actually allow many people to win. There’s enough happiness to go around.
There are suggestions among the People for Good ads that make sense. One suggests that smiling at a random stranger is nice; I agree. When a bus driver is friendly first thing in the morning, that has a big impact on my day – and it’s a fair guess that the reverse is also true. Small gestures can improve the world, yes. But dumb gestures – and empty sentiment – make the world stupider.
The People for Good website contains very, very little in the way of content. For the most part, it’s flashy meaninglessness: lots of invitations to join, very little information about what you’re joining. Here’s their “manifesto”:
We’re People for Good. And our goal is to make the world a better place, one good deed at a time. It may sound ambitious but it’s easier than you’d think. In fact, you could help make the world a better place right now. Just by doing something nice for someone. Rest assured, we’re not asking for money, we just want you to donate a little generosity.
That’s it. Here’s another word that marketers should be barred from using: manifesto.
This “movement” is indeed a marketer’s creation. I found this explanation on Things Are Good:
Throughout Canada mysterious ads have appeared promoting People For Good and it turns out it’s a few marketers who wanted to take a break from selling things and wanted to sell good ideas.
A little more detail is available at the Globe, but that’s essentially it.
Sadly – for them, for us – they don’t actually HAVE any ideas. Yes, it would be nice if everybody could be nice. It would also be nice if it was sunny instead of rainy – but nobody says “Wow! What a great idea!” when somebody suggests that.
The “ideas to get you started” on the front page are as ill-considered as the ads. Number one? Mow somebody else’s lawn. Okay, that’s not awful – but there are people who would resent that, or find it puzzling. Mowing someone’s lawn because they need help mowing their lawn is nice. But favours that are unasked for are annoyances, often. Of the ten “ideas to get you started,” two more are variations on “do an unsolicited favour”: shovel someone else’s walk, make your neighbour cookies. One is fine: say hi to your neighbour. Three are variations on “do someone in your house a favour,” which is fine but unimaginative. Number 3 is solid: “Call your mother.” And the last two are just fucking stupid – write handwritten notes instead of emails, and “Bring home flowers.” Those are only “good” if the recipient likes those things.
Why does this all make me angry? Because it makes it so clear that these people – despite their good intentions – either have no idea what “good” is, or are avoiding any more substantial “good” things because they don’t want to limit their opportunities when they return to selling whatever they’re hired to sell.
Marketers are good at selling things, by any means necessary, but the content – the thing for sale – doesn’t matter. So they’re trying to sell an idea, for a change. Unfortunately, they don’t have any. Their industry uses ideas to sell things, and in doing so strips the ideas – concepts like manifesto, movement, new, fresh, improved, healthy, etc. – of their meaning. Small wonder marketers can’t describe what “good” actually looks like.
The world is infinitely complicated, and being good is complicated too. And marketers – the public relations end of big business, the true and amoral destructive force in town – hate complication. Because if people consider ideas in any depth, they’re in danger of discovering the real rabbit hole of the considered life: that thinking in any depth leads to more thinking and considering, and never ends. And that it is not easy.
There are simple things one can do to make the world more pleasant – smiling, being courteous – but the simple things are not the world-changing things. Nothing about the People for Good campaign is challenging, and it all reminds me of the plague of ribbon-wearing and “shopping for change” tokenism that allows people to think they’re doing good when all they’re really doing is shopping.
To be actually good, you must also try to be actually smart. To the degree that you’re able, you should use your intelligence to first consider what Good is, and second, how to use it to the greatest common good.
My favourite of the ads: “Hug a stranger. We’re all relatives if you go back far enough.” It’s a nice idea to remind us that we’re all family. But hugging a stranger is actually completely inappropriate. Hugging anyone who doesn’t want a hug is akin to a dog’s humping your leg: it’s a one-way pleasure, and a pain to the recipient. It’s a nice thought – but please don’t do it. If you want to acknowledge our mutuality, our commonness, consider the many intelligent ways to do that:
- Look a homeless person in the eye.
- Try not to steal from the future.
- Give some of your extra money to someone who needs it.
- Try to understand somebody you find confusing or offensive.
- Stop bitching about taxes.
- Vote for the greatest common good.
- Pay a living wage.
- Keep public facilities funded and equitable.
- Keep an eye on your prejudices.
- Don’t stop thinking when you finish school.
- Question advertisements.
I’m sorry I’m such a cock. But advertisers play hardball. Witness the pro-tar sands ads. Witness divisive, manipulative political ads. Witness the murder of meaning and the promotion of endless, wasteful consumerism. Big Business is quite happy to smile and lie to us, and they’re pleased as punch when we distract ourselves with trivia, allow ourselves to become simple, and all behave “nicely.” Fuck that. The way to take on a relentless and powerful bully is to punch him in the face. So here’s my little, local, heartfelt punch: These ads are incredibly stupid. They’re even a little dangerous.